Leeds International Piano Competition Entry #4: Mid-week Muse

A blog post I recently read about individualism of musicians really struck a chord within me (pun intended). Written by Hong Kong pianist Stephen Hung–who, coincidentally, shares the same former piano teacher with me–muses on the idea of being “individual” in the world of music. The Chinese word 自我 literally translates into “self-me”, so one can imagine being “individual” here also involves a certain extent of narcissism and showing off. Modern society encourages us to be “individuals”, and yet when you start becoming different people often comment that you are “showing off”. Is being “different”, or being “individual”, an equivalent of showing off? This is why we often see artists behaving in eccentric ways. A thin line divides showing off and being individual, and yet with time it reveals itself either by enduring the test of time or being dismissed as superficial, fading into forgotten history.

Forgive me if I go on tangents, but I think this kind of relates to what I thought when I was reviewing the performances of the Leeds competitors. Why do some performances keep my riveted, while I itch to go on Facebook watching others? People often say that “charisma” and “personality” constitute a brilliant performance, but there seems to be a missing link between personality and performance. Does that mean artists have an inherent personality required to perform brilliantly? Often when one is fully immersed in something, one does not detach himself from the thing to analyze why he is enjoying it, just as it is very difficult to describe what it feels like to be in love when one is in love. Analyzing or criticising something means you are past the point of enjoying it. Still, since I have given myself the task of writing about performance–which in itself is quite an unnatural thing, since I must put what cannot be put into words, into words–this is what I must do, and I do that by detaching myself from boring performances to muse on such a subject.

Stephen suggests that it is very difficult to conscientiously portray one’s personality, to purposefully show off one’s “individualism”. He likens this to trying to make a cup of water look like a cup of water. When one tries hard to be something, one usually fails in doing so. In the Leeds, every performance is technically perfect and each performer shows that they are expressing something. So what makes some interesting and some boring?

Stephen goes on to say that although humans may do the same things–in this case, they all play the piano, and most played pieces that have been performed countless times–we are inherently different in our thoughts and values. What makes us “individual” are these intangible forces that cannot be easily described, but at moments of great artistry, shows forth through our artistic craft. And when such moments happen, it touches everyone who is there to experience it. Quoting a parable by Zhuang Zi in his blog post, Stephen states that it isn’t easy to bring out such individualism, especially when this “individualism” is labelled by others thus subjecting one to all the other thoughts in society. Maybe this is why rare moments of artistic individualism touch us and make its mark in our minds.

Sometimes I think music is similar to literature. As an English Literature student, I try to use Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as an example. Reading Jane Eyre as a child, one would probably see it as a love story where the lady never gives up on her belief in true love. One would therefore be surprised to know that some read Jane Eyre as a work that could provoke a political rebellion, or compared it to position of imperialists. Similarly, while some regard Brahms’ Second Symphony as a triumphant and joyful work, Brahms himself said of it as an intensely melancholic symphony. Yet all of these are technical. What about expression in music and literature?

In reading literature, one could find consolation in the fact that intense feelings that one feels have been felt by someone somewhere down the line of history, and through that one can find expression one’s feelings, which is why I think people like to quote song lyrics or poems as their Instagram captions. I often find beautiful passages in books which I copy onto my notebook. In Alan Bennett’s words, spoken through Hector from his play The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something–a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things–which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”  (That is a beautiful passage I copied onto my notebook!)

Similarly, I think music is a medium for the artist to express himself or herself. Some may advocate the idea that one should “respect the score and the composer”, but I think that is only to refine the means of expressing oneself, as well as reaching a higher degree of understanding of this means of expression. Everyone has a unique individuality that can either be brought out or suppressed. To bring it out results in freedom, to suppress it would be cruel.

And so, those who find expression in the repertoire they’ve chosen find a way to reveal their “individualism”, a term behind which is a myriad of thoughts and experiences and cultural roots that cannot be put into words. When put in that way, how can we say that a written score restricts the expression of an artist, or that a pianist’s performance is merely “humourous” or “melancholic” or “filled with mirth”?

I will link Stephen Hung’s blog post here for those who can read Chinese: http://www.gooclasshk.com/archives/8856

This was originally going to be an introductory paragraph to my next entry lol. What I’m trying to say is, this is simply a train of thought that I have put together in a more coherent way, so I welcome and respect any opinion or comments!


 This is a photo of Glenn Gould, an example of a very “individual” artist which Stephen used in his blog. His recordings are characterized by his singing along with the music. 

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