Last night, Adonis saw his first harpsichord concert.
He has been interested, though, in the the instrument for some time. Whenever he hears it in some music we are listening to or when he detects its tinkling notes among the other instruments at a concert, he will inevitably ask,
What is that mechanical sound?
What is making that tinkling?
What is that sound like a music box?
There must be a disconnect between the way the instrument looks, and the sound it produces, because I must have told him a dozen times-- it's the harpsichord!! I guess he didn't believe me. (Wise little boy too because I am often wrong). This has gone on for a year or so, and so when I found out that the Tochigi Music Festival was featuring a harpsichord recital by Japan's most prominent harpsichordist, Suzuki Masaaki, I thought, why not?
We got seats right in the very front row-- smack in the middle. Even the incredibly child-tolerant Japanese concert-goers looked worried.
A six year old boy at a baroque harpsichord concert? No one would have blinked an eyelash at a symphony or even a superstar soloist concert, but this was a very different kind of affair.
Luckily The Kid was clearly already interested before the music even started when a man came out on stage with a large red tool box and spent 15 minutes fine-tuning the chords. Adonis was fascinated. His violin just takes a moment to tune, but this was like brain surgery with the man's unusually long necktie dangling down on the black keys.
The instrument itself harkened back to another world.
A world that neither Adonis or any of the people there would really know about, but a world when musical performances played a larger part in people's lives. And, I don't just mean Baroque drawing room music like the harpsichord or the viol, but in the late Renaissance and early Baroque, the violin was still a "street instrument" and there was, I learn, a very vibrant street music scene.
Composers of the time were like craftsman and were commissioned to create music for specific ocassions. Last night, listening to Suzuki playing Bach on his Flemmish harpsichord, called a cembalo in Japanese (from the Italian word), I imagine it was originally performed at small banquets or in ensembles for dancing.
The recital last night was very intimate in that way. There were maybe 50 people and the chairs were brought right up within a few meters of the instrument. The were no spotlights and we could make eye contact with the musician who smiled as he noticed Adonis swinging his legs and tapping his fingers.
The instrument itself was just beautiful. Hand-crafted in Holland, it was a Flemish-style harpsichord with a double manual in the most opaque shade of black. There was a Latin motto (which I couldn't read but contained the word "muse") above the painted sound board.
Adonis kept repeating: You know I've always wanted a music box.
And, I suppose that's what it most reminded me of too, the beautiful music box music you hear in an Ozu film.
I was going to say the sound is like tinkling jade, but in fact, it doesn't really reverberate in the same way the ancient philosophers insisted jade does when struck. Utterly unlike a bell or chime, it has the most peculiar mechinical sound.
During the intermission, the man with the overly long necktie came back on stage with all his tools and then painfully re-tuned each and every key once more. Adonis had his head right down by the keys so he could hear them reverberate (until he was ordered back away from the instrument)
Just prior to the recital, in the concert hall lobby there was another harpsichordist playing Renaissance music with a viol player (Shakespeare's viol de gambo). The musicians played as people walked in and out.
And then today, we went to a concert featuring a very young national-competition-winning violinist, who played along with the lovliest pianist performing on a fortepiano. Another precurser to the piano, it sounded like a more charming version of the modern instrument, though its construction had more in common with the harpsichord of the evening before.
Held in one of Tochigi's historic buildings, it was another intimate ocassion. There were maybe 50 people in attendance and we were not even a meter from the beautiful violinist. The 150 year old wooden building with its old-fashion glass windows had surprisingly outstanding acoustics and, how do I explain it? It was like being in another world where music was played for very small groups as part of a social gathering.
In Austria, in Italy, in Prague, fine music remains part of everyday life. You hear it on the street corners and stumble upon practices or performances almost anywhere you go, it seems. Somehow it remains, I think, more incorporated into everyday life. This weekend was like that-- and I think Adonis is lucky, not only that he can play his violin, but more that he has developed an ear that can pick out the mechinal tinkling sound of a harpsicord from among the other instruments of the symphony.
On this concept of the banishment of the arts to museums or concert halls, I have written at length here already. Listening to a recent Philosopher's Zone program on Enlightenment concepts of the arts, the guest philosopher was explaining some of the ways that the enlightenment philosophers sought to assign value to art (How can we say that one art is superior to another). I am not interested in this question, except in one sense.
Jonathan Le Cocq:
But implicit in taking that view of what's good in art, you have to accept that there's going to be a pretty high level of technical skill involved in it. That is, that an artist is engaged in a kind of problem-solving activity, and part of what we perceive in great art is that application of human understanding in solving problems and in working with material. Now I think what we have in the case of a great deal of contemporary art are works where all of the value is placed in the concept. It's the original conceptual idea that comes to the forefront, but there's not a great deal as it were, technical execution that you can admire and that you can follow. So it might be an extremely stimulating idea to say, bisect a cow, and put it in formaldehyde so that you can walk between it, and I think it can be a very valuable thing to do, it can make an interesting, useful, worthwhile experience and that type of art can be exciting and can be intriguing. But I think it's going to be a challenge for it to be called great art, or if you like to be comparable to art of previous generations where you have this blend of execution or problem-solving and conception.
When this sense of craftsmanship or high technical ability is conflated with concept then, of course, almost anything can be considered art and indeed this is perhaps why art is coming to be experienced almost as a form of entertainment or amusement. A commitment to craftsmanship is something equated with the Japanese and yet I think it is something we also really see in Europe.
I am reading Parag Khanna's The Second World and have empires on my mind today. In fact, I have Europe on my mind. And, I am seeing Japan, while it remains under the US military umbrella, still just naturally tends to move in similar directions as Europe: from food to the environment. I wonder if we will ever see a day where the EU grows to such an extent that Japan could join? Now, that would be a day to see...