Friday, April 18, 2008

How important is honesty?

The other day I heard about a survey concerning income taxes. About 50% of people said they would not cheat on their taxes because it is dishonest to do so. About 30% also said they would not cheat on their taxes because they were afraid of being caught. (the remaining 20% must actually have cheated on their taxes). True integrity means, of course, to do the right thing even if no one will ever know the difference.

Art, however, seems at times to be about appearances - we experience the arts through our senses, so what we can see or hear is what matters - isn't it? For example, in Peter Jackson's "King Kong" we don't object, on a moral basis, to the fact that the animal is not *really* a giant gorilla. In fact, we admire the ability of Jackson and his crew to create an computer-generated character that seems so real. On the other hand, in another Peter Jackson film, The Two Towers, I found out from watching one of the "making of" featurettes that come on the DVD that at least one costume, King Theoden's armor, contained decorative features that were totally invisible to the camera (since they were inside the armor). The costume designers knew they wouldn't be seen, yet they put them in there anyway, for "accuracy's" sake.

A few days ago I looked at the music for Stockhausen's "Klavierstuck V" (anyone know how to type an umlaut?) and it includes a passage of fairly rapid notes, each with a different dynamic - f, pp, mf, pppp, mp, mf, p, f, pp, ppp, etc. In other words, it is incredibly detailed, and I honestly doubt that a listener could possibly discern whether a performance is "accurate" or not. This is, of course, an issue with much of the music of the last 50 years (or even 100 years), where the musical vocabulary seems so foreign to many listeners. There would seem to be only a small percentage of listeners in the world who know Schoenberg's piano music better than me (though there are certainly plenty of people who would fit that description - but as a percentage of all listeners, it's pretty small) but I'm not going to catch every wrong note that a student plays if I don't have the music in front of me.

My question is this: if no one can tell if a performer is playing a passage of Stockhausen or Schoenberg correctly, should he or she be trying to play it accurately? I'm not talking about the fact that some audience members lack the background to know the difference between a Beethoven Sonata played by Emil Gilels and one played by a good conservatory student. Most great musicians would be able to practice a lot less if their only concern were to satisfy their audiences. I mean there are really things in pieces I've played (e.g. a trio I played by Saariaho) where I don't think homo sapiens' physiological abilities can detect the difference between right and wrong rhythms, notes, subtleties of timbre, etc.

My instinct is to say we should always do our best - we owe it to the composer and to God to be honest. But the practical side of me (picture a little red devil with pitchfork on my left shoulder) wonders if it's really worth it sometimes.

1 comment:

ckoh71 said...

Seems like what you're really addressing is the question of precision rather than honesty per se. This much I know: the devil is in the details for both artists and scientists (and perhaps anyone who performs at a level of excellence). Even if most people can't perceive the differences at a discrete level by making out each nuance, detail etc - I firmly believe it does express itself since the person performing or doing (if they care at all about quality) always can tell. And since these details matter to the person, they will focus their energy and attention to create more intensity and depth. Whether or not audiences can discern details is up for debate - but I think most can feel some subtle difference between a performer fully committed to himself/herself. I think I just made that alot more convoluted than I intended - but you get my drift. So I think it matters because it matters to you the artist above all. If you know the difference, that's what counts. That's true of anything - truth, love, beauty, etc.