State of Art

Yuga Cohler

Yuga Cohler is a 28-year-old conductor whose mission is to revolutionize musical culture.

The Pianist Among the Masses

Our post today is by Benjamin Laude. BL is a pianist, writer, and teacher based in New York City. He recently earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano from the Juilliard School. He has written about music and politics for International Piano Magazine and Jacobin Magazine, and in 2012 was founder and editor of The Yard, Juilliard's first independent student newspaper. He currently teaches aural skills at Bard College-Conservatory and is on the music theory faculty at the School for Strings in Manhattan.

If there were a contest for the Weirdest Job In The World, I would cast my vote for concert pianist.

Okay, so I realize there’s some stiff competition out there for the number one spot—those transit workers in Japan who push people into crowded subway cars, for example; or the professional mourners you can hire to weep at funerals; or people who taste pet food for a living. But concert pianist edges them out.

To be clear, I don’t consider the actual physical activity of playing the piano all that strange. While pressing tuned-buttons in a coordinated fashion is pretty out-there, let us not forget that there are also people who “milk” snakes for a living.

And I’m not just trying to exoticize my vocation in order to draw attention to myself, although we pianists have been known to overemphasize our peculiarities in hopes that the public might take notice.

It’s true that, like many millennial classical musicians, I’m self-conscious about my profession’s marginalized status in the general culture. While plenty of jobs lack mainstream visibility, classical music is exceptional in that its limited popular reach is comically out of proportion with its lofty rhetoric. In other words, wormologists and perfumers—albeit “marginalized”—don’t claim to represent universal human emotions or plumb the depths of the soul. Concert pianists, on the other hand, routinely tell you such things before playing any of Schubert’s last sonatas (and they’re not bullshitting you, they really mean it). This gets at the weirdness of what we do.

For the record, this applies to classical musicians more generally, but the weirdness factor is especially acute in the pianist’s case.

For starters, it’s an unusually lonely calling. Consider the countless hours a pianist spends in solitude, trying to decode a network of symbols and translate them into a series of precise physical actions. This prolonged process typically culminates in a public performance, which can have the paradoxical effect of increasing the pianist’s sense of loneliness. The famed Martha Argerich, for instance, has described the “immense space” around the piano that has always made her “feel so alone” on stage.

Of course, there are people out there looking on. With the piano turned perpendicular to the audience’s line of vision, though, it’s easy to lose track of them. But they’re there, lurking, watching your every move while you attempt this intimate and difficult act. Creepy, huh? Maybe Glenn Gould was right when he claimed that only voyeurs and sadists attended piano recitals.

But even if they aren’t performing for seedy lowlifes looking for a cheap thrill, as Gould assumed, nor sentenced to solitary confinement, as Argerich felt, it is nonetheless true that concert pianists must flip flop between exhibitionism and isolation. Dancing between these two extremes is perhaps what makes a pianist’s job so weird. They’re always navigating the tension between private, subjective feeling and public, objective expression. And at root, it is the pianist’s alienation from audiences that generates this tension.

Now, the alienation I’m referring to is not just a neurosis felt by eccentrics. It is built into the very structure of the classical concert experience. Even performers who feel at home on stage are just as distanced and excluded from the crowd as kooks like Argerich and Gould. They just exploit that separation for the purposes of captivating or seducing the audience, seizing power rather than recoiling from it. In either case, that power is made possible by the performer’s inherent estrangement from the mass of spectators seated nearby.

That faceless mass encountered by the pianist in recital halls is but a concentrated sample of the much broader “public”—that anonymous social force that has haunted the individual creative artist for over 200 years. With the rise of industrial capitalism and market-based forms of social interaction, populations were pouring into cities from the countryside in waves at the turn of the nineteenth century. William Wordsworth captured the changing times when he wrote about “that huge fermenting mass of human-kind,” which he witnessed “amid those overflowing streets” of London. He wrote in The Prelude:

How oft, amid those overflowing streets,
Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, “The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!

