Thursday, December 10, 2009


Largehearted Lit and The Knitting Factory

A couple of months ago, I participated in the Largehearted Boy Blog series, in which authors put together a music playlist to accompany their work. Check it out if you need a refresher.

The writer Jami Attenberg has rather brilliantly put together a reading series around this subject--writers gather at The Knitting Factory to not only introduce the audience to their writing, but also to the music they chose to feature. It's a smart idea. As Jami said to me, there are so many reading series, and it's interesting to get at a new book in a slightly different way.

When she asked me to participate, I was excited--and nervous. I didn't want to embarrass her in any way, particularly since I was concerned that my musical choices would be so different. But I put together a program, and presented it this past Sunday, along with fellow writer Emma Straub (who is just lovely in person).

On to the presentation itself. An example. If you have read my novel, then you know that the protagonist Satomi has been trained since childhood to be a piano playing prodigy. In Tokyo, however, she is told that her musicality is "extreme" and that she is too emotional. An off-campus teacher rescues her, and suggests she study in Paris where her emotional gifts will be welcome--but the teacher warns that Satomi will sound as though she "plays with an accent." Indeed, in Paris, Satomi is considered "unemotional" and all but bullied by her French teacher for this deficiency. The original version of these scene was much harsher--I toned it down for what you see published.

An editor once said to me, out of exasperation: "I can't tell from this description what kind of a musician Satomi is!" And I said: "Yes. That's the point." And we went back and forth on this subject for a bit, till I deferred to her, all the while thinking to myself that this particular editor must not have traveled abroad too much in her life. Or, if she had, then she hadn't noticed how it is that our emotional cues--the things we are sure that make us "us"--don't necessarily translate overseas. I've watched this happen over and over. A cool and hip Asian person looks dorky here. An energetic and extroverted westerner looks down-right rude over there. Etc. If you want to challenge your sense of self--go to a foreign country.

For fun, then, I read the audience at the Knitting Factory some reviews of the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who, like many Asians before him, has been accused of being very technical, and not really emotional. And then there have been criticisms like this:

Listening to Lang Lang, I think of the absurdist pundit Stephen Colbert, who promises not to read the news to his viewers but to feel the news at them. Lang Lang feels the music at you, in ways both good and bad. He advertises his love of performing simply by the way he charges onstage, and he creates a giddy atmosphere as he negotiates hairpin turns at high speed. Stereotypes to the contrary, you wish at times that he were a little more impersonal.

(The bold is mine).

Contrast that to the obituary for Arthur Rubinstein, who was also accused of being an overly technical as a young man, but who is now regarded as having been one of the greats.

"In the pantheon of 20th-century pianists, Mr. Rubinstein's place is assured as one of the titans. With his remarkable technique, golden tone and musical logic, with the elan he brought to his interpretations, with his natural, unforced and unflurried style, he was unique..."

After reading all this (and a bit more), I played clips of Rubinstein and Lang Lang both playing the exact same segment of a Chopin Nocturne, then asked the audience to guess who was who. I'd say they were evenly divided. (Below are two clips--not the same ones I chose--but still fun for you to listen to and contrast).

And then we talked a bit about whether or not there was a "right" way to play a piece of music. Or if someone from another culture might be able to reinterpret something pre-existing, thus finding something new, which, for example, is the argument sometimes made in favor of Engrish.

The bias for and against musicians who aren't western when playing a western musical form--like jazz--is common. And the reverse is true too, of course. But there are also very sophisticated musicians at work, borrowing and reinterpreting music from their non-native cultures. Or in some cases reintegrating foreign influences into what is native. A favorite example:

It was a good evening, and I enjoyed the chance to talk about music and the way the theme of cross cultural art plays out in my novel. And, quite frankly, having been brought up as a musician, it's made me want to use my ears even better. There's much to learn from disciplines other than the ones we practice.

Finally: I need to mention that I managed to get the start time for Largehearted Lit completely wrong--and that I apologize to those who might have been waiting for me. I'm afraid that by week 35 of being pregnant, I'm somehow not as coherent as I used to be. If you know me, then you know it's very unlike me to make such a major mistake. I take this as a sign that I need to take a break from readings for a while. (And, once again, I'm terribly sorry and embarrassed).

Runbenstein has a more refined legato here. Lang Lang plays with pleny of emotion, but during this performance he sounds more "crisp". His notes are a bit distinct and he's missing a bit of the music between the notes that's part of the Romantic Movement. This probably wouldn't be as noticable if the piece being played was Baroque.

Lang Lang is still really young with a ton of potential yet. Some of what is heard in the Rubenstein is experience (and a hell of a lot of practice).
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