We make the music: the music doesn't make us.
Movies that get music wrong, and poems that get music right.
I find it nearly impossible to write about music, and I find most representations of music and musicians in fiction and film to be irritating at worst, or at best, hilarious.
I’m able to maintain an ironic affection for some depictions of musicians. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the frustrated second violinist in A Late Quartet (2012). Claude Rains as the megalomaniac composer Hollenius and his Bette Davis as his disciple/ muse/murderer in Deception (1946). J. K. Simmons’s tyrannical jazz teacher in Whiplash (2014). And—defining to my teenage ideals—the opening credits to the TV show, Fame (1982-1987).
Fame followed the lives of students and faculty at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts—a fictional school, but one modeled on the very real Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. The school stands one block west of Juilliard on Amsterdam Avenue. As a teenager, counting down the days until I left for New York, the show presented an imaginary passage to my future life.
The opening credits are a quick-cut montage: furious bodies of young performers whirl, fling, sing and smile to an 80s disco soundtrack. Suddenly, the sequence breaks into a dramatic scene.
“You got big dreams,” Debbie Allen announces to her students. “You want fame.”
She’s standing before the mirrored wall of a dance studio. She’s leaning on something—a cane, or a walking stick.
“Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying—” she punctuates the words “right” and “here” with a decisive knock of her cane on the dance studio floor. “—in sweat.”
Movies like these make a big deal out of the performing arts. Their allure lies in the way they purport to peel back the surface and show how skilled professionals work. Their melodrama is punctuated by sturdy, knowledgeable scenes, so that the viewer can emerge with the intellectual and aesthetic capital of an informed encounter with serious art, while retaining a general moral superiority over the terrible acts great artists might commit, the terrible fates that might befall them.
As a teenager, this sort of arrangement suited me well. I took from it the idea that my life as an artist would be difficult bur meaningful; richly rewarded in passionate friendships and transcendental aesthetics. The usual rules wouldn’t apply to me, and I would be saved from the fate of being ordinary.
What I learned since then, though, is that ordinary experience is the truth; and music is much more ordinary and true that anyone would have led me to believe.
I keep my eye out all the time for depictions of music and musicians that match what I know from the lived experience of musician-hood. It’s hard to pin it down, but it has something to do with where we locate power: externally (in awards and accolades) or internally and authentically.
My eye is almost never rewarded. And that it is why I was quietly astounded when I recently discovered the poems of Tomas Tranströmer.
Sean Singer showed me Tranströmer’s poem, “Allegro.” (Sean’s a poet, and he runs a wonderful newsletter about thinking through poetry called The Sharpener with free, daily anthologies of poems and quotes from writers.)
In the poem, Tranströmer (a poet, a psychologist and pianist) narrates the act of playing his piano at the end of a “black day.” In his description of his actions, he builds a more subtle and powerful metaphor for music’s value than the usual, awful “truth to power” trope. (Whose truth? To whose power?)
Reading this poem, what struck me first was that this was the first time, in a long time, that I felt musical truth in non-musical text.
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
—Tomas Tranströmer (1962), trans. Robert Bly
What moves me most is Tranströmer’s voice. His pellucid imagery; his easy layers of metaphor and playful neologisms and animism: the “kind hammers”, the haydnflag and haydnpockets, the house of glass. There’s an affection for music, and a keen attention to it. There’s rigor in there—a refusal to compromise the truth—and a total absence of pretension. There is no false note.
This, I think, is because the poem was not written by someone who wishes he played but someone who played music, and choose to keep playing.
Tranströmer kept playing after a stroke in 1990 left him, at 59, without the ability to walk, talk, or use his right hand. He played the piano with his left hand, and kept writing poems.
He seemingly anticipated his own stroke in his poem “Baltics” (1974, trans. Samuel Charters). It’s a long poem, and in one part, Tranströmer writes his own account of the stroke suffered in 1959 by Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963). Shelabin build a resilient career in the Soviet Union, until he and his career fell victim to Zhdanovism, the brutal Soviet policy that forced strict government control of artists and their creative works.
In “Baltics,” Shelabin suffers the absurd and brutal inversions of Soviet policies: he’s thrown into disgrace and dragged back into recognition, still the same musician. He suffers a stroke, only to remain a musician: “beyond the reach of advance of blame / But the music’s still there”.
What I take from this poem, is another point of musical accuracy. How music can be both the source of our resilience and the method by which we are destroyed.
Music comes to a person, he’s a composer, performs, makes a career, becomes director of the conservatory.
The fiscal trend declines, he’s condemned by the authorities.
They set up his student K as the head prosecutor.
He’s threatened, demoted, sent away.
After a few years, the disgrace lessens, he’s reinstated.
Then the cerebral hemorrhage: right-sided paralysis with aphasia, can only grasp short phrases, says the wrong
He’s therefore beyond the reach of advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he continues to compose in his own style,
becomes a medical sensation in the time he has left to live.
Twenty-one years after Tranströmer’s stroke, the Swedish Academy awarded him the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Way, way down in Transtömer’s New York Times obituary I read a disturbing anecdote. Each year, on the day the Nobel prizes were to be announced, journalists gathered in the stairwell of Transtömer’s apartment building in Stockholm, just in case he was named. I thought to myself, “That sounds like a nuisance.”
