Twitter is Destroying Classical Music...

Are critics really allowed to do this...attack the soloist? Don't they know that it's their job to heap excessive amounts of hyperbolic praise upon every soloist who ever plays with an orchestra? Guess not. Anyways, good, it's nice see critics turn that scornful ear towards something other than new music.

So I was a bit curious when I came across this article in the New York Times, by Michael Kimmelman, that seemed to be a pretty scathing review of renowned pianist Lang Lang after a performance in Lucerne, Switzerland.

However, hell if I know what Lang Lang did wrong.

figure 2: Lang Lang auditioning for remake of Thriller video.

Racing Chopin All the Way to the Wire

The other night Lang Lang twittered his way through Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto.

Twittered? Tweeted? Anyways, Lang Lang posted 140 character messages online throughout his performance of Chopin? Really? That's pretty amazing.

How better to describe it?

Good question. Well, you chose the verb "twitter" which basically means (as our good friends at dictionary.com can attest): to utter a succession of small, tremulous sounds, as a bird; to talk lightly and rapidly.

You were there, does that sound about right to you? And if so, what kind of first line of a review is that?

The other night Lang Lang lightly and rapidly played his way through Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto.

That may be true, but it's hardly a compelling first line. Are we preparing for a negative review...of a soloist?!? Wait, is "rapidly played" even an insult?

I'm not sure what to make of it. Although, my high school creative writing teacher would not have approved of that bland "the other night" introduction. That doesn't set much of a stage now does it -- I mean, you're in Lucerne, Switzerland. Not exactly just another night to most of us. Set the mood, use a little pizazz. May I suggest:
"The night was dry, yet it was raining", or
"The night was sultry"...no, too parochial...how about...

The sultry moonlight beamed stealthily down between the sprawling peaks of Mount Pilatus and Rigi upon the intertwined corpses of twin artisan dairymaids from Olten-Zofingen, and Lang Lang lightly and rapidly played his way through Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto.

Nailed it. Moving on...

He played with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Fabio Luisi at the KKL concert hall here. I can’t recall a more galling soloist. [italics mine]


Another interesting word choice, but I think we can forget any uncertainty over the meaning of "twittered" -- galling doesn't leave much room for interpretation. Offending, vexing, irritating, and grievous are all synonyms.

So, Lang Lang gave an offensive, irritating performance through his rapid, perhaps even frivolous playing. Nice introduction, how to you plan to support this thesis...

Lang Lang, the 27-year-old Chinese virtuoso, is by various measures the most popular pianist around, a kinetic superstar thanks to his outsize charm and gymnastic technique that earns him the nickname Bang Bang. He can play with grace too. He didn’t here.

Graceless. Check.

He splits opinion.

Others have criticized his playing as well. Got it. But do continue...

He splits opinion. Contemporary culture in general is polarized, but the poles keep shifting in ways that can help tell us where we are.

Huh? The poles of polarized contemporary culture (or is that opinions) move in ways that help us tell where we are?

I've read that sentence probably a dozen times now, and I'm still not sure what it says. How about an illustration...

By way of illustration, the night before Mr. Lang made mincemeat of the Chopin concerto, a sizeable, rapt crowd listened in the same hall to Pierre Boulez conducting works by Janacek, Varèse and Berg.
figure purple: Chopin's f-minor Piano Concerto after a Lang Lang performance.

There have been Lang Langs for as long as there have been keyboard players. Showmen in different eras touch different chords for different generations.

So true. Many a wonderful showman have graced the stage with a piano, like this guy...

figure 3: Entertainment at a fundraiser for the RNC

This is the age of instant messaging, sound bites, of atomized culture, with information packaged for our convenience in morsels, and Mr. Lang is embraced for more than his winning smile and playing very, very fast.

O-kay...? This is the age of instant messaging.... Um, good point?

Instant messaging = liking people for their smiles?

The way he took apart Chopin’s score made it into a jumble of hyped-up anecdotes.

So, inspired by modern culture, he jumbled up the score? Or "atomized" the music into "morsels"? Did he leave something out? Play only the major themes and the rest is just treacle?

I must say, Mr. Kimmelman, you have me very confused. Moving poles, twittered playing, atomized culture...I'm beginning to think that you didn't like his performance.

So what exactly didn't you like about it?

Here he played super quietly, there super slowly, there like Wile E. Coyote in his Acme rocket shoes.

figure ∞: Lang Lang playing Chopin's f minor Piano Concerto, just before he smashed into the side of a cliff.

Occasionally he came to a near standstill, forcing the orchestra to crawl with him, so he could ravish a rubato. He swooned and swayed as if possessed by the music (feeling the music “at you,” to borrow the New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross’s phrase), as if the audience needed little parcels of exaggerated emotion and virtuosity to stay interested.

