My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


As so often happens, Jerry Fresia asks questions that cut to the heart of my blog posts and elicits from me responses I would not otherwise have thought to include in my ramblings.  He really asks three or four questions, and I have a different reply to each one.  Here is his complete comment:

"While your story of learning the mechanics, as it were, is fascinating (I'm still trying to fathom how playing notes with a bow differs from striking a keyboard), I'm more curious about what playing the music (once you get to it) does for you as you play it. After all, there is a lot of work going into this, so what's the payoff? Or maybe I should ask this: suppose you were technically perfect, you still wouldn't rival Perlman and Zuckerman, would you? What is the "music"?

Is the language, "to die for," reserved for such things as being moved by music or could you use the same phrase in relationship to, say, reading Kant?"

First things first.  When you strike a key on a piano, inside a little cloth covered hammer hits a string.  Thus, a piano is a percussion instrument.  When you strike a key on a harpsichord, a plectrum [?] plucks a string.  [Hence you cannot play a harpsichord soft or loud -- pianaforte].  When you draw a bow over a string on a violin, or viola, or cello, or double base, friction catches the hairs of the bow on the string and causes it to vibrate, producing a sound amplified by the box and sound post of the instrument. 

It is very hard for me to say exactly what playing the viola does for me.  There are, in me, a complex mixture of emotions and thoughts.  First of all, there is the pleasure on those occasions -- rare or common as may be -- when I make a resonant and beautiful sound.  Making a sound is fundamentally different from merely hearing a sound, although they are related.  When I play an entire phrase in tune and with a good tone, there is a special pleasure [no easy matter on the viola -- pianists have it easy, which is why they play so many notes.  Any idiot can play one note on the piano, and it will sound as good as though it were played by Alfred Brendel.]  Second, there is the pleasure of accomplishment, of working hard and actually getting better.  Then, there is the thought, deep inside but never absent, that my mother and father, sainted be their memories, would be pleased.  Even men approaching eighty feel that somewhere inside.  When I play in a quartet, there is the comradeship of making music with my fellow quartet-mates.  Each quartet experience is different.  In Pelham, MA, I would sit next to the cellist, Barbara Davis, in our quartet, and listen to her beautiful tone as I strove to match my own tone to hers.

There is one thing I am not able to do, simply because I do not play well enough, and that is to craft an interpretation of the music.  That takes a good deal more skill than I possess.  Now, it is of course possible to "master" an instrument and play with a soulless technical excellence.  That is the way I have always imagined Condaleeza Rice playing the piano, at which she is apparently technically quite proficient.  [I may be doing her a profound disservice, in which case I humbly apologize.]  But only in the everyone-gets-a-trophy world of modern private elementary schooling do we pretend that a novice performer is offering an "interpretation."  It is all I can do to play all the correct notes in the right tempo.  I could no more choose to give a Romantic reading of a Bach sonata for unaccompanied cello, arranged for the viola, than I could decide to do a Triple Lutz on the ice.

The last question is one about which I have thought a good deal.  My reference here is the wonderful old movie, The Hustler, starring the young Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felsen with the always great George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason doing an unforgettable turn as Minnesota Fats.  You will recall the scene in which Fast Eddie and Fats play pool all night.  Newman moves around the table like a great cat, at one point saying, "I can't miss."  Please forgive me for how this sounds, but there have been times in my life, teaching a class on the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason or Das Kapital, when I have felt like that.  The words flow effortlessly, I can see the arguments as though they were suspended in air before me in all their beauty and simplicity, and I know that I cannot miss.  That is a feeling I do know, a feeling I have earned, and those moments are for me the supreme moments of my life.  I can imagine Yo Yo Ma feeling that way as he leans back from the neck of his cello and simply allows the music to flow from his fingers and bow arm as though it had a life of its own.



David Auerbach said...

That was a beautiful response.

James Camien McGuiggan said...

I can perhaps add helpfully to the point about interpretation. Music is a lot like speech, and correctly playing the notes on the page is akin to correctly pronouncing the words on a script you've been asked to read aloud. The musical score won't just give you the words, granted: it also gives you indications about volume and phrasing. But these are never terribly precise: that would be no more possible in music than it would be possible in speech. All the tiny inflections and emphases that tell us an honest man from a charlatan are left to the performer's interpretation. In speech, in order to read the script in the right way, you have to really understand it, in a way that requires far more than knowledge of the truths of the propositions uttered. You need to have some empathy with who wrote them, you have to be really believe them yourself, and so on. Music is no different. A technically brilliant but emotionally idiotic musician can play all the notes, sure; but only someone of great sensitivity, honesty and sympathy can get inside Beethoven's shoes.

(I can't find it, but do you remember that passage in War and Peace where - is it Prince Vasily? - reads a speech at a ceremony of some sort? It's not his own speech, and he's asked to read it because of his prowess at oratory. Tolstoy does a wonderful job of lambasting the taste of society Russia and the unpleasant Vasily: for his speech is full of climaxes, but they have no relation to the content of the speech.)

A side-note: by my understanding of how pianos work - and I'm a pianist, so I should know - there is indeed no way one note could sound different depending on who played it. But yet there is undoubtedly good sense to the talk of 'tone' as said of pianists' playing. How this squares with the physics is totally beyond me. I don't know whether it's a case of our understanding of the physics being over-simplified, it's to do with how different pianists voice chords, or it's just magic.