Saturday, May 5, 2018

[Daily] Saturday 2018.05.05 - Musician-Athlete, Jazz-Engineer

Last night I saw Ray Chen play Brahms Violin Concerto with the SF Symphony. It's hard to say words about a fine performance (probably easier to find words for criticism) because there are only so many words in the English language for sound. This reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain said about food writing, that it eventually all sounds the same, like porn. [1] I can say generic things like "Ray played the shit out of the Brahms," or describe the impact on me: I felt joy to be alive to experience this. Part of the impression I left with is what I imagine you'd feel at a professional sports game like tennis. The simple act of standing on stage mechanically executing finely coordinated finger-and-arm movements with 99% accuracy for forty-five minutes is an athletic feat. Layer on top of that the need to focus on artistic expression, and on top of that the psychological pressure from being under the spotlight and from audience expectations. Witnessing this concerto played in such a setting with a breathtaking degree of skill and expression is to witness a height of human ability.

Before the concert, two friends and I were sitting in the lounge at Davies chatting, and we talked about the decline of classical music. Well, it's declining in the US, but has become very popular in Asia. We joked that it might be because Asian culture emphasizes skills tests (there is a game show in China called The Brain, which is like The Voice but for mental skills, where competitors do things like solve Rubik's cubes), and classical music is an elaborate skills test.

Though Asian culture favors mental tests over physical tests like sports, playing an instrument is to me much closer to sports than to a cerebral field like science or engineering. One thought that occurred to me last night was: I've read the Brahms concerto on violin, so I can physically play the same notes as Ray... but, what oceans between us! It's like me hitting a tennis ball versus Serena Williams hitting a ball. Yes, you can point out the fact she has a better racket—a tennis-racket Stradivarius, if you will—but truth is, she can beat you with any racket. 

Classical music as it's practiced today is focused on refining a set repertoire, whereas jazz is more like engineering, where you have some common foundation but then are never quite building the same thing, even though many jazz licks and engineering feats look similar if you squint. The goal, at least, is to build something new and improve upon the past, rather than reinterpreting a plan created centuries ago. I love classical music, but of the two mindsets I prefer the latter, and that's why I think if I were ever to become a full-time classical musician, I would get quite frustrated.


[1] The quote: “Writing incessantly about food is like writing porn. How many adjectives can there be before you repeat yourself?” [source: New Yorker]

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