A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Cost of Quality

                                  The Cost of Quality

This piece was written after a disastrous orchestra rehearsal; it was Christmas, and everybody was distracted and not giving the music their full attention. I responded with anger and harsh words. The end product was a very controlled and self-conscious concert of a transcendent quality, but the orchestra members held on to their irritation with me personally. A collection of quotations about musical temperament was distributed before the concert, and the following overview was given to them some weeks after the performance.

Here is a selection of the quotes I distributed to them right before the performance:


On Toscanini:
“I have talked to hundreds of men and women who have rehearsed under Toscanini, and there has not been one without some vivid memory, some scar, or some flash of the limited illumination to recall.

Yes, rehearsals have meaning, and if they have failed of this requirement, Toscanini has been unaccountable for his behavior.

All as well if the rehearsing musician shows good will, concentration, and energy. But let there be some sign of stupidity or indifference, and the conductor's gorge begins to rise, his language turns more colorful, and his words break off in the middle of sentences and phrases.

“Look at me! Look at me!" he exhorts. “Sing, make it sing! Piano! Piano!” The voice becomes loud and piercing, “PIANO!"

He did not get a soft effect once and suddenly he shouted thunderously, “Tranquillo here!"

Another time the tempo went wrong. “My tempo," he screamed, "not yours!"

The recent mistakes in the oft-repeated compositions drive him frantic. They haunt him even when he is not rehearsing with the players. There is a story of something that happened on tour with the New York Philharmonic that sheds a bright light on the way his mind works. During a short train hop, he was seated in a corner of a parlor car going over a score he was to conduct that night. The men could watch him waving his arms, beating time and giving cues to an invisible orchestra. At one point he gave the signal straight ahead of him--obviously to the wind section--and suddenly shouted, “No! No!” 

When singing and gestures do not turn the trick, he breaks out into spoken common. His remarks are brief and ejaculatory as a rule. They made pierce through the sound of the music, or they may bring the music to a halt. They may be pleading, sympathetic, hurt, sorrowful, angry, abusive, piquant, funny, tortured, and apocalyptically outraged. They are always directed at the point in question; their purpose is always musical.

Another time his voice became pleading: "I know it is difficult to be intelligent--but try, please try!"

To the whole orchestra: “Damnation on we Guido d’Arezzo for his invention of notation!"

Musicians of several generations who have worked with him agree that he is a master psychologist. They wonder whether the temper tantrums that have shaken him and his rehearsals have not often been turned on deliberately. They admit that once he gets his steam up, his rages may follow an unpredictable course, but they feel that in many cases Toscanini's outbursts are nicely calculated to arouse the performers to the pitch of intensity and concentration he wants all rehearsals to have.”

“For to articulate sweet sounds together 
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergyman
The martyrs call the world. "
           W.B. Yeats

On Beethoven:
“Etiquette, and all that etiquette implies, was something Beethoven never knew and never wanted to know. As a result, his behavior when he first began to frequent the palace of the Archduke Rudolph often caused the greatest embarrassment to the latter's entourage. An attempt was made to coerce Beethoven into the deference he was supposed to observe. This however, Beethoven found an unendurable. He promised betterment, it is true, but--that was the end of it. One day, finally, when he was again, as he termed it, being “Sermonized on court manners," he very angrily pushed his way up to the Archduke, and said quite frankly that though he had the greatest possible reverence for his person, a strict observance of all the regulations to which his attention was called every day was beyond him. The Archduke laughed good-humored and over the occurrence and commanded that in the future Beethoven be allowed to go his way unhindered; he must be taken as he was.

He had ears only for his composition and was ceaselessly occupied by manifold gesticulations to indicate the desired expression. He used to suggest a diminuendo by crouching down more and more, and at a pianissimo he would almost creep under the desk. When the volume of sound grew he rose up also as if out of a stage-trap, and with the entrance of the power of the hand he would stand up on the tips of his toes almost as to almost as big as a giant, and waving his arms, seemed about to soar upwards to the skies. Everything about him was alive, not a bit of this organism was idle, and the man was comparable to a perpetuum mobile.

That day I had well-nigh the two-hour lesson. When I left out something in the passage, a note or a skip, which in many cases he wished to have specifically emphasized, was struck around key, he seldom said anything; yet when I was at fault with regard to the expression, the crescendi or matters of that kind, or in the character of the piece, he would grow angry. Mistakes of the other kind, he said, were due to chance; but these last resulted from want of knowledge, feeling or attention. He himself often made mistakes of the first kind, even when playing in public.

