Keeping the score

HCH-9-LOGO-JIANGYN-RD HCH 9 / March 2016

Keeping the score, by Tussah Heera

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything for myself. Since September, my iPad notes have remained entirely unaltered. I’m not exactly sure of the reason why, but it was most likely a combination of Chopin, deadlines, and distraction…

Today I realized that it’s been three years since I started writing my blog. I still remember how, after compulsively writing down my every thought throughout the years, I realized that other people may want to read them too at this time in 2013. Maybe this three-year anniversary calls for a small celebration –sitting in the sun smirking with glass of champagne, perhaps?

But no, not today. Not only was there no sun here in Toronto, but there was no time for revelry. With three recitals coming up fast, it was time to work hard and get shit done. So ending this line of thought, I was soon off to my practice room with a large cup of coffee and an even larger cup of motivation.

The first piece on my to-do list was Haydn’s Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI:52 (what a boring title for such sparkling and passionate music!). This piece is an old and trusted friend of mine, having been in my repertoire since I was eleven years old and being constantly reworked as I grew older. As I practiced it, I began to remember the suggestions of every teacher I had played this sonata for over the years to make yet another wave of improvement. Each of them prioritized different components of the piece. One of them had said, “Avoid abrupt tempo changes and extra articulations”. Another had said, “This piece absolutely cannot be perky or too fast. That’s not what Haydn would have intended. It’s all in the 16th notes!”. Yet another had told me, “Haydn was at the final years of his life, and was captivated by the tone of the new English pianos when he wrote this piece. Even though it sounds youthful, this piece is more areflection of youth rather than a celebration of it”.

Above all, however, the most prominent admonition I received from every single one of them was “Stay true to the the score”.

Surely, what Haydn wrote on the score, as well as his original intent and mental state when composing the piece mattered the most when playing his music. According to all the teachers I played for, it wouldn’t be right to veer away from that in order to pursue my own feelings and whims about the piece, which are most likely inappropriate in light of the music.

Even though my teachers were speaking from experience and their observations were extremely valid, they inadvertently established a rift between my own intentions for the music and the composer’s. This rift seems to mirror what we are led to believe throughout our lives -that in every situation, there is a Right Choice and a Wrong Choice, and making the latter will always come off as unintelligent or insensitive. In my case, playing fast, sprightly staccatos in an old man’s sonata was most definitely the wrong choice. We are told that there are good manners and bad manners, good habits and bad habits, good ideas and bad ideas. You wouldn’t add savory spices to cake batter, would you? Or laugh in the faces of grieving parents? Or loudly curse at a crying baby?

I’m sure you’re nodding your heads along in agreement so far and eating up my rhetorical questions like sentimental, moralistic candy. Good work, you obedient puppies. Now let me go ahead and explain why those questions are not at all rhetorical, and how everything in the last paragraph is absolute bullshit. 

It’s all bullshit, in fact, because the one key aspect I didn’t mention is context. It is the context of the scenario that matters the most when making choices, and usually justify the actions taken. When you come to think about it, no decision is inherently right or wrong from the start -rather, they are found to be right or wrong when the details of the situation become more apparent. The more the detail the clearer the context, and consequently, the more informed the decision. In the scenarios I put forth before, the crucial aspects which could directly influence the reactions are all entirely unknown. For instance, you might actually want to add savory spices to cake batter to create an interesting new flavor -I never specified which spices I was referring to or in what amount. Isn’t it true that chili peppers and chocolate go well together? As for the grieving parents, what if they were merciless abusers who had driven their child to suicide, and were then shedding crocodile tears at the funeral for public sympathy? You would be thoroughly justified to laugh in their faces, or even spit on them, if you will. And though generally frowned upon, it’s perfectly acceptable to curse at a baby if the baby is being a whiny fucking asshole.

Okay, okay, the last one was obviously a joke. Everyone knows that it’s always okay to curse at a baby regardless of whether he or she is being an asshole or not, because a baby won’t understand anything you’re saying in the first place.

Again, I digress. Going back to the initial point, yes -Haydn’s score tells us a lot about his intents for his composition, but how would we know whether the score itself is accurate? Obviously, Haydn is too dead for me to be able to ask him about it. When all you have is a centuries-old, reinterpreted manuscript to rely on, detail is naturally limited and subjectivity reigns supreme. How could you possibly make The Right Choices?