To recap, you don't like too much gerrymandering with the tempo. Yes, that can be distracting.

So, what about those moving polarized poles, and the reference to an atomized culture?

It brought to mind what Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about interpreting history these days.

Wait, what? You were listening to Lang Lang play Chopin, and Anne Applebaum and her comments about interpreting history came to mind?

Yes, non sequiturs are fun.

Writing for The New Republic, she reviewed a book by Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke,” about the lead-up to World War II, which stitched together, without comment, hundreds of nuggets culled from newspapers, memoirs and other (often secondary) sources to suggest a case for pacifism.

Interesting. Okay, the connection is slowly becoming less incoherent. "Hundreds of nuggets" = "atomized culture...packaged for our convenience in morsels"? Am I close?

“A series of pretentious, Gawker-like vignettes,” Ms. Applebaum called these orchestrated tidbits. “Ripped from their respective contexts each item has the same weight as the next. There is no hierarchy, no sense that one enigmatic anecdote might be more important than the next equally enigmatic anecdote.” That’s not a bad description of what Mr. Lang did with the Chopin concerto.

No wonder Lang ruined Chopin, his out-of-context arguments gave false pretext to World War II. Wait a minute, is that true? You're going to have to bring this one all together for me, Mr. Kimmelman.

What Ms. Applebaum added is also true about music: “There are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, nonlinear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates.” But history persuasively told, like music interpreted, comes down to cogent arguments.

Is "history persuasively told" really the same thing as "music interpreted"? Okay, I think we made need an example.

The pianist Glenn Gould was an eccentric interpreter, but his interpretations, whether you liked them or not, had their own internal, neurotic logic. They made an elaborate case for themselves. The same could be said about playing by Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter.

How is one interpretation cogent, and another not? I suppose you're suggesting that Lang Lang's interpretation is not logical?

Flashy passages strung together don’t make an argument.

Right, an argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

They make an assortment of fetishes.

figure 6: Figure 6 has been removed due to "legal advice".

Flashy passages are not an argument, but they are an interpretation? So, a performer should not interpret, but argue? Or is it that they should first interpret and then argue using their interpretation?

“Perhaps,” Ms. Applebaum wondered at one point about “Human Smoke,” “the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke.” I wondered the same thing during the concerto.

Perhaps you should have started this review off with, "You had to be there," because I don't get it.

You thought that this performance may have been a joke? Because it made a bad argument? Actually a non-argument because he interpreted the music in small Twitter-sized capsules?

I decided it was a stunt. But it wasn’t a joke. Whatever else he may be, Mr. Lang is sincere. He has peddled his sincerity all the way to the bank.

That doesn't sound sincere at all. In fact, that sounds like you're suggesting he's faking sincerity for financial gain.

That and his virtuosity, so his fans say, have made him classical music’s latest matinee idol.

The question is what does his playing say about us.

So many questions unanswered. I am loathe to try and summarize this mess, but here's the short short version:

Lang Lang plays too fast. And he writes bad history because he plays music in random, unconnected, yet enigmatic tidbits with no hierarchical structure.


Seriously? I love a good evisceration, and I don't necessarily doubt the validity of the critique I think that Kimmelman is trying to make, but wow, could he have found a more convoluted analogy to make?


MB said...

This is Kimmelman's schtick, he writes about cultural events or more often cultural controversies in Europe that are inevitably microcosms of Larger Things. I get the feeling he would be more convincing if the Times gave him twice the word count.

I think he has the WW2/Holocaust memorial beat, though he slipped that into this review in a more creative and stranger way than usual.

Anonymous said...
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Sator Arepo said...

Sweet roller-skating jeebus do I hate spam-trolls.

Sator Arepo said...

I read this review with interest. Perhaps a counter-write-up is not warranted; perhaps the comments can be discussion enough, because I found it very interesting.

First, his argument is that 1) the Chopin is constructed in a linear, narrative form, as was the style at the time;

2) That Lang Lang's performance/interpretation was fragmented and collage-tastic in a way that did not fit the musical argument;

3) It was a stunt.

I don't think (3) is right, but I wasn't there. Moreover, whatever we can or cannot assume about Lang's *intent* is pretty irrelevant.

His assertion, then, is basically that the interpretation as presented was reflective of the culture at large, Twittered...essentially, I think, sort of postmodern. His critique is that this was not an effective way to present the Chopin.

That is a well-reasoned argument and review, with surprising depth and "non sequitor" [in Gustav's words] reference to a fragmentary, non-linear, non-heirarchical book about WWII. This reference was actually helpful; it illustrated his point through analogy.

So: he didn't like the performance, for what is basically a philosophical reason that he carefully outlined.

