I want to tell you this morning how you can spend up close and personal time with genius every day – and what that does to you.
My car is my personal sound bubble. There are few things more pleasurable to me than driving – for I love driving, even in the streets of London – alone or with good company, listening with our hearts pounding to music I love, played at a volume that fills these few cubic metres of space with such thrilling sound, transporting sound, that I often pull up alongside a road – like what I’m doing now – to finish listening to a piece in rapture before I let myself float back to earth.
I played for SooHui and Robert last night at home, and from the depths of our wonderful conversations about so many interesting and valuable things I was thinking this morning about SooHui asking me, “how do you remember all this music to be able to play it without a score?” and my answer was simply that I listen, again and again and again, until it is (possibly neurologically literally) carved into me.
Of course, if it is a piece I’m learning to play, one has the additional feedback of growing muscle memory plus visual, from sighting the score repeatedly in the process of playing one’s way through it.
But dear God, I am so nowhere near able to play what these two geniuses are playing, here, in these two CDs.
My obeisance to this music, to this genius to top them all – for he wrote the whole damn thing, which Argerich and Arrau “only” played, with an array of the finest musicians (serendipitously enough, the same orchestra in both recordings here, the LSO, albeit 11 years apart with Argerich’s 1968 recording with Claudio Abbado predating Arrau’s 1979 with Colin Davis, and sounding so fascinatingly different from one recording to another) – nay, my obeisance to this stuff of pure stardust is most definitely worship from a distance.
Both these recordings are remasters and rereleases of old treasures. Alan talked about three things in his twenty-four lectures within the six days of retreat (from which I took notes that stretch into multipages; he wasn’t joking when he told us with a smile he has given us enough to keep us busy for a year! For how I wrote from the first day about imbibing from a torrent he said himself he gets told that listening to him is like drinking from a fire hydrant – same same) which I want to highlight here: I) progress marked by the movement from coarse to subtle; ii) the indispensability of consistency of application in the bringing about of lasting, even irreversible change; and iii) the cumulative alternation between improvement of technology enabling improvement of the scientific endeavour, which in turn points the way to further improvement of technology. And so the virtuous circle spirals up. He cited Galileo frequently in his having started out with a 3x telescope, his discoveries leading eventually to 30x and a complete (and irreversible) revolution (pun intended 😝) in the cosmic worldview held by humanity.
I have been listening to the original Argerich recording for a long time. Dad had it and played it a lot. And yet the Liszt concerto eluded me. Up till last summer, when you might remember me writing about my prep I had undertaken for the live experience of listening to her play this with Barenboim and the East-West Divan Orchestra in Berlin.
Growing up steeped in even just the passive imbibing of serious classical music equates a childhood spent in the company of genius. It’s as simple as that. There are geniuses in other genres, of course – visual arts, film, dance. But you have to stop what you are doing in order to watch a film. You don’t have to stop the bulk of your everyday activities to keep musical company with some of the finest exemplars that humanity has ever produced. That’s the difference.
And you *learn* along the way. You can’t help it. We human animals are built like that. Expose us often enough to something, anything, even crap, and we can’t help but change to it.
Liszt’s level of genius is, like Beethoven and Mozart, simultaneously iconoclastic and iconic. That may seem like a dumb statement of self-evidence, but it’s not. One can be someone that works to tear down the incumbent, but not have what it takes to formulate the better new. One can also be an icon within an existing paradigm, but not end up impactful enough to force the collective history of humanity into a new direction. To me, this is the difference between the good and the great. Galileo was a genius. As was Liszt, Beethoven, Mozart. All of them bridge-builders who rewrote the rulebooks, and left the world forever transformed in their wake.
What unites them is this sense of restlessness, an almost involuntary service to the divine drive within them that propels them to break past the structures of the now and play midwife to the unknown future, at risk of uncomprehending derision, persecution, or death. I love Schopenhauer likening talent to hitting a target no one else can hit and genius to hitting a target no one else can *see*.
Liszt wrote his genre-redefining masterworks, his first piano concerto and his piano sonata, the way no one else had ever conceived of before. One complete, sweeping work of art that defied the traditional tripartite nature of concertos and sonatas up till then. It took him a whole 23 years to premiere this concerto. This passage from an excellent article gives you some flavour of why; the incomprehension and hostility from the critical reception to his earlier innovations brings back sharp memories of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus describing the same plight Mozart faced.
“[of an earlier work] A writer for the Revue musicale commented, “There reigns so much confusion, so many repetitions, of things unintelligible if long repeated, that it took nothing less than the marvelous execution of the author to applaud this performance.” The review in Le Figaro was the most blunt of all: “As a composition, his work makes no sense.” Such biting criticism would surely have been difficult to receive, and as Rosenblatt suggests, it “must have inhibited Liszt in the following years from introducing his original compositions for piano and orchestra.” http://ams-sw.org/Proceedings/AMS-SW_V4Spring2015Clark.pdf
For all my own formidable amateur musicality I had to listen to this concerto at least twenty times over and over again to start to even discern the rough chunks forming the backbone of the piece’s genius architecture. It was simply too overwhelming before; like the critics wrote, not without grounds, so many things are happening at such a dazzling, dizzying level of complexity that the brute impression is precisely that, overwhelming.
But coarse will move to subtle, when paid the training of careful attention.
And this morning, listening to Arrau’s marvellous interpretation was my reward of that practice. His take is magisterial; at 21 minutes, a full 20% longer than Argerich’s dispatch of effortless athletic virtuosity.
And it shows. The time and tenderness he and orchestra take to linger lovingly over textures of the most sumptuous and exquisite sound I can only now start to perceive, yes the word is perceive, now that I had undertaken the discipline of memorising the entire piece from start to finish so that, scaffolding in place, I could now apply my freed-up attention to ***savouring*** the delicacies in the minutiae that now unlock their blossoming secrets to my newly-sharpened awareness.
Alan talked in perfect seriousness about the meditation masters finding bliss in watching something like paint dry. “When your attention is that clear, that sharp, when your perception is at that intensity, you could bring that attention to anything and it would be interesting.”
Now that is altogether another level of genius. 😌 But he wouldn’t have been telling us that if not for the simple fact that this exercising of our attention muscle, so to speak, is accessible to ANYBODY, anytime. Anyone who has some sort of body, and anyone who breathes.
So. While I draw breath and this missive to a close, I offer you some of the genius I’ve been drinking today. 😌 Ah, the joys of technology. Nowadays you can get this, and more – 6 whole CDs and 391 minutes of haoliao (good stuff) – for the price of a pub meal and a drink; the whole box set is only £22 on Amazon.