Sunday, September 1, 2013

Co-ordinated Independence

[‘Tis Sunday … and our thoughts turn,  as ever on such occasions,
to Glenn Gould ….]

While I was but a tad of a lad,  I began drum lessons.  Ours was a most unmusical household,  and this, alas, was the highest to which I might aspire.
Anyhow, once a week, I trudged off  after school  to the lessons,  which took place in the basement of a (very) modest house,  far off  down a treelined lane.
(Back then, parents didn’t ferry kids everywhere;  we walked.)

Being young, I was completely earnest, as young lads are.   And the teacher encouraged me, saying that I was his best student “since Buddy Rich”.
(We pause to allow the reader to laugh, weep, or snort, according to taste.)

Later, and wiser, I realized, that:
   (1)  He probably said that to all the girls.
   (2)  He probably never taught Buddy Rich in the first place.

But one counsel of value  he did give me:  That the point of the drums, was not to simply make a lot of noise, but to achieve …. Coordinated Independence -- an uncharacteristically fancy phrase (for he was not otherwise a fancy man) for that unabhängige Selbstständigkeit, whereby the dexter and the sinister  overcome, not only their contraposition, but their unity:  self-guiding, yet united  towards a common goal.

[Update re Buddy Rich]  I finally got around to looking the guy up in Wiki, to see if my drum-teacher’s claim was even geographically possible.   It was not;  but worse, according to Rich himself,

He received no formal drum instruction, and went so far as to claim that instruction would only degrade his musical talent. He also never admitted to practicing, claiming to play the drums only during performances and was not known to read music.


I never came close to that. 
The shortfall did not materially hamper my brief professional career as a drummer,
but the question re-arose acutely when, 
many years later,
I attempted (belatedly)
to master the piano.

True, you never reach the fluency, the facility,  that you might  if you started on the instrument as a child -- but it was more than that.
My parents could have sat me down (Schroeder-like) at a piano,  in my very most tender years, but it would have been a waste of time.   The kind of proprioceptively asymmetric right/left DOE required by the guitar (and all other non-keyboard instruments), where a single effect is aimed at, I could handle; but the split-brain-requiring interconnected parallel worlds of the left and right hands of a keyboard, must be forever beyond me.  The piano now decoratively gathers dust.


The excellences of Glenn Gould,  are too numerous to mention.  So let us mention just one.  The man has two (interrelated) brains,  much as he has two hands.

Gould is no slave to the treble clef.   He passes the baton  imperceptibly  between the left hand and the right -- following and bringing forth  the underlying melodic interest -- now here, now there -- wherever it might reside.

If Gould were a string quartet unto himself,
the first violin would not hog the limelight;
he would allow, as well, the viola
at times to find its voice ..

Here is a truly humbling factoid  I just stumbled across:

While sitting at your desk, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles.  Now, while doing this,
draw the number "6" in the air with your right hand. Your foot will
change direction and there's nothing you can do about it.

I wonder if Gould had the same problem.

[Update] My violist friend Cap’n Mike writes in:

Nice of you to notice that the viola does get a shot at the melody now and then.  Dvorak and Brahms, Mozart (quintets especially).  And I practice those nasty bits so that if someone pulls the music off the shelf ("how about Brahms Op67?"), I'm more or less ready for it.  But to me the true glory of the viola is as a unique inner voice that blends it all together.  I love the occasional passing tone that shifts the harmony without much ado, but so satisfying to hear and play.

As for that fantasy of Gould/Bach for string ensemble,  turns out it’s a reality:

As far as Gould's amazing playing, yes he is able to bring out any line at will.  Are you familiar with the re-working of the Goldbergs for string trio by Sitkovetsky?  There are some YouTube videos.  I'm partial to the recording by Matt Haimovitz and friends.  In his transcription, Sitkovetsky was influenced by Gould's early recording and captures some of that idiosyncracy.  I have the music and can tell you they are difficult.

A lovely trio version:

Here is a live performance by a Japanese trio:

And you can listen to a recording by chamber orchestra here:
Apart from the aria,  I frankly couldn’t stand it.  Similarly a recording I once heard -- a Beethoven quarter performed by the 101 Strings.   Sort of impressive for ten seconds, then nauseating.
Similarly, “Jesu der Du meine Seele”, rescored for the six-hundred-lunged Bulgarian Soldiers & Steamfitters Chorus, while doubtless supplying a new take on the piece, would take place invitâ Cecilia



Many years ago, when I was but seventeen,  and unfamiliar with the literature,  my friend Frank Freeze commended Glenn Gould especially to my attention.
What distinguishes him from other pianists? I naively inquired.
“He’s just … better,”  he replied, with something of a splutter.

Time has amply ratified that critical judgement.
Gould is clear, crisp, analytical -- secco -- but above all, just, better.

Compare this bracing playing of the Bach French suite #5 by Glenn Gould,

with the weepy, drippy, limp-wristed bowl of boiled mush from Emil Gilels:

Or this, from András Schiff:
Here the fingerwork is fine, but he seems to have left a brick on the sostenuto pedal.

In one sense, my inglorious drumming career did somewhat steel me against the florid acoustic excess that deforms Gilels’ performance.   For as I began lessons, it was quickly brought home to me that -- to my mortification -- I would not be permitted to begin on a trap set (and I owned no drum), but must make do with a much humbler instrument:  the practice pad.  This consisted of a wooden frame, the size and shape of a loaf of bread, topped with a slab of rubber.  It mimicked the bounce of a drumhead, but with none of the resonance.  The resulting sound you couldn’t even call ‘crisp’, really:  it was simply devoid of all reverberation or show.   To begin with this preliminary instrument, was to take a vow of humility. (Cf., mutatis mutandis, the Blechtrommel  of Oskar the Dwarf.)

In this manner, one was forced to pay attention to the precision of the triple-paradiddles, and to exact reproduction of the music as scored.  It was an early inoculation against the temptation of intoxication with one’s own sound.

Decades later, when I took up the piano, I did not heed this;  and was duly punished.  For I eventually developed an excruciating plantar bursitis, which put me on crutches at one point.   Of mysterious origin, it baffled my podiatrist (and fellow-student of the same Princeton piano teacher, as it happens);  but I eventually discovered the cause:  sostenuto abuse -- a repetitive-stress injury against my (often bare or slipper-clad) foot against the pedal.

To return to Coordinated Independence.
Such blended bilaterality has little to do with simple manual dexterity.  It is, rather,  as though Gould has one mind, but two brains  -- like Steve Martin in the movie, or like our big friend the brontosaurus, who (so I learned as a lad, and never unlearned it)  was endowed with an auxiliary brain (the basal ganglion) at the base of his tail.

It is quite an accomplishment.  After all, though our eyes act in concert, and yield more than the atomistic sum of their parts (namely, integrated stereo vision), yet they cannot (unlike those of the iguana) roam independently.

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