But this is just some abstract, bloodless debate with no real consequences in the real world, right? Well, no. I think that the real world consequences are significant and widespread. Let's take as an example my post from yesterday which was very critical of the playing of guitarist Eliot Fisk. I quickly got a couple of comments, one asking, since she really couldn't hear what I was pointing to, whether it was something significant or something that only someone with "ears like a wolf" could hear. The other one agreed with my post.
The problem is that the pursuit of quality in aesthetics, which is equally the avoidance of the bad, is necessary. When it fails, when, that is, a sufficiently large number of people really believe in aesthetic relativism, then we get artists like Eliot Fisk, who are really not artists, chosen to fulfill important roles such as teaching at the New England Conservatory and the Salzburg Mozarteum. Whoever chose to offer these positions to him was either persuaded by non-musical factors or failed to exercise aesthetic judgement.
Why does this matter? It is important because a teacher, especially a teacher in a high prestige institution like the New England Conservatory or the Salzburg Mozarteum, exercises an enormous influence. If they are a good teacher, that is one who knows and observes high aesthetic ideals, then they will be a positive influence on generations of students. If they are egoistical hacks who have no aesthetic ideals apart from the advancement of their own careers, then they will destroy generations of students. Young students rarely have the critical skills to distinguish between the real thing and the false. They imbue their teacher with guru-like status because of the authority lent them by their position in an important musical institution.
Why, you can legitimately ask, do I take such a dislike to Eliot Fisk's playing? I think it is important to clearly point out the reasons. It is not anything to do with his personality, which I don't know (I avoided listening to his TED talk and only met him too briefly to form a personal impression), but with his approach to playing music. The thing about music is that it is a very expressive artform. You do indeed reveal yourself when you play, and not always the things that you think you are revealing! Let's take a close look at Eliot playing a piece by J. S. Bach, one that is a touchstone for any performer--a kind of acid test of you as a musician and a technician (though these two things overlap). Here is the clip:
In order to conduct this exercise I am going to have to be extremely specific and the typical response to that from fans of the artist in question is to challenge that very proceeding as being "nit-picking" or prompted by sour grapes. Here is an example of this kind of response taken from the comments to the above clip:
When Fisk plays at the Wigmore many other great guitarists like J Williams go to watch and listen to him. I wonder how many here who are so critical of Fisk could play at the Wigmore and if anyone would go listen to them. What many fail to see is that Fisk is an artist who dedicated his whole life to the guitar, what he communicates is beyond technique. Sure he can be very sloppy at times but that's not what art is about. At least he has something unique and is able to communicate it. So the real question is do you have something original to express and also are you able to communicate it to others through some medium? if you can then you too are an artist, in my opinion. If not ... at least don't criticize those who are doing it. At the end of the day all art is subjective . You either like a piece of art or you don't.Let me answer this, point by point. Yes, perhaps Eliot has played at Wigmore Hall in London and perhaps John Williams did attend the concert, but this is fairly irrelevant. I have also played at Wigmore Hall and some pretty well-known figures in the guitar world attended that concert. What was important was what they said afterwards! Yes, Eliot has devoted his life to the guitar, but again, so have millions of others. The point is, how well? "What he communicates is beyond technique" is an interesting comment. Technique is the instrument by which we communicate. If it is flawed or faulty then our communication is thereby hindered. The idea that "art" is about original inspiration that transcends any mere technical means is a very romantic one, which doesn't mean it is wrong, of course, but it can still be challenged. The real nub of the comment comes at the end: "At the end of the day all art is subjective." And this is the essence of the problem, of course. If all art is merely subjective, then Eliot Fisk can be given the job of teaching impressionable students at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Salzburg Mozarteum. AND SO CAN ANYONE ELSE!! Do you get that? If there are no objective aesthetic standards, then there is no way of distinguishing one artist from another in terms of quality. The writer does actually express a belief in an objective aesthetic quality: the ability to communicate. What does this mean in terms of Eliot's performance we will look at. In order to be clear, here is the first part of the piece in score:
|Click to enlarge|
Now to the evaluation. I don't need to go very far into the performance as Eliot's way of playing reveals itself immediately. If you listen to the very first chord, one of the notes, the D fretted on the fifth string, I believe, buzzes because of poor fretting. The second harmony, with the C sharp in the bass, he chooses to separate. This is a quirk of the violin, the instrument for which the piece was originally written, but not necessary on the guitar. It is therefore a mannerism, not a musical interpretation. The G minor chord that begins the next measure also has a note that buzzes. The next chord is rushed, coming slightly before it should have. The B flat chord in the second full measure is given a wide vibrato and a redundant low D is hammered out on the third beat. At the end of the next measure, the four sixteenth-notes are thrown out in a completely different tempo (rushed) than the next four sixteenths. The G minor chord at the beginning of the seventh complete measure is played staccato, for no particular reason. As the piece progresses there are more buzzes and frequent wide vibrato on seemingly randomly chosen notes. The tempo is constantly wandering with certain notes and chords lingered on, again, with no particular musical reason, and others chosen to rush ahead on.
The whole effect is of a kind of Bizarro world version of Segovia whose many mannerisms have been copied by a couple of generations of guitarists. But again, mannerisms are not an interpretation. An interpretation is when you notice what is going on in the music and try and reveal it to the listener. You emphasize a harmony because it contains musical tension, not because you have an open string you can hammer. You try and play without buzzes and rushing because that distracts from the music. You try and let the music speak instead of stomping all over it because that shows naive listeners that you are a good stomper.
What is revealed in every measure of this performance is that Eliot has very little regard for the music of J. S. Bach, not enough to actually make an attempt to play it well. But he has enormous regard for himself and his ability to rush tempos and hammer out redundant basses and chords. It is as if you gave a classical guitar to a member of Metallica and asked him to play some Bach. It is a travesty of technique and interpretation.
Hopefully all this will become clear if you compare a different performance. Here are three outstanding performances of the piece, each strong in different ways, but each played with far more attention to precision and detail and to the musical content. This is John Williams:
I could have chosen a live performance that is just as clean, but the sound was poor. This is Hilary Hahn, who takes 50% longer to play the piece than Eliot does:
And finally, a live performance by Manuel Barrueco:
All three of these performances, if you are used to Eliot's, might seem rather dry. The kind of playing that Eliot indulges in is like a drug: every note is squeezed for whatever you can make of it: accent, vibrato, just pushing it forward. But the musical arc of the whole is sacrificed. There are no phrases or paragraphs, just moments of pounding on the beat and whipping the note into a frenzied vibrato. Sure, it's communicating something all right. Just nothing good!