Monday, March 30, 2015
Craftsmanship, Art, and being who you are--a little more each day
Last Sunday, Bill and I went to hear "Octagon," the Canadian octet which was brought to Regina by the Cecilian Concert Series. It was one of the top ten concerts I've heard in my life--this from someone who in her sixties heard Leonard Cohen the last time he was in Regina and from a once young impressionable woman who heard young Zubin Mehta conduct the Israel Philharmonic in a concert of Haydn, Berg, and Bruckner. The very first notes of the Beethoven Septet announced that this would be one of my life's extraordinary concert memories. At first what you hear is the craftsmanship: that every note is precisely in tune, that the rhythm is crystal clear across the entire ensemble, that the timbre of each instrument captures the spirit of the music. Perhaps the first violin's sound is crystal clear, while the bassoon offers a throaty counterpoint. These are largely matters of technique: each of these musicians has doubtless practiced countless scales and studies, has played with their instrument's emotional range. Craftsmanship for a musician means practice: over and over and over and over the same lick, the same 8-bar phrase, the same difficult transition.
Craftsmanship is the foundation for almost anything I call art. (There are things that other people call art that have nothing to do with craftsmanship, and that's okay. It's just not art for me.) Whether it's Mark Rothko's ability to spread on half a dozen layers of the thinnest paint so that his colours have nuance and their wonderful luminous, ambiguous edges; Virginia Woolf's ability to write prose that exactly echoes the jist of her meaning; or the ability of a violinist to move through a rapid passage without turning a hair, most art is built on craftsmanship. Most craftsmanship requires practice.
But the wonderful thing is that the craftsmanship immediately gains the reader's, viewer's, or listener's trust, so that the artist or performer can then go about the business of building up a complex work of art. You hear craftsmanship in the first paragraph of a fine novel or the first stanza of a strong poem. You see it in the way Whistler handles paint. You hear it in the very first bars of a string septet. Beyond the craftsmanship, the art begins building up layers. There is the shape of each phrase for each instrument; there is the way these phrases fit together--each a distinct voice but also part of a greater whole. One of the wonderful things about chamber music, and one of the reasons I'm loving chamber music more and more, is that it's possible for you to hear the magic of individual voices cohering in a dialogue.
Then the phrases build up to something larger. This was an exhausting concert to go to--and doubtless an exhausting concert to play. The Beethoven Septet clocks in at around 48 minutes for its five movements, and the Schubert takes nearly an hour for its six movements. Each of these movements of these great but too-seldom-heard works revealed what I love about music. Composers of the calibre of Beethoven and Schubert take the most intense moments of our lives and manage metaphorically to bottle them in a few moments of music. Think about it: music seldom seems to want to provide a sound track for the ordinary and boring moments of one's life. What artists capture are those ten minutes of melancholy reverie, or that simple, extraordinary joy you felt when a child was born, or that period of your life when everything was in flux and your feelings changed from minute to minute, as they do in a theme and variations. It's no wonder that all art aspires to the condition of music, for nothing gives us quite that access to the world of pure emotion that music gives. Over the course of a little over two hours, I felt as if I'd lived many, many years, skimming along the high points of a life. All this made possible, in the first instance, by craftsmanship.
I have been having my own musical adventure in retirement. In January, I went back to playing the piano more regularly, and for some reason started with the book of studies my wonderful Winnipeg piano teacher, Ada Bronstein, gave me. (Maybe I'm finally grown up enough to see the benefits of discipline--and craftsmanship.) Each practice starts with these. They are called "velocity studies," so each time I play them, I try to find the sweet spot between velocity and accuracy--which for me means hitting the right notes in more or less the right rhythm. I could practice all day every day for the rest of my retired life and never reach the level of craftsmanship of the musicians in Octagon. But that's okay because each day or three something shifts just a little bit, and the sixteenth-notes in the left hand arpeggios are more even, or the scale passages in the Mozart Sonata I'm working on go more smoothly. Which makes me smile and prepares me to go back to slogging away at aesthetics and Virginia Woolf and doing what Woolf herself called that difficult thing: saying exactly what I mean. There's craftsmanship there, as well, but my ear can tell when my scales are even; I'm not always sure whether my argument is going to mean anything to anyone but me.
"Self-determination theory" is one of the newer kids on the psychological block, though it has its roots in the 70s. As I've learned about it, the SDT experts have discovered that people have three needs: a sense of competence at something, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of relatedness or belonging to a community. One of the powerful things about the practice of craftsmanship is that is develops our sense of competence and autonomy at the same time. If you are patient with yourself, as I am being over my piano practice, you can note and appreciate the smallest gains you are making. And you are making them entirely for yourself, at least in the first instance. Last night, my daughter Veronica was here for her weekly Sunday dinner, and she brought a sweater that she's been working on for quite some time and wants to be able to wear now that it's nearly spring. She has taken incredible care as she goes to get it to fit right, even going so far as to knit up and block a swatch of the wool and to adjust her needle size on the bottom lace edge so that her sweater doesn't gape in front the way so many others do. (You can see pictures of knitting projects on Ravelry to see how a sweater fits.) Last night, she was setting in sleeves so carefully that they simply seemed to flow from the shoulders. I was impressed; she was jubilant.
Craftsmanship seems to live in another world altogether when it's so dramatically present in a musical performance, a poem, or a painting. Yet the sense of competence and autonomy that they bring to our everyday lives when we knit a sweater, make a quilt, put a nice loaf of home made bread on the table, or practice a scale can allow us to feel a little bit more like who we really are or who we have the potential to be--the person inside that we aim toward each day when the busy-ness of life doesn't sabotage us. And being ourselves is a kind of work of art, isn't it?
The octet is made up of Martin Beaver, violin; Mark Fewer, violin; Rivka Golani, viola; Carole Sirois, Cello; Joel Quarrington, double bass; James Campbell, clarinet; Kathryn McLean, bassoon; and Ken MacDonald, french horn. Most of these musicians are soloists in their own right.
The quilt in the picture is one of the first I've designed to warm up the rooms at Sofia House, Regina's women's shelter.
at 9:59 AM