Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Looking for (and Finding) the Beauty

I had an interesting encounter with Thelonious Monk's advice (by way of David Amram) this morning. This was that advice I discussed on Sunday about finding the beauty in a performance of music and disregarding "the rest of it." I was at Herbst Theatre last night for the performance of Franz Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin (D. 795) by baritone Nathan Gunn, accompanied by his wife Julie. My initial reaction was that there were any number of elements that rankled me. Some had to do with Schubert himself, including his serious treatment of texts that the author had intended to be ironic, as well as a tendency to deal with strophic material with too much flat-out repetition. I also kept thinking that the piano was coming off too loud (that old bugaboo of accompanist Gerald Moore). Against the aggressive piano, it seemed as if Nathan Gunn was not being particularly assertive, leading me to think of all those stories about the impact of marital discord on performance.

By this morning, as I was preparing to write my review, I was figuring out the best way to set up a framework for discussing these problems; but a funny thing happened as that framework began to take form in text. I realized that there were perfectly good justifications for both why the two performers should create a sense of being at cross-purposes and why the piano (which, after all, established the very first impression of the performance) was as forceful as it was. As Amram would have put it, by letting my reason follow its own course, rather than whipping it into shape for the conclusions I had formed last night, I "found the beauty" in the performance; and, having done so, I realized that it made perfect sense to let go of "the rest of it."

Perhaps has the right idea. We should not focus on writing criticism with the implication that we should be seeking out things to criticize. Instead, we should just examine and then set ourselves the task of how we can adequately account (that concept of λόγος from Plato's "Theaetetus" rears its head again) for that examination through description. Of course, description is not easy matter, as we quickly discover if we try to take a head-on approach to this process of account. At the risk of sounding too cryptic, we might do well to remember the advice that the Bøyg gives to Peer Gynt in Ibsen's play: "Go roundabout!" It is through a roundabout course that we encounter aspects of the account we seek that we may not have considered, because we thought they had nothing to do with the point we were predisposed to make. However, those predispositions ultimately undermine the resulting description; and when our description has been undermined, we no longer have a satisfactory account. We have ceased to be good examiners.

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