The day Tranströmer was named for the Nobel, his apartment building swarmed with reporters and photographers. They clambered up and down the stairs to the fifth floor landing, and filmed the nameplate and his mail slot, until a woman opened the door and asked them to leave: “the tension,” she said. This account comes from a writer who lived downstairs at the time. He wrote, “People said that Tranströmer sometimes plays the piano with his good left hand, that he had even been playing the piano today. I've never heard it.”
In the Swedish Academy’s photographs of the prize event, Tranströmer is surrounded—assaulted—by music. He did not deliver a lecture, because he could not speak in words. Instead, he sat in attention through a long programme of his own poems: singers performing his poems set to music, actors reading his poems, and musicians performing the works they referenced. Tranströmer sat in a wheelchair, beside his wife, his right arm retracted to his chest. As I watched the video I noticed where his left hand hovered in the air for a moment, searching for his wife’s hand, and then finding it again.
I thought to myself, “How uncomfortable.” It was as though he was being asked to attend the performance of his own memorial.
He died four years later.
People tend to sensationalize Tranströmer’s stroke and his music. It’s as though the music was meant to make up for his body’s failure. The biographical note on the Nobel Prize site, like many accounts, makes the claim that Tranströmer’s stroke deepened his lifelong interest in music. It’s an irresistible image, isn’t it? The poet, aphasic and alone; the sound of one hand playing.
The biographical note says that after his stroke, he wrote in shorter forms, like haiku. As though shorter might not be, in fact, more difficult.
Here is Tranströmer, playing the piano a few months before his death in 2015. That’s Tranströmer’s voice reading “Allegro” in its original Swedish, in a recording form 1982.
My Troubles with String Quartets
Part of my ironic affection for movies that get music wrong lies lies in the pleasure of making petty inventories of their inconsistencies and errors. The foreign-accenteded jogger (Liraz Charhi) who lures Philip Seymour Hoffman into cheating on Catherine Keener (of course she is both this wife and the quartet’s violist) asks him about an upcoming concert, “What are you playing on this one?” “Second violin,” he answers, peevishly. She goads him: “Don’t you get the urge to play the solo part once in a while?”
It gnaws at his character, being second fiddle, as though he wouldn’t have known—as you know from playing quartets for any period of time at all, with any seriousness of intent—that second violin is not a step down from first, but practically an instrument into itself. But the movie turns a clunky idea about hierarchy into a plot point, complete with the revelation that PSH and Keener’s daughter (Imogen Poots), herself a freshman at Juilliard, is having—spoiler—an affair with the quartet’s first violinist (Mark Ivanir.)
I watched A Late Quartet with my mom, one evening in Florida when we distended our legs in matching butter yellow recliners. I was experiencing this kind of bittersweet reckoning with myself. The movie played out the life I had thought I wanted. When I was 16 I leafed though Musical America and made inspiring mood boards of my future life as a chamber musician in New York City. Now, as I watched adult musicians behaving badly on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the last shards of my broken dream fell out of my psychic frame.
I watched it all the way to the end, to the credits where they list the music, because I wanted to see who the musicians were who played the actual soundtrack. When I saw that it was the Brentano String Quartet, the psychic frame fell apart, too.
According to Wikipedia, the Brentano Quartet was founded at Juilliard in 1992, when violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin met violist Misha Amory and cellist Michael Kannen. But before then, I played a bit part in their pre-history.
My first chamber music assignment at Juilliard was a string quartet with Mark and Serena. I was an undergraduate, and they were incoming Masters students. In our first rehearsal they explained to me that they were serious about wanting to form a professional string quartet. I said I’d like that, too. They said, politely, that they preferred to be matched with someone older.
Somehow it fell to our coach, the Juilliard String Quartet’s second violinist Joel Smirnoff, to do the actual work of letting me go. He took me out to John’s, the sliver of a coffee shop that used to sit at 1966 Broadway, next to the Cinema Studio 1 & 2 (before it got squashed by a Century 21). Joel bought me a coffee and broke the news to me. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but it smarted all the same.
After graduation I went on to get kicked out of another notable string quartet. This time because they didn’t want to work with a woman.
In both cases, the musicians offered their preferences as if they were inevitable, natural facts (“someone older,” “not a woman”) when in reality their preferences were about power. It wasn’t about me. They hardly gave me a chance.
Ever since, I have nursed a grudge and an unrequited love for the string quartet. It’s the best. It’s the worst. I have not surrendered hope that, one day, I will be in a quartet that plays music the way Tranströmer played the piano.
We make the music
I’m trying to show you how to tie all this together: the poem, “Allegro,” and the movie, A Late Quartet. The poet, the amateur pianist, the musician in the movie, the musician in real life.
The poem is true, and the movie is false.
The movie uses music for transactions of power: first violin is more important than second violin; some music (specifically Beethoven Op. 131) is more difficult and worthwhile, and it follows that those people who can play it well can be difficult because they are worth more than others.
The poem needs none of that. The poem is about a human who uses music as a simple tool to sound his beliefs. When he makes music, he is erecting a barrier—the glass house through which rocks can roll—that says, “freedom,” ”here,” and “peace.” The composer’s work is not a weapon of conquest, but a useful multitool—a flag, a pocket, a shelter—for kind connection.
There is no surrender. There is no need for bad behavior.
This is what I like best about Tranströmer’s poem: it is a heuristic for how we can play music if we know that we make the music, and the music doesn’t make us.
If you made it this far, you could use a laugh
Here are five GIFs of Claude Rains as composer Alexander Hollenius from the movie Deception. Fun fact: Hollenius’ music, in the movie, was composed in real life by Erich Korngold.