Monday, October 3, 2016

Talent and Anti-Talent

Something a wise, old Czech violist said once keeps coming back to me: "There is talent, yes, but there is also anti-talent!" To get the full effect you have to imagine a thick Czech accent. This is something that every music teacher knows, of course. Some students just need to be handed an instrument and then you get out of their way. Others, in the evocative phrase of a pianist of my acquaintance, "couldn't play "Come to Jesus" in half-notes if you paid them in Kruggerrand!"

Yep, sad to say, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book claiming that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice can make anyone an expert, was all wet.

What makes me think of this was putting up those pieces by Steve Reich. He is what you call a talent, a massively talented talent. Give the man two pieces of wood and a pulse and he will make a piece of music you can listen to:

You see, that's talent. But not all composers are talented. In fact, a remarkable number of them just ape the incidentals of good music, like the pulse or the percussion or whatever, but from these materials, they create, well, nothing much:

This is going to sound crazy, but I suspect that the majority of composers writing today are actually lacking in talent. What happens is that they really like music, so they attend a conservatory or university and study composition. They become both skilled and credentialed through hard work (there's those 10,000 hours) but, truth to tell, they don't really have a creative bone in their bodies. Luckily for them, neither do most of the people handing out degrees, awards and honors. Most unfortunately, these days few critics are willing to do their job and point out when someone is massively untalented. Instead, they get given Pulitzer Prizes for, again, pretty much a waste of musical time. Blogger is messing around again, so you have to follow the link:

I wish it were an easy matter to explain why that is empty noodling and this is not:

But that is very, very difficult. To a musician, it is like the difference between chalk and cheese, but hard to explain in words. I could point to, for example, how the entry of the second performer in the first clip above puts us in an interesting, syncopated rhythmic universe that causes an immediate physical response, while the entry of the other performers in the second clip just confirms the deadly dull and dreary nature of that piece. I could point out that droning on with the same notes for a very long time has already been done much better than in the third clip--in Das Rheingold for example, and tacking on some environmental boiler plate doesn't make it more interesting.

But these are suggestive rather than conclusive. The truths about music are so hard to put into words. Actually, that's why we write music!


Jives said...

Is it my imagination, or does Become Ocean sound like an overdub of two orchestras warming up at the same time? I suppose it has a certain monolithic majesty about it, but it is so undifferentiated (and long, whew) that it quickly becomes a bore for this listener. Maybe the live experience is better.

That's another issue, if Julia Wolfe cut the running time by 75% or so, her stuff would be more engaging. I'm a listener who can certainly appreciate the ambient/drift or repetitive sort of aesthetic, but excessive redundancy like this needs SOME antidote of concision.

Generally, I find myself longing for some "argument" in art these days. Something clearly stated. A side taken, a claim staked, an intent made known...on an aesthetic level, other than rote political virtue-signalling. Like a sonnet by Donne, something that follows a train of logic, with a bit of conviction and virtuosity.

In art music, the basic concept of Antecedent and Consequent has become very unfashionable these days. Modern poetry would seem to be enduring the same sort of aesthetic phase. The narrator/composer is often alienated, remote, disengaged, at the mercy of overwhelming forces, caught up in the flow, a detached observer of his own life. Granted, these are some of the themes of our time, but I feel a need for some expression of conviction to fill this energetic void.

I recently went to the DeYoung museum in San Francisco. It was an odd combination of Meso-American and Pacific Island artifacts of the 19th and 20th centuries, cheek-by-jowl with a lot of Modern sculpture and painting, mid-century to present. I observe that, largely, the thoughts and ideas behind the art have taken precedence over the technical mastery of the art itself. The grounds are littered with huge, lumpen, frankly ugly "sculptures" all with some political context or idea to justify their existence.

To their credit, they had some gorgeous Chihuly glassworks, which I loved. Fanciful, beautiful designs as well as technical marvels of the art of glass sculpture.

Bryan Townsend said...

JIves, comments like these are a major motivation for writing the posts in the first place. You fill in a lot of pieces that I left out. Yes, I think that a lot of the diffuse, meandering, lengthy music that is being written these days makes you want to go back and listen to the concise, forceful and delightful musical arguments of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Unfortunately, their resources are mostly not available to us and it is only a few people, like Steve Reich, that seem to have found equivalents to organize and drive their musical structures.