The answer is you never can, and never will. Or that you always can, and always will. That’s the beauty of the music. Because the classical masterpieces have lived on through the centuries, their interpretations have evolved greatly with the times, even though we don’t realize it. For example, a Beethoven sonata played on Beethoven’s piano, according to Beethoven’s notation would sound nothing like a modern-day rendition on a concert grand -no matter how true you stay to the score. Additionally, there is so much we don’t know and that we will never know about Beethoven’s (or any other composer’s) creative process -what precise mood he was in when he composed the piece, all the visions he had in mind. We can attempt to deduce it from facts, but it won’t ever be 100% accurate. In fact, all our knowledge about this music is the result of a broken game of telephone, with information passed down over centuries, altered in a myriad of ways, and ultimately inconclusive.

And to be honest, I don’t really care. As a person playing this music today, I view it as my duty to put my own signature on the pieces I play, and try to create a version based on my own convictions, as well as on what I know about the composer’s from detailed study of the score. I see no need to dogmatically cling to a delusional idea of what the composer may have wanted, and denigrate my own intentions over an entity that doesn’t exist. I would actually feel more dishonest if I tried to do that.

Pretty straightforward, right? To sum up the discussion in a maxim, one could say, “Subjectivity of the score allows for flexibility of interpretation”. But unfortunately, the monstrous, fundamentalist cult that is the classical music industry doesn’t understand this simple principle. I’ve often told my friends that even though I love classical music more than anything in the world, I absolutely detest the industry. It’s made up of people who insist that the ancient art of classical music be kept the same way it has been for centuries, and attack those who try to make a difference. Much like in any regressive institution, the people in power preach a “Burn the Witch” rhetoric entirely reliant on conformity to age-old toxic traditions, and those who agree with them are ignorant followers who wouldn’t know their shit even if they ate every single article on Wikipedia for dinner and studied the remnants in their toilets the next morning. They are solely responsible for the decimation of classical music in society, even though they insist they’re preserving it. Here’s a list of a few ways that they’re killing the joy of the music and forcing everyone into the dark ages again:

#1. Everybody wants to be right 

As everyone knows, bullshit makes the world go round. The springs and cogs of almost every human-created industry turn by the virtue of this incredibly efficient product. Its need rises solely because nobody seems to be comfortable with subjectivity. Everybody wants black-and-white truths to back up their own personal philosophy even when no such thing is feasible, because predictability is safe and allows for a beeline to power and control. When there are holes in the arguments, they are filled up with bullshit. Also, the more subjective the entity, the more dogmatic the opinions, for some reason.

Recently, I watched a documentary called In Defense of Food directed by Dr. Michael Pollan, a journalist who writes about the science of nutrition. Throughout the documentary, Dr. Pollan exposed the ills of the food industry, and how nutrition has been revolutionized for corporations to make money at the expense of public wellbeing. One of the most important points he made was that food has become exactly like a religion – something he called “nutritionism”. Nobody takes the time to understand the truth of nutrition, and instead seek the “perfect diet” which doesn’t exist (in the religion metaphor, the idea of God). These people, with limited faith in their own intellect, rely on “experts” like nutritionists and food critics (who have their own ulterior motives) to tell them what’s right and wrong – like priests, mystic men, psychics, etc. Then, these “food priests” draw up a dichotomy between what they call the “Good Nutrients”, such as protein, fiber, and Omega 3s, and the “Bad Nutrients”, such as fat and carbs – sort of like heaven and hell. “Eat lots of fiber,” they say, “and you will have a smoking hot body and live till you’re 100. Eat any fat whatsoever, and you will plunge into the depths of obesity, heart disease and ugliness. You wouldn’t want that, now, would you?”

Obviously, nutrition is much more complicated than that. Without the right kinds of fats in your diet, you will suffer from brain fog and reduced energy. Without carbs, your metabolism will not be able to function properly. But quite unfortunately, the binary rhetoric of the food priests has infiltrated the food industry with counterproductive results. How many times has one seen junk cereals (which are most certainly bad for you) slapped on with a “high in fiber” sticker just to make people buy it? These people then feel good about investing in a “Good Nutrient”, when they are in fact much better off getting the same nutrient and many others from a wholesome, nutritionally balanced bowl of muesli.

