Thursday, June 11, 2009

“Do you like Schubert?”
“Not particularly,” I tell him.
“When I drive I like to listen to Schubert’s piano sonatas with the volume turned up. Do you know why?
“I have no idea.”
“Because playing Schubert’s piano sonatas well is one of the hardest things in the world. Especially this, the Sonata in D Major. It’s a tough piece to master. Some pianists can play one or maybe two of the movements perfectly, but if you listen to all four movements as a unified whole, no one has ever nailed it. A lot of famous pianists have tried to rise to the challenge, but it’s like there’s always something missing. There’s never one where you can say, Yes! He’s got it! Do you know why?”
“No,” I reply.
“Because the sonata itself is imperfect. Robert Schumann understood Schubert’s sonatas well, and he labeled this one ‘Heavenly Tedious.’”
“If the composition’s imperfect, why would so many pianists try to master it?”
“Good question,” Oshima says, and pauses as music fills in the silence. “I have no great explanation for it, but one thing I can say. Works that have a certain imperfection to them have an appeal for that very reason—or at least they appeal to certain types of people…If you play Schubert’s sonatas, especially this one straight through, it’s not art. Like Schumann pointed out, it’s too long and too pastoral, and technically too simplistic. Play it through the way it is and it’s flat and tasteless, some dusty antique. Which is why every pianist who attempts it adds something of his own, something extra. Like this—hear how he articulates it there? Adding rubato. Adjusting the pace, modulation, whatever. Otherwise they can’t hold it all together. They have to be careful, though, or else all those extra devices destroy the dignity of the piece. Then it’s not Schubert’s music anymore. Every single pianist who’s played this sonata struggles with the same paradox.”
He listens to the music, humming the melody, then continues.
“That’s why I like to listen to Schubert while I’m driving. Like I said, it’s because all the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of—that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.”

--Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami (2002)



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