Less playing, more meaning...

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Less playing, more meaning...

From an interview with Alexander Balanescu:

 

There is a story about Rostropovich, the famous cellist, from when he visited India. There he saw street musicians who played a traditional Indian stringed instrument - a single string playing a single tone. 

Rostropovich found this a very interesting instrument, so he began to talk to the musicians, and asked one of them

"But why play only one note? I play a lot of notes - four strings, and play two or even three notes at once.

The man replied

"You know, I have found my voice - you're still looking for yours".

- Translated from the Hungarian original at http://quart.hu/cikk.php?id=2875

 

"Louder! Louder! I can still hear the singers!"

- Richard Strauss to the orchestra, at a rehearsal.

More music, less mystification

This is the type of anecdote which is shaped so there is only supposed to be one valid response: awestruck submission to ethnic non-Western Wisdom. (Is that why it was posted?). We've had a lot of this over the past 30 years in many fields - usually self-flagellating perspective where West = inauthentic and fake, everyone else = authentic and real. You can hear one of these statements coming a mile off because they tend to be prefaced with 'We in the West ... ' The anecdote is revealing in ways the original teller never imagined.

Sorry, but I think this is just stupidity masquerading as profundity. For a start it confuses two different things - 'voice' and the means of expressing that. The Indian musician makes the false deduction that Rostropovich's notes and instrument indicate he hasn't found his voice. That doesn't follow at all.

Second, it isn't that the Indian musician wasn't speaking the truth about his own level as a player, and it isn't that simple musical elements cannot be expressive. But in the end, it is still one string and one note - and that isn't enough. Enough for him maybe, but not enough for us, nor Rostropovich. The Indian riposte cannot help but be a put-down - a put-down fatally undermined by the unconscious (but to the anecdote, invisible) conservatism on which it rests.

If a one-stringed instrument is all that your culture or life or poverty has brought your way then they/ he made the most of it. But to dismiss the potential of more strings, more notes, more music, more self-expression, a broader voice? A wise or human choice? Sounds like a neat way of ducking a challenge.

Strange to find this posted (approvingly?) on a site which represents a type of music with breadth of vision which inherently is counter to such a dismissal.

Why not change the terms of the story: Segovia goes to see an urban punk rock band. 'I see you are only playing one or two major chord shapes whereas I combine melody, extended harmony and bass in complex fingerstyle solo pieces.' 'You know, I have found my voice - you are still looking for yours ...' Does it still have that patina of authenticity?

There is such a thing as sophistication and it is quite capable of authenticity. And does anyone think Rostropovich never found his voice on the cello? 

RE: Less playing, more meaning...

I didn't think the original contribution was posted in any sense of approval but simply as an interesting anecdote that may draw some interesting replies, and Symphonia's is certainly that.

I have to agree that a lot of anecdotes like this do masquerade as something profound when for me they are very often empty cliches and say more about the West's image of other cultures rather than any existing reality. An example of what Edward Said called Orientalism. This notion in the West that Eastern cultures are more mysterious than ours or have something profound to teach us than we can't find in our culture in our own back garden is something that I have never liked or understood.

I like travelling and I love to learn about other cultures, but I have never found anything as remotely fascinating as the streets were I was born or the culture I grew up in, not for any reasons of superiority, but simply because this is the place and the culture that made me, and the only one I can ever know on a truly profound level. 

People seem to get caught up in the idea of the exotic whilst forgetting that what's exotic for the tourist is just daily reality for the people who actually live there. Ideas that some cultures are more profound or romantic or sensual than others are totally empty for me. Whether you are in Turkey, Brazil, India or Senegal, life is ultimately the same. People have to find money for them and their families to eat and live, and enjoy their lives as best as the conditions allow.

If someone is happy listening to one note good luck to him or her and it is certainly true that often less can be more, for me for example one hour of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle says a lot more about love and far more profoundly than 14 hours of The Ring ever could, but personally to me it seems insufficient for my innate curiosity and desire to hear different things.

I don't believe that any one of us has only one voice, and if we did what would do when you found it? Music is a journey that finally arrives at a destination. That destination is ultimately silence, it's an important part but without the journey it would be as nothing to me. The idea of some kind of Nirvana where we no longer have to strive or continue that, as Yeats said 'that argument with oneself', sounds incredibly sad and dull to me, so I for one am very glad that Rostropovich and others played and play as many notes as he deemed necessary to find his voice. 

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