Just as nutritionism has taken precedence over true nutrition, the scam of “musicism” has taken precedence over the pursuit of truth in music. The “Good Interpreter” has been codified by the “priests” of musicism as someone who thinks of oneself as a dogged slave to the music, giving up all of his or her will and creativity to worship the god-like composers. The score is like the Bible – to be taken as literally as possible (even though some occasional cherry-picking doesn’t count, for some reason). In addition, this “Good Interpreter” adheres to all the stuffy conventions of classical music

through the ages -conforming to a boring classical dress code and solemn stage presence. Anyone who deviates from what makes a “Good Interpreter” is subject to intense criticism and opposition -practically burned at the stake by the “priests” of music.

#2. As always, fundamentalism breeds hatred and intolerance 

Much like religion, the absolute morality of “musicism” elicits psychopathic opinions that are cheered on instead of being actively discouraged. A case in point is a review of Lang Lang’s recent concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London, in which the critic wrote: “Touting a cheap imitation, Lang Lang played with a vulgarity seldom, if ever, heard on the London concert platform. For crimes against its national composer, Poland really ought to lock him up and toss the key into the Vistula.”

“Crimes” against a composer…who’s been dead for 205 fucking years. This toxicity only seems to exist in the old arts such as classical music. I have yet to read a pop music review displaying such blatant hatred. An acquaintance of mine in the classical world had even gone so far to remark that people who don’t play Beethoven in the way the score demands “ought to have their hands broken” for misinterpreting a “genius composer”.

At the end of the day, one needs to see this outrage for what it really is: dangerous idiots losing their marbles over what ultimately boils down to structured lines of dots on a page, embellished by symbols of subjective meaning and occasionally scattered with sparse words having widely indeterminate contexts – all created several hundred years ago by people who are now as dead as a dodo.

#3. Nobody would bother you if you’re an old white dude 

Somehow, nobody ever seems to lose their marbles when it comes to old, white men. I’ve observed that this particular demographic of performers gets a free pass for criticism -even if the performance is technically sloppy or emotionally dead. Somehow, it’s just us young classical performers who receive reviews like Lang Lang’s – especially if we happen to possess a vagina. As the rules of “musicism” apply directly to the look of the performers themselves, the image of the “Good Interpreter” is by default perceived as old, white, and male -a perception that ultimately renders the classical music industry a horribly racist, sexist, and bigoted institution. In 2010, MTNA magazine published this steaming pile of excrement of an article, which researched the perception of women onstage with respect to their concert dress. The study was conducted by having four female concert violinists wear three different types of clothes – a club dress, jeans and a t-shirt, and a traditional black, long concert dress – and perform a few pieces. As a constant, their recordings were dubbed over by a single violinist’s version. The videos were the shown to a group of classically trained 18-28 year olds, who were enlisted to rate the performance on technical skill and artistry, as well as appropriateness. Given the prudish attitudes of this field, the performance in traditional dress scored highest on all fronts. Some goody-two-shoes in the focus group even wrote, “Posh music must equal posh dress” on their scorecard. The article then concludes by trashing women in the pop industry who feel empowered enough to express themselves with their clothes, saying that they really don’t have “much of a mind or a voice”, and indirectly finger-pointing at women in the classical industry world to cover up, or face belittlement of their musical ability.

As if there weren’t already enough pressure on women to overcome gender-based stereotypes. As a female concert pianist who works every day to achieve my dream without ever compromising my freedom of expression, let me just say this: I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’m giving up wearing my short, sequined dresses and high heels on stage just to convince you that I can play the fuck out of every piece in my repertoire. My job, and the job of every aspiring musician like me, is simply to practice hard and do the best I can to make sure that my actual performance convinces you of that. Which brings me to my next point…

#4. The younger generation is brainwashed  

Aside from the outright sexism, what upsets me the most about the study is that the horrendous results came from a focus group of my exact demographic: classically trained, 18-28 year-old conservatory students. I would even be a little understanding if the people on the panel were angry old curmudgeons, but this level of baseless conservatism in my own peers saddens me to the core. However, I’ve come to realize that this is probably because my generation was born into privilege of freedom, and as a result, tend to take it for granted. Our parents had to fight extremely conservative attitudes in order to break free and live their lives, but we had the luxury of being born into this freedom they fostered for us. Our reaction, though, is the exact opposite of gratitude -we try to remove this freedom by pandering to regressive ideology, trampling on free though, and being butthurt all the time, all while believing that this makes us seem more mature and worthy of commendation while all we are doing is stalling progress in the fields of our passion -in this case, the performance of classical music. Countless times, I have seen people my age pander to elitism and elderly male hegemony in the name of striving for the misunderstood idea of “depth” in musical performance. I guess this explains why I sometimes feel like I relate to the free minds of some of my professors more than the constipated thought processes of some of my peers.

