Another Lesson from Beethoven

Has anyone ever asked you to do something that is just simply impossible? Let’s fly to the moon kind of impossible? Do you greet that request with a wondering attitude – how could I help make this happen?  Or an immediate reality check – are you crazy?  

Beethoven asks the impossible of pianists with some frequency.  The piano is a percussion instrument – a hammer inside the piano strikes a group of strings which vibrate as long as the dampers are held off the strings by the pedal. Without benefit of a violinist’s bow or an oboist’s breath, once a note is played on the piano, it’s done. Decay is the only option. Or is it?

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Beethoven regularly puts a crescendo sign on a held note or chord – and that is simply impossible to do on the piano. Hmm, how can we make this happen?  One of my teachers years ago suggested that I should hear the note getting louder in my head and by some form of alchemy the crescendo would be communicated to the listener. That works for me. Perhaps there is an element of body language or a long drawn breath that keeps the player involved with the note in a way that at least suggests it is growing in sound and connecting to whatever follows. Sometimes Beethoven even marks a crescendo and a decrescendo on the same note or chord. Okay, that really is just crazy. Or is it?

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I find it best to do as Beethoven commands, or to at least attempt the impossible. Paying attention to the little markings in his music is the way in to his genius. Think of all the things we believe in, but can’t see – love, the mind, friendship, atoms, intuition. Beethoven helps me believe in a crescendo that can’t really exist, and that’s a beautiful first step into a world where all things are possible.

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Failure of Imagination

We know there are many different kinds of intelligence – interpersonal, musical, logical…but let’s be honest, when we think of someone as smart we usually really only mean intellectually intelligent. Someone who is good with math or words, certified by college degrees and professional success.

I’ve written before about my fascination with Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, and the intelligence he ascribes to plant life. In the same way, a 2016 book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, studies the ways that trees communicate with, and even express empathy for, other trees. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of intelligence in plant life,  but we only know what we know. What about all the things we don’t know…all that lies behind, beneath, and around what we perceive through our senses? Couldn’t any plant or animal life have forms of intelligence that we are unable to recognize or define?

I manage a concert series in downtown Washington DC (check out the link if you’re interested), and this past week I branched out a bit from the usual fare of chamber music, with a local dance ensemble, Word Dance Theater, which specializes in the work of Isadora Duncan.  I don’t know a lot about modern dance in general or Duncan in particular, but I’ve seen their work before and knew it expresses an integrity and passion for Duncan’s legacy which would be beautiful in the performance space, and which I hoped would communicate…well, something… to the audience.

Their performance was indeed colorful and thoughtful, and to me expressed uninhibited freedom. It made me think about how much more we should all be moving – gracefully and freely – throughout our days. As I watched, I thought about all the ways people get stuck – physically, emotionally, spiritually –  and wished we could learn to move with Duncan’s freedom to help us get unstuck.

2017-06-04+10.30.56Afterwards, someone I know to have considerable musical and intellectual gifts came up to me, and admitted he didn’t know enough about this kind of dance to see much of anything actually going on.  He wasn’t being judgmental, just perplexed and perhaps a bit bored by what he had seen. I would have wished for him to see something behind or around the dancers’ flowing garments and limbs, but art is unpredictable in its effect at any given time on any particular person.

I do think the gamut of intelligence includes an acceptance of what we don’t know, but what we might imagine to be possible, whether that is the possibility of messages traveling from one tree to another through a complex web of roots, or a dancer’s invitation to move with a freedom that helps to open our minds to what we cannot put into words or even fully understand. To say that something outside of human experience is impossible or ridiculous becomes, for me, simply a failure of imagination.

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