Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hacks, Artistes, Dullards and Con-Men

Or perhaps that should be "con-persons"? From an aesthetic point of view there are four different kinds of performer: hacks, artistes, dullards and con-men. The really interesting thing is that nearly all performers have these qualities to different degrees at different times. But first, some definitions:
  • Hack: a hack is someone who, either through inability, laziness or just disinterest, doesn't take the proper care to learn a technique or a piece or an aspect of performance. He (or she) just hacks through it, willy-nilly. For some players, this is the norm.
  • Artiste: someone who has refined sensibilities. It is often used ironically, but I'm using it sincerely.
  • Dullard: uninspired, dutiful playing with no special sensitivities. Quite a few dullards find a place in the orchestra where they deliver a consistent, if not inspired, performance.
  • Con-men: these folks prefer to fool you rather than put in the effort to really deliver a powerful and expressive performance.
Some composers can also be categorized in this way. Debussy, for example, is an artiste, while Hindemith is a dullard.

I'm sure that we could find an example of a performer in each category. The instrument I know best is the guitar so it is easier for me to pick guitarists as examples. Manuel Barrueco is an artiste:

Liona Boyd is a bit of a hack:

and this performance is a bit dull, but that's partly because of the piece:

And this is all smoke and mirrors (and by that I mean all soulful expressions and tossing of hair and glissandi and tricky little scales and all that stuff that distracts you from the musical content--which is meagre):

As I said, these different aspects can show up in most performers at one time or another. Speaking for myself, in any piece there might be that troublesome little passage that you never quite spent enough time on, so you just hack your way through it. The audience likely won't even notice. Then there is that other passage that always brings out the sensitive artiste in you. Perhaps there is that other couple of phrases that never quite made sense, so you just dutifully play through them. And perhaps you have a tendency to spice up the ending (which might have been a bit weak) by tossing your head or throwing up your arm in a decorative way!

Like I said, most of us have a mix of these tendencies. Some of it we can blame on the composer, but a lot of it is just because we are human and sometimes we just are not at the top of our form.

But of course there are some performers that seem so gifted, so conscientious, that they don't ever seem to fall prey to the three negative tendencies. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the extraordinary singer who passed away this year; Gustav Leonhardt, the amazing harpsichordist and organist who also passed away; John Williams on guitar; Mstislav Rostropovich on cello and Grigory Sokolov on piano. They seem to be just superb all the time...


Anonymous said...

Two guitarists I'd be curious to hear your opinion about are Ana Vidovic and Roland Dyens.

Bryan Townsend said...

Glad to oblige! I have already done a post on Ana Vidovic and Jerome Ducharme, an excellent guitarist from Montreal, Quebec:

But why don't I do one on Ana Vidovic and Roland Dyens?

RG said...

I know you can't keep it up. A little is fine for spice of life, a lot gets boring.

But your last couple a posts have been high LARRY us!!!

Including the comment replies. "But why don't I write on X and Y?" Tune in tomorrow!

I will try fervently to remember and make use of "all soulful expressions and tossing of hair". It's a classic born!

OK, in musicology you are something else beyond beyond artiste-or-whatever.

But in philosophy you are a hack. Me too (less so maybe). I have some friends who are "well known" philosophers on a friendly basis. Pretty much all hacks. (Of course we are too polite to point that out to each other.) Hospital management gurus and consultants? Every one a hack. Or "all soulful expressions and tossing of hair". C'est la vie, my friend.

With a little bit of luck, With a little bit of luck, Someone else'll do the blinkin' work!
With a little bit...with a little bit... With a little bit of luck you'll never work!

Keep it up, Maestro! Brilliant!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh!

Yep, I'm a hack in philosophy!

There is this story about Wanda Landowska, the famous harpsichordist, that she had a little hand-written note somewhere in one of her scores. Probably a particularly soulful moment in Bach. The note read "look up". With a particularly melting expression no doubt.