When I was on my Wagnerian pilgrimmage I read Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty.* This is a marvellous, important book. Important to the humanities in general because it claims athletic performance as a topic of serious thought while avoiding the spirit of arrogant condescension with which intellectuals often approach sport. Important for musicology because thinking about athletic beauty offers a way of thinking about the kinaesthetic beauty of music performance. Oddly, classical performance (as opposed to performance practice) has not been seriously studied within musicology until the past decade or so. Musicologists prefer to talk about what they think performers should do, rather than what it is they actually do. This is due in part to the perennial temptation to see performers’ interpretations as something like our own analytical interpretations, minus the footnotes. So, armed with this point of view, an analyst might argue that Karajan’s performance of X would be better that Solti’s because only Karajan really brought out that structurally significant F sharp or whatever.
But it’s a mistake to evaluate performances in terms of their fidelity to analytical points. Vladimir Horowitz wouldn’t have known a structural F sharp if it bit him on the ankle. The best musician I have ever counted as a friend was my undergraduate roomate, who now plays with one of the world’s great string quartets. He never listened to classical music, and the only book I can remember him reading was about Led Zeppelin (who, along with Frank Zappa, Guns’n’Roses, Genesis**, and Spinal Tap, was pretty much all we listened to in our epic loafing sessions). He was not an intellectual player. But his playing was genius — a kind of genius that had something to do with the beauty and grace of athletic movements. Musicology, like all humanities, tends to look at artworks as artifacts of mental processes. Which is fine if we’re talking about a lot of things, but not if we’re talking about playing an instrument. The mental bias misses the kinaesthetic dimension of performance — the stuff it has in common with skating or throwing a football.
One little detail of Gumbrecht’s thinking that bears mentioning is his notion of what it is that binds crowds of spectators to athletes:
Crowds long for the moment when their combined physical energy connects with the players’ energy and makes the players’ energy grow. For at that moment, the separation between the crowd and the players seems to vanish. Such a communion, far from being purely spiritual, might constitute a physical reality. It may even have a very real biological basis in the recently discovered mirror neurons in the pre-motor cortex of the brain. Mirror neurons becomes activated not just when person performs an action himself but also when he sees someone else perform it. These neurons, or others like them, may turn out to provide a physiological basis for empathy—the emotional link that makes another person’s experience seem like our own. (p. 216)
When I read this something pinged in my head. I’ve often said that the single best thing about being at the Indiana University School of Music in the late 1980s/early 1990s was simply the experience of being around so many great musicians. You somehow learned osmotically just by watching people playing in practice rooms with glass doors. (The New Building rooms, for those who know the place.)
One guy in particular stands out in memory: Andy de Grado, a doctoral piano student of Menahem Pressler’s. He was a big guy with huge mitts, like Rachmaninoff’s — he could play chords spanning a twelfth — who would play in a low stance, his face hovering over the keys with a mildly quizzical expression. He always practiced in NB, and I would stare at him sometimes, which I bet drove him nuts, though he was too nice ever to say anything about it. His playing was a model of power and relaxation — power that issued from a state of complete controlled repose. His huge hands would spread out over the keyboard, hurling energy into the keys while themselves showing no shock or strain. His leaps (like in the left-hand broken octaves of Scriabin’s fourth sonata) managed, in some occult way, to reverse causality: his hand would already be on the other side of the jump before he had even left his starting-point, somehow. Just seeing Andy play taught me a great deal; it made me understand, in a way no precept or maxim could, that piano playing on the higher level I wanted to attain entailed this kind of paradoxical ability to become a vessel of energy while remaining unmoved by it. My sound changed; my playing got faster, more confident, more forceful, more athletic. Andy taught me a lot, though he was never my teacher. I suspect this transmission of kinaesthetic knowledge — which obviously has nothing to do with the mental concepts we take as the basis of art music — is not at all rare in music schools around the world. It is part of the hidden life of art music performance.
In 1998, while in Spain while on tour with Joshua Bell, Andy went into anaphylactic shock and died. There’s now a foundation in his honor, devoted to giving young musicians opportunities to develop — appropriately enough, since that’s what he did in life.
*I originally wrote this as “In Praise of Academic Beauty.” But since that would obviously be one of the least promising subjects for any book ever, readers will have already figured my mistake out for themselves.
**the Peter Gabriel era of Genesis, natch.