The young people who choose to march with the parade of backward-minded assholes don’t realize that they are in fact acting against their own interests. Their endorsement of such ideologies is like a chicken voting for KFC. If we don’t support the burgeoning diversity and necessary changes in our field, who will stand for us when we want to go further and explore new paths? Some of us need to learn to have faith in ourselves and be on the right side of history, and not to believe people who piss on us and try to convince us it’s raining.

And finally, #5. Let’s face it: classical music concerts are pretty fucking awful

It’s true. I obviously don’t mean the actual music, but rather the classical concert experience. It seems as if this industry is the only one in the world that somehow manages to exist with such little respect for its audience. For instance, imagine you’re new to classical music and decide to go to a concert for the first time. You get to the hall and awkwardly shuffle along to your seat, all while stuttering “Sorry!” and “Excuse me!” for making people in your row get up. When you finally sit down, you scan your program to know more about what’s being performed. What do you see? Fancy-ass program notes that, in the words of the pianist James Rhodes, are likely  “written by some Oxford don in the ’70s about sonata form in Beethoven’s Vienna” or some other obscure historical topic – something that you, as a newbie, understandably don’t give a flying fuck about. As your confusion heightens, the lights go down and the performance begins. Despite all of this, you start to really dig the music, and after the first movement of the piece you show your appreciation by starting to clap. Suddenly, people all around you give you angry, holier-than-thou looks for breaking the ridiculous “No Clapping Between Movements” rule, which there is no way you could’ve known beforehand. Feeling ashamed, you slump back down in your seat. As the performance goes on, you think that maybe you should discreetly snap a picture to show your friends -just like people do in pop concerts. As you pull your smartphone out to take a photo, a stern usher runs over to you, says that “photography distracts the performers”, and threatens to confiscate your phone. Funny that Rihanna doesn’t feel distracted with the loud and constant flashing during her shows, you think to yourself.

By the time you leave, you’re feeling like a massive, ignorant dick, when in fact you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, you’ve practically paid money to be treated like a dick! Sadly, this feeling may be responsible for you never wanting to attend a classical concert again.

No company would ever make customers feel horrible about themselves, but that’s in fact what the classical music industry is doing. The audience is fully expected to know all about classical music before they come to the show, and yet the performers are never expected to engage with the audience to make them know more. All in all, classical music has become like vegetables in society. People think veggies taste really bland, but since they are good for you, you should probably eat them while feeling guilty that you prefer other foods. However, the truth is that veggies can be extremely tasty, but nobody knows how to cook them right. The same goes for classical music. Everyone says it’s beneficial to listen to it (it stimulates the mind, makes your kid smart, etc.), and as a result it’s a part of what’s labeled as “culture”. If you don’t know much about it or don’t like it, you’re thought of as an uncultured ignoramus. In all this delusion and shame, people forget about the music itself. I don’t play classical music because it’s culture -I play it because it’s really kick-ass music and completely deserving of everyone’s attention.

Overall, it just seems like the world of the music I love is way too uptight and desperately needs to get laid. Or at least take a lavender-scented bubble bath first, because the aforementioned will never happen at this point considering the old, crusty, and smelly state it’s currently in. Curtailing the beauty of music by adhering to pointless rules doesn’t make you a valiant hero preserving the honor of a timeless art – it actually makes you the reason people end up calling that timeless art boring. Whatever happened to simply enjoying the music for what it is?

As for other musicians like myself, I would only say this: be more like rock musicians. Let go. Don’t let anyone censor your self-expression, or convince you that something you’re doing is not musically in “good taste” or “inappropriate”, as good taste for one is always bad taste for another. Fuck vague statements like that. Instead, try to gain as much knowledge from the score and from history as possible to make your own informed decisions. Be aligned with your consciousness, and be aware of what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Strive to actually make a mark with your music, or someone else will make that mark for you. With a sharpie. Right on your forehead. Spelling the words, “Easily Manipulated Sheep”.

…Yet again, my stream of thoughts has turned into a rant. Maybe I should enjoy my own music for what it really is by getting off the computer and starting to practice again.

TUSSAH-HEERA-PHOTO-CV Tussah Heera, Toronto, February 6, 2016

Originally published on Tussah and the Wolf on February 6, 2016