Monday, April 28, 2008

some words of appreciation for Rachmaninoff and technology

Last Thursday I was on a plane from Boston to LA (it has taken me until now to find time to blog about it) and was desperate for a good way to pass the time - it was a six hour flight. Science and technology were on my side (they aren't always) and just prior to my flight I was able download, in a matter of one or two minutes, a recording of all 24 Rachmaninoff Preludes from I-Tunes (the recording was by pianist Eldar Nebolsin), and then was able to listen on the plane while gazing out the window at the clouds below me. Man's scientific or material progress is often portrayed in negative terms, spiritually or artistically speaking, as in this painting of a Paris train station by Claude Monet:

But only thanks to man's technological achievements was I able to enjoy being transported to the heavens, almost literally.

Actually I guess it would be accurate to say that technology (airplanes, internet, computers, noise-cancelling headsets) made it more possible to enjoy some non-scientific wonders (the clouds and the Rachmaninoff Preludes).

In any case, I have been thinking about Rachmaninoff and whether it is more important to be original or to be good. I was reading a fine book about 20th century music (Machlis) which has many concise insights in to music over the last 100 years, but as far as I can tell makes no mention of Rachmaninoff. (There is mention of Scriabin, Richard Strauss, and Puccini, to name a few of his contemporaries). I admit that I was once, regrettably, not a fan of Rachmaninoff. But I think it is more than a mistake to think less of him for being less "adventurous" than Schoenberg or Ravel or Bartok (these four pieces were all written in 1911: Rachmaninoff op. 33; Schoenberg op. 19; Bartok Allegro barbaro; Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales).

The fact that Rachmaninoff's music is not as innovative as, say, Scriabin's (the two were classmates at the Moscow Conservatory) seems less and less relevant as time goes by - it is like saying Bach was more old-fashioned than Handel or Scarlatti (the three were all born in 1685). So what? Bach plumbed the depths of the human soul and fashioned indestructibly profound music that is not exactly representative of his era - it's just great music. Rachmaninoff's music shows wonderfully fertile imagination, sincere passion, and inarguable control of counterpoint, structure, etc.

I can tell you when I started to appreciate Rachmaninoff, which I had formerly found to be too "over the top." I was dating a girl in college who, frankly, was not the best girlfriend. After one of our several break-ups (it took me a few to realize I should get the heck out of the relationship, permanently!) I was on the subway, very upset, and not caring about who knew it. That last part (not caring if anyone knew I was upset) was what gave me an insight in to and appreciation for the music of Rachmaninoff. Sometimes our emotions are, frankly, hard to disguise. Sometimes that's okay.

1 comment:

ckoh71 said...

I personally love technology - the internet in particular. For example, I now have access to your intimate thoughts only hours after you put them into words. That's pretty amazing I think.
I know it may seem silly to trumpet inventions like the iPod or TiVo - but frankly, I don't know how I could live without them today. They make my life so much more pleasurable.
I think the key to technology is how it's used - which can be for enormous good both in an utilitarian sense - but also for spiritual/emotional fulfillment.
As far as originality is concerned - I think the older I get, I just appreciate anyone who can produce quality - whether or not it's the most "original" per se is less important than how pleasurable it is to me.