Friday, March 25, 2011

Accomplish Nothing?

Two nights ago, I truly sat in the presence of greatness. I watched the legendary classical guitarist, John Williams, give a concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Many consider him the greatest living master of the instrument. (By the way, he's not the same guy who wrote the music for Jaws and Star Wars.)

As a student of the classical guitar, I catch him whenever he comes through the area. I fear he might retire soon, so I take every opportunity. He is a true master -- his concentration is superhuman; his technique is flawless. His Greg Smallman guitar is a perfect instrument that fills a small concert hall with its delicate power. Let me give you a sampling of Williams playing a famous classical guitar piece. (The "synch" is a little off -- sorry. On a musicological note, it was originally written for piano, but the transcribed guitar version may be better known.):

So, as you can hear, the dude can play. But while I was watching him a few nights ago, I became aware of a conundrum. What was I supposed to be doing? Should I have been listening and enjoying or learning?

In front of me, there was a guy with Muppet hair using his arm as a practice fretboard during Augustin Barrios Mangore's Vals No. 4. In the upper level of the theater, a guy had a book open in his lap and he was following the music to Brouwer's El arpa del guerro. The guy next to me kept covering his face and going "Mmmmm," during parts he liked. (Thankfully, he left after intermission.)

Tarrega and his admirers.
For me, it was hard not to take note of Williams's left hand positioning or of his right hand technique. It was hard not to watch how precisely his eyes targeted the fret he needed to shift to for the next chord. But, at times, the beauty of the music lofted me away from that -- I found myself sitting, with closed eyes, immersed in the sound of a superior instrument played by a superior musician.

It occurred to me, yet again, that music can be a microcosm of life -- or, at least, my life. In so many ways, music tends to either shine a lamp on or hold a mirror to life in general.

Earlier this week, I wrote about success and its tangent issues. As with music, in life, I often find myself caught in-between the need to grow and the need to be -- to just, be. Sometimes, the taoist in my me wants to stop reaching for the next level -- to just breathe in the many things around me that are far greater than I will ever be, for all my insignificant striving. From the Tao Te Ching:

The follower of knowledge learns as much as he can every day;
The follower of the Way [of Tao] forgets as much as he can every day.
By attrition he reaches a state of inaction
Wherein he does nothing, but nothing remains undone.
To conquer the world, accomplish nothing;
If you must accomplish something,
The world remains beyond conquest.
But, if I am ever going to play those passages that I know will bring me the deepest joy -- even to that rare proximity to Tao -- I have to figure out how Williams gets from one end of the neck to the other with such effortless precision. If I am ever going to do nothing and sit and enjoy the best view of the sprawling world, I'm going to have to climb the mountain. Right?

But it's so good to be -- just to lie still and feel cradled by the air that's connected to the clouds that are connected to the stars that sprinkle the Universe with diamond light over every mile of its infinite distances. So good, just to listen . . .

"To conquer the world, accomplish nothing." Hm.


  1. I'm glad someone said this. I've found myself doing this at the few concerts Ive gone to. I mean who's not trying to see how the lead guitar is played during Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Carol of the Bells/Sarajevo." Seriously, it's insane. But after reading your post and pondering, I think learning to become that good, since i have limited technical talents on a guitar, would become a chore rather than a joy. The great guitar players, painters, speakers, and writers have a certain God-given talent. They used this talent along with practice to make something beautiful, and most of all natural. I would love to be as good as BB King, Slash, Lonnie Johnson, or Carlos Santana, but if I were to achieve the level of technical prowess they possess, I feel the actual joy of playing music would be lost. It would sound...inorganic, like cheese from a can being used in lasagna. Canned cheese is a wonderful invention for its purpose, but trying to force it to be cheese in a lasagna can really only end badly.

    ehh that's my two cents (which I shouldn't have spent since I'll need them for gas)

  2. I see you point, Papi, but I believe ther is no killing the joy of music. I htink it can remain, either way . . . I couldn't halp thinking, watching Williams, how much fun it would be to play some of the passages his superior technique allowed him to play. I didcussed this with my teacher tonight, and she said something interesting. She said, "I let the performer decide for me. If he doesn't move me, emotionally, I start watching technique. But if it is good, I just enjoy the performance."

  3. Not to cop out, but do we definitely have to choose? With stuff like Brubeck with the crazy compound time signatures, I find I enjoy it more after I understand it and know from my smidge of musical experience just how difficult and meticulous playing the piece would be. But it may be totally different with classical guitar--can't say I've ever tried it.

  4. Good question, Nick. I think I agree with my teacher's comment that I mentioned above. I think the performer chooses for us. There is certainly enjoyment in the intellectual at times and in the emotional at times.(That's how Bach is for me -- not emotionally moving, but intellectually astounding music.) For me, in the end, if it doesn't move me, I'm not too interesed in figuring it out.