Talks with Lex Bohlmeijer - part 2
'Let people go on and on about technique with hollow, hypocritical words. Real painters are guided by their consciences, which we call sentiment. Their souls, their minds aren’t led by the brush; the brush is for their minds. The canvas is wary of the painter, the painter is not wary of the canvas.'
Vincent van Gogh
Technique. I have never really understood that term, and I don’t really believe in it.
Often people speak about technique as if it is a physical condition, or as if it’s a substance outside ourselves that you could touch. Or people say, we have fingers, we have elbows. No, that’s incorrect; we are fingers, we are bodies, we don’t just have them. We are the instrument ourselves, with our bodies.
Sometimes it’s said that a piece was beautifully played, that it was musical, technically perfect, clever. As if it’s separate from the score. You can’t separate technique from the score. Every separation takes something away. But what it takes to unite yourself with the score – that’s what’s important. Maybe we need a different term for this.
When I started studying piano, I played scales, but that didn’t last long. I was ten years old, and asked myself why I had to play scales in different keys if I encountered the same key in a Beethoven Sonata. If you look at it that way, it’s not a scale, but a fragment of a sonata. So that physical dexterity, which is detached from music, that manual dexterity as something separate that you can take with you like a treasure chest or a suitcase, is a phantom. My teacher Janeta Benun supported this idea. She buried me under work, at each lesson, all summer long. Every week I studied new sonatas, allegros, etudes – but not just as technical exercises. I was like a person dying of thirst. I gobbled up all that musical nourishment; I had such a hunger. And it’s that hunger that creates a true technique.
Some of my fellow musicians can’t sit at the table for twenty minutes until their fingers start tapping. I never had that. My ears are my most important instrument That is the center, the turning point, of everything. What you hear while you’re playing shows you how to continue. That indicates to you the direction to follow in the music, just like a sign on a path in the woods.
LB: So you have a map of the place you want to reach, that’s the composition, the score; it contains everything: the signs, the direction of the wind, and so on; but experiencing the place only happens once you pass through it, and undergo it….
The score is the starting point, but the most important aspects aren’t in the score. What matters is the experience of the composer who was moved, who was captured by a deep impression before he put it down on paper. I can’t know exactly what this is; even the composer doesn’t have access to it anymore. It that sense we’re at the same place; that is the meeting place. What has happened? What went through his mind, what did he hear, what could he have heard, before he wrote it, what? And I don’t mean the dry facts: that he went for a walk, that he had loved a woman, or that a friend died – those are all serious causes, but this is something else. The text is a code. György Sebők said once, “a written composition is like cooled lava.” For instance, the score of a Mahler symphony looks fascinating. You can wander around in it for hours. But that not the music.
You only make that connection by hard work. And by hard work, I mean giving, giving yourself: it’s a life-long process of searching for connection.
There is a kind of listening that opens the gate to the original experience of the composer that preceded the score. It starts with acceptance. Listening closely to one’s self is one of the hardest lessons. It is not always pleasant, or satisfying – on the contrary; listening to what is true, and not what’s supposed to be, is difficult, but it’s the only way.
Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised. The human body is an essential source of information, and possesses enormous intelligence. This is why it’s so dissatisfying to make a distinction between body, technique, and mind. These three work closely together. If you permit whatever your hand is “suggesting” at some moment, then that gesture or touch can have an amazing consequence, which I didn’t command. If you say “this is my intention and that is the consequence”, then you break that circle. Instead you keep investigating, without any breakthrough, so that the one thing is simply a consequence of the other. You remain within your limits. And by doing that over and over, one day there will come a moment when suddenly something changes, such as the transition between two white keys: between e and f, between b and c (that’s a difficult passage because there aren’t any black keys in between). Then you have processed something. You have made progress by lingering in the process.
My ideal image is more than only sound. Sound is too lonely, sound doesn’t reach far enough to become music – and this is what we’re really talking about: the story. That is something you can imagine, that ideal image, but it doesn’t stand still. It keeps developing as a dynamic totality that gets enriched with every performance. Sound is secondary. It’s the story that gives birth to the sound. And it’s that story that appeared to the composer when an original experience settled into a composition. Almost like a telegram, or stenography: that is the message that we receive.
The story is played, it lived, it resounded only once. Our poems, our novels, are one-time happenings; we only have fifteen minutes for Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann, which more or less summarizes all of life. But one time, for one listener, on one day, that will be a powerful statement and will have consequences for his ideal image. It is as ephemeral as life itself. That moment is absolute. Because it only happens once. All the hours of work, study, and doubts vanish in that moment.
That’s what we do again and again: we build scaffolding up around the artwork, until we can remove the scaffolding and leave the art standing.
More on Lex Bohlmeijer:
his radio programme 'Passaggio'
his interviews for 'De Correspondent'