Beethoven, just a few months younger than Wordsworth, lived through the same social transformation. Like Wordsworth, he didn’t think too highly of the hostile new masses (most of them were Rossini fans, after all). Against their influence, both men conceived of themselves as a special kind of independent artist—geniuses, in fact—driven exclusively by internal conviction and producing artworks for idealized recipients (“the People,” as Wordsworth called them) who might not even be alive yet.

So for the first time ever, composers began writing music not just for this or that occasion, but for an indefinite number of future performances. This might seem trivial, but that’s only because we’re so used to the idea nowadays. In fact, it was novel to Beethoven’s time. Imagine: all of a sudden, these timeless mystical entities called “musical works,” written for no one in particular and designed for posterity, started floating around in everyone’s imaginations. The mostly highly touted of them, especially Beethoven’s symphonies, became program staples of the new concert series in Paris, London, and Vienna (and, a few decades later, Boston, New York, and Chicago) catering to middle-class subscribers. And so, the modern classical concert experience was born.

The point of this little detour into classical music’s past is to make something clear: the idea of timeless musical works written by immortal gods is in fact a product of a very specific moment in European history. Amid the dramatic political and economic upheavals of the early nineteenth century, a new division of labor asserted itself between composer and performer, while new market forces stood between performer and the bourgeois concert-going public (who, at the time, were ravenous consumers of the “classics”). With every player in the chain of musical production and consumption now alienated from one another, each was then “free” to explore his or her individual musicality.

This curious arrangement, now taken for granted, meant that specialized composers (who no longer had to master an instrument) could carefully inscribe their expressive intentions in a score, which, at some point later on, would be deciphered and transformed into sound by a specialized performer (who no longer had to waste time composing), whose performance would then be received and evaluated privately by anonymous concert-goers (who could care as much or as little about music as they wished). How fucking bizarre is that?

If we compare this system of partitioning the creation and reception of music with pretty much every other way human beings have ever made music in the history of the planet, we would realize that classical music is a world-historical exception. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to realize that treating music as an autonomous art form, severed from social function, is unique among human cultures. Yet, after just a few hours in a conservatory practice room, it feels normal.

The chief legacy of treating music as a fine art has been the erection of a canon of Great Masterpieces, which we’re told will join the cockroaches in surviving the apocalypse and outliving the human race. This “imaginary museum of musical works”—to use Lydia Goehr’s expression—has exerted a decisive influence over classical musicians since it opened its doors a couple centuries ago. As these canonical works traveled through time over the past few centuries, select pieces gained esteem. With recordings, they became crystallized objects whose perfection could only be imitated but never realized.

For pianists, tasked with curating one of the largest wings inside the imaginary museum, the burdens became nearly insurmountable by the end of the twentieth century as they stretched their techniques to keep the treasured collection in pristine condition. Many collapsed under its weight. Only the journeymen pianists made it through unscathed, recording complete cycle after complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas; then the entire romantic piano repertoire in a series of box sets; and now every piece ever composed is on YouTube in fifty different versions. Most of them are ho-hum attempts to codify what were seen as Platonic masterpieces. It would in no way hurt “the industry” if they were discarded.

It’s also too easy to say, “tear down the concert halls, throw out the dusty old performance rituals, put on a swanky shirt and we can do this Beethoven stuff downtown, cocktail in hand.” That risks replacing the elitism of a snobbish high culture with the elitism of niche consumption. The answer can’t simply be to bulldoze what’s left of the imaginary museum in 2015 and leave ol’ Ludwig to fend for himself as just one commodity among many. The realm of fickle market fluctuations is hardly the ideal place for classical music to land when it finally falls off its already crumbling pedestal.

The challenge for the next generation of musicians, classical or otherwise, will be to develop strategies of staying human against the false gods of both the old high culture and the new hyper-commodified machine. To do so, we must resist the force of the mass, that inhuman lump of soulless busybodies, like what’s being shoved into subway cars around the world.

But it can’t be resisted by individuals alone, since, after all, every individual is part of someone else’s mass. Instead, let’s build institutions in which the barrier between “performer” and “audience” is not just torn down, but the social roles are rendered irrelevant. In their place there would be a collective body of human beings for whom “art” is just another word for living. I’d like to know what music feels like then.