That's fine.

Well, that's fine *if* great art (in this case represented by the Chopin [discussions about the merits of Chopin's Concerto(s) are for another venue]) begs and/or can bear the weight of such radical interpretations.

It seems to me that discounting the nature (non-linear, fragmentary, Twitter-like, post-modern (if you will)) of the performance exactly because it was exactly what it was could be problematic.

Was it show-off-ish? Sounds like it. Was it over-the-top? Maybe. Was it a "stunt"? Hmm.

Was it wrong? Really, really wrong, the wrong way top approach and present this music vis-a-vis the times in which we live? Perhaps it was schtick, but we've long since come to accept that {see Warhol, Andy). Perhaps it was exactly the lens of our time applied to the Chopin, and the critic didn't like what he saw.

Good article, I think, with good things to discuss. Certainly not the usual fare.

Sator Arepo said...

Second, two things struck me as hilarious, especially considering the specific critiques of Kimmelman.

1)In the first paragraph, in which he was beginning to construct his Twitter analogy, the sidebar in the Times website allows you to promote the article (for free?! Wow, thanks The Times!) using various webby devices and services, one being of course--Twitter.

2) Also in the sidebar, but on the left, later in the article when he's discussing the Boulez performance from the previous evening of Janacek (among other things), Varese got his acccent grave, but Janacek was robbed of both his accent and hacek [sorry, lousy comments section doesn't have diacritical marks]. Hilariously, in the sidebar, Janacek got the acute on the first "a" but not the hacek.

Why is this funny? Precisely because the intertextual, non-linear sort of presentation--beyond his control--that frames the article on the NYT website parallels the qualities in the Lang performance that he didn't like.

Welcome to 2009, Mr. Kimmelman!

Gustav said...

Lots of good comments, SA. I do commend Kimmelman for attempting a more high-minded critique. However, I have serious questions about the legitimacy of the comparisons he's trying to make, (what exactly does a twitter sound like in music?) and obviously, whether he makes any sense.

But first your summary of his points:
1) the Chopin is constructed in a linear, narrative form, as was the style at the time;

Well, the Chopin is linear and narrative in one sense, that it relies on traditional forms and phrasal structures. But perhaps in the sense that Kimmelman means it, this Piano Concerto is not. Like his other PC, Chopin writes a piece that feels like a bunch of theme-like ideas strung together. Each 4 measure phrase sharing little with the one that precedes it and follows it. Chopin was never one for developmental forms -- like his solo piano music, it's often rhapsodic or in simple dance/folk forms.

2) That Lang Lang's performance/interpretation was fragmented and collage-tastic in a way that did not fit the musical argument;

Two things. First, as I stated, I could argue that Chopin's piece is already fragmented (at least motivically and thematically speaking). But more importantly, what is a fragmented performance? Did he cadence where the music did not? Did he run over musical breaks, and purposefully highlight only parts of melodies?

I understand how the music could be fragmented, but not the interpretation. This is a premise that I think that Kimmelman fails to establish.

3) It was a stunt.

This is quite the claim. Kimmelman has to do more than just state this. What exactly does that mean? In this context it sounds more like prank.

I suppose the point of contention is here is over the understanding of performance and interpretation. To my thinking, "interpretation" and "argument" in reference to performance are loosely defined, really to the point of being specific to each performer and listener. And when we start to juxtapose non-musical ideas like Twitter and non-hierarchical historical arguments with musical concepts of tempo, fragments, etc, you can't just rely on similarity of language to support your point. By this logic are all things that are small and fragmented inspired by modern culture and Twitter? How about ants? or legos? or salt in my salt shaker? The way I scattered individual crystals of salt haphazardly around my food was twitter-like?

Like I said, I like that Kimmelman has a larger point he's trying to make. However, it appears to me that his connections are loosely made.

In any case, I could be wrong. It was a fun read. And I think I should get props for that picture of Liberace.

Sator Arepo said...

1) Liberace is outstanding.

2) Indeed; my contention that the review and criticism is well-thought-out and interesting stands. However, to the extent that the Chopin Concerto is sort of fragmentary anyway, a reading that plays up this episodic feel is: valid? Over-the-top? Unnecessary? A "stunt?"

I don't think you can fault the Kimmelman for his opinion, which is well-reasoned and interesting in its own right. However, I can (and was probably going to, if you hadn't tackled this interesting article first) construct an argument that this *kind* of interpretation can be seen as valid precisely for the reasons he didn't like it.

Still, all-in-all, it's pretty solid stuff compared to the vague and fluffy descriptions found in many reviews, and I appreciated that.

Empiricus said...

Liberace has a baton--the kind for twirling.


Good discussion. Good post.

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