Nobody but Beethoven could govern Beethoven; and when, as happened when the fit was on him, he did deliberately refused to govern himself, he was ungovernable.”

On Schonberg:
On one occasion, Schonberg asked the girl this class to go to the piano and play the first movement of a Beethoven sonata, which was afterwards to be analyzed. She said, “It is too difficult. I can't play it." Schoenberg said, “You are a pianist aren't you?" She said, “Yes." He said “Then go to the piano." She did. She had no sooner begun playing than he stopped her to say that she was not playing at the proper tempo. She said that if she played at the proper tempo, she would make mistakes. He said, “Play at the proper tempo and do not make mistakes." She began again, and he stopped her immediately to say that she was making mistakes. She then burst into tears and between sobs explained that she had gone to the dentist earlier that day, and that she had a tooth out. He said “Do you have to have a tooth pulled out in order to make mistakes?"

On Intuition:
“Spontaneity of execution is the essence of music vitally connected to the human body, through the mouth, the ears, and the emotions. Spontaneity does not necessarily imply any inconstancy of execution; it is almost always present when a piece of music is performed, with almost no deviations, as it was conceived, and the same every time.”

Sayings of Yogananda:
“The master was the meekest of the meek in many ways, what on suitable occasions she could be adamant. A certain disciple, having seen only the soft side of Paramahansaji, began to neglect his duties. The guru upbraided him sharply. Seeing the amazement in the young man's eyes and his unexpected discipline, the Master said:

“When you forget the high purpose that brought you here, I remember my spiritual obligation to correct your fault. "

Charles Ives:
“Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to the emotion that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn't always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective expression, and poetry more objective, tending to an objective expression.

There comes from Concord an offer to every mind--the choice between repose in truth--and God makes the offer. “Take which you please-... Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets--most likely his father's."

The Idea of Order at Key West

“She sang beyond the genius of the sea.   
The water never formed to mind or voice,   
Like a body wholly body, fluttering 
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion   
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,   
That was not ours although we understood,   
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean. 

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.   
The song and water were not medleyed sound   
Even if what she sang was what she heard,   
Since what she sang was uttered word by word. 
It may be that in all her phrases stirred   
The grinding water and the gasping wind;   
But it was she and not the sea we heard. 

For she was the maker of the song she sang.   
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea 
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.   
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew   
It was the spirit that we sought and knew   
That we should ask this often as she sang. 

If it was only the dark voice of the sea   
That rose, or even colored by many waves;   
If it was only the outer voice of sky 
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,   
However clear, it would have been deep air,   
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound   
Repeated in a summer without end 
And sound alone. But it was more than that,   
More even than her voice, and ours, among 
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,   
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped   
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres   
Of sky and sea. 

                           It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world 
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self 
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone, 
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. 

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. 

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,   
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,   
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,   
And of ourselves and of our origins, 
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”

It is with a degree of dissatisfaction that I look back upon our recent Christmas concert. My fits of temper, in preparing the concert, have created a sensation which has been so damaging to the morale of the orchestra that I almost wish we had not attempted it. Yet, in every failure there is the seed for success, and I would like to discuss the various levels of failure and success of the concert, in an effort to disclose some insights I have had through the experience, and to point the way in a new direction for our exciting, fast-growing group. 

First of all, sorry though I am that my emotional life is not what I might wish it to be, and might hope that it may become in future, I positively do not apologize for my behavior, and I do not accept the censure of those people are the orchestra whom I have offended; to be offended where no offense is intended, is petty, and I will continue to ignore pettiness and other people as I attempt to overcome it in myself. You have seen above, that I have created a collage of quotations about Toscanini, Beethoven and other great men who were likewise famous for the fits of temper, and I offer this collection for the amusement or enlightenment of those who might wish to learn the making of good music has never been a stress-free process. 

Still, this mock-apology is not enough, because the implication is that I am right and it's all your fault. It truly takes two to tangle. If I were blameless, it is unlikely that I would have so many people mad at me, and yet, if there were not a grain of truth to my accusations that you were not working, not concentrating, not acting in a committed way, do you really think you would have got so defensive? The fact that I was able to get results by being rough with you is proof that you were not giving me the maximum energy you were capable of; you were tired, your tiredness made you lazy, or laziness made the music suffer. Was I can reward you for giving a small fraction of your potential? Is that what you pay me for? There isn't enough money to pay me to do that.

It may surprise you to know that I acknowledge, musically, that the concert was a great success. It took many hearings of the tape for me to get past the emotional residue of the experience and realize that there was a high level of ensemble feeling there, and that our identity as an orchestra (despite the numerous personal difficulties) was discernible in every bar. The concert was technically difficult in terms of the variety of the idioms we had to work through, and the counting problems associated with mixed meters (which to many are still a vague mystery). Whether you like to admit it or not, the pressure I put on you made you play better, even though many of you played better like a resentful child being made to stand and recite his lessons while the other children get to go outside. Hence, through force of will, I created the Frankenstein of all music teachers’ and nightmares, an orchestra that plays correctly without wanting to. Your unwilling obedience to became a mockery of my intentions, which was to make you play with understanding and joy.

So where do we place the blame? Many of you will raise up the objection, “But we are not professionals, we don't have the technique to do what you ask.” To which I repy, “I never ask you to do anything you had not already proven you could do. It was not your inability to do something I asked you to do once, that infuriated me, it was your inability to do things I asked you to do repeatedly that infuriated me!” To which you reply, “Well, if you had asked nice, I would've tried harder.” To which I reply, "I did ask nice, the first five times.” To which you reply, “Well, you're a jerk." To which I reply, “Well, you're stupid.”etc., etc., etc. All to no avail. Indeed, the blame cannot be assigned to any individual, but rather to reality--and who ever heard of blaming reality?

The reality was that we put together a difficult concert very quickly, and a semester's worth of musicianship was hammered into you in a month; all the time my perception saying, “You can do it, you can do it, JUST DO IT,” and your perception saying, "I can't, I can't, it's too much"; or, more correctly, your bodies’ ingrained habits were telling you you couldn't.

So the basis of our conflict of wills was over my insistence on a high level of professionalism stylistically, and your bodies’ insistence on staying the same. I was asking and later demanding that you change, while we all suffered from your bodies’ unwillingness to change. To change is made difficult, because the mind resents being forced out of its habitual groove, and thus creates negative emotional vibrations which can be indiscriminately directed at any available scapegoat. Do you not see that the changing caused the stress you felt, not me? How could you believe your inner monkey voice accusing me of belittling human hating you and thinking you were worthless, when all the time I was busting my butt trying to get you to realize the great musician that is within you. Does a teacher waste his energy on an untalented student? Does a well-digger sink a shaft where he thinks there is no oil?

Clearly, my error was in failing to explain to you the purpose or possibility of these little nuance I tried to teach you. Instead of letting the conception that lay behind my stylistic design unfold before you, I stood like a madman in front of you demanding blind obedience and becoming insensible when you fail to understand me, the clock ticking away behind me. Many of you who finally did what I had been asking could never appreciate how much better things were sounding because your attention was absorbed in disliking me for the way I got to do it, or in fearing that I would stop and say it was still not good enough. It is a shame that the tension involved in teaching all the details together robbed us all of the sensual enjoyment we might have experienced; but, in a larger sense, is enjoyment the deepest experience music and bring us?

Far from enjoying a performance, I can hardly think of a performance in years where I was even fully conscious. My involvement in the moment puts me in a trance-like state which robs me of any objective perception of the performance’s gestalt. My mind cannot hold a performance experience in perspective, because the next moment, huge and dancing with its own life, crowds out the memory of the previous moment. For this reason, my mind tells me nothing about the quality of performance, least of all whether I am enjoying it.

Feeling too, is an unreliable music critic, since feelings can be chaotic and unbalanced. If we become channels for divine energy, we may have no positive feeling whatever, and yet we may still be the unconscious brush with which God paints a beautiful picture in the air. This is not the best way, but it is a valid way, and it is, moreover, the way I believe the energy from our Christmas concert was channeled. The tape tells me this. My heart tells me this. That concert had the kind of quality that you begin to appreciate in retrospect, after the smoke has cleared. Feelings of enthusiasm would have changed the character of the channeling, but the concentration I coerced out of you opened the Gates of Heaven and angels sang through our unwilling lower selves.

The task before us, as I see it, is to enlarge the orchestra's understanding of rhythmic notation in such a way that the movement of the conductor becomes a more meaningful reflection of what the player sees on the page. To inspire trust in my movements, I must patiently train that majority of the orchestra whose musicianship is not well developed. Discipline is the key word, but discipline through trust.

There may be a time for fast work in the future, but, for the time being, I am content to step back and spend a month or two going over basics. I wish to be understood, so that you can grow. I can teach you to find the great musician in yourself, but it will never be easy, and if you do not want to change, you will never like being in my orchestra, whether I am polite or not. The cost of quality is your ego. Leave it outside in the parking lot--that way no one will walk on it.

Laus Dei 

December 31, 1986

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