Thursday, August 23, 2007

Megumi Noda: A for Amateurism

As Chinese parents, it seemed only natural to attempt to force music upon their child. Not the seemingly logical Chinese music that is their heritage, mind you, but Western-European music. This is not a general truth, and I don't mean any offense. But for me and those around me, it's true enough, and we all find it slightly amusing.

I was an odd case, in that I more or less said I wanted to try piano, without quite knowing what I was getting myself and my parents - who had to buy a piano, pay for lessons, and chauffeur me once a week year round - into. Early on, I wound up not liking the instrument very much, and it wasn't because I wanted to play whatever I wanted however I pleased, like one Megumi Noda from Nodame Cantabile. It was precisely because I wanted to play things right, and my parents wouldn't let me.

And so I suffered from a kind of reverse-Nodame complex - a Chiaki complex, then? - which wouldn't actually be a problem if my parents saw things the way most people saw so-called "Classical" music. An example situation is at the very bottom, for those interested. I'm not trying (too hard) to blame anyone. Things got better later on. And then university happened so they never had to hear me again.

:D ?

Nodame Cantabile episode 20: There isn't a single wasted note.
Strictly speaking about music performance, I, like most others, take (or took) a fairly professional approach. In preparation for a performance, you rehearse, and if everything goes the way it's supposed to on performance day, things will sound exactly as they did in rehearsal. Each section, however one chooses to define it, must be played in a certain way. How fine grained (block, phrase, chord, notes) and the style (staccato, semi-detached, legato, cantabile style), is up to the performer or performers or the conductor, but once decided, any deviation is a step away from perfection, a scratch in the otherwise flawless orb.

That's what classical performance boils down to: a shiny object. It is music objectified. Music professionals deliver a product, and they are expected to be pretty consistent about it over the course of a tour or concert run. People pay money to hear what the audience heard the night before, the night before that, and the night before that. That's not to say that performers don't love what they do. It's just that everyone, everyone has their off days, but they are still expected to deliver the same results regardless of their personal situation.

Nodame Cantabile episode 20: Just not her day
This is why Nodame is different, and refreshing to watch while she necessarily infuriates the bookish and/or stuck up characters around her. Despite her sudden change in her work ethic and performance style, she is still very much on the amateur end of the performance spectrum. If she's burnt out, it shows. If she doesn't feel like performing, she will do so only begrudgingly. On the other hand, she can be brilliant when in the right mood. Through it all, her odd and very unprofessional facial expressions indicate exactly what she is feeling.

Professionals leave their personal lives (or maybe just the bad bits) in the car, in the dressing room, or at the door. Nodame takes her baggage wherever she goes, and it both helps and hinders her.

Notice, too, that no one really cares about her per se. She is viewed only in the context of her performance and talent. The real question is not, "Did she sleep well?" or "Did she burn herself out?", it's "Was the performance any good?" There are no mitigating circumstances. The human element is abstracted away, and just as the performance is objectified, so is the performer. Performers are really cogs that produce the finished product.

Nodame doesn't agree with that sentiment, refusing to let conformity be beaten into her. Her amateurism, however, goes beyond her inconsistent performance. Not only is she not necessarily note perfect, she also insists on adding her own embellishments, going so far as to improvise out the rest of her Petrushka performance in the final round of the Maradona competition.

Improvisation is the exception, not the rule. The bulk of Western-European music does not contain soloing sections like jazz. In the subset that does, usually concerto pieces with cadenza sections for the soloist, there is usually little actual improvisation as the cadenza is written down, many times by the composer (as opposed to the performer), and performed as if improvised. Everything is scripted, even the parts that aren't.

What all this comes down to is that Nodame's choice to leave music and go be a teacher is not nearly as crazy or comedic as it first seems. For her, music is not Serious Business, but something she does out of love. She is thus an amateur in the true spirit of the word, i.e. someone who does something out of love, and is not necessarily a n00b. When she falls out of love with music, she stops. If she thinks that a piece is somewhat lacking, she'll add her own details to spruce it up. Music was never a profession, hence her decision to look elsewhere for a real job.

To go to Europe and continue her studies would mean experiencing the inflexible world that she is so at odds with. It would be a titanic struggle, the kind of conflict that sells, no doubt.

* * *

The example: Richter playing Appassionata, third movement [YouTube]. Even at 58 kbps, it's still pretty awesome. If you like Beethoven, that is. If I were to even attempt to play like this (I don't even have the sheet music), I'd be called out for a) playing too damn fast, and b) playing too loud and "angry-like" (I was hitting the piano and damaging it, apparently).

Were it Bach or some Romantic piece, add option c) playing too many incorrect notes in passages with really chromatic harmonies and "strange" intervals. That they sound wrong to uninformed ears doesn't make them so. It would take me a number of years before being able to articulate and define the issue, and yet more to argue why it wasn't an issue in the first place. It's hard to convince people that "it's written that way" when they can't read music in the first place.


Martin said...

Um, firstly, I'm afraid I don't know much about classical beyond 'knowing something good when I hear it'. Richter's rendition seems to convey a sense of desparate-ness or something though. I'm a rock guitarist so all I'm able to conclude is I like it. And I'm not a big Beethoven fan either! :p

As for the whole amateurism thing, I've taken the concept of improvisation as a given - the thing I love about rock is that you don't even need to know musical notation to play from the heart. Some techniques, such as a LOT of distortion and effects (check out My Bloody Valentine's Loveless album sometime) convey a wide spectrum of feelings but don't stick to the conventional way at all.

I wish I'd learned piano like my sisters did, but there's a raw-ness and 'don't play by the rules' attitude to guitar that appealed to me. I know this reply hasn't referenced Nodame Cantabile at all, so I apologise...I just see more sincerity in the rock and roll/jazz/blues approach to music - it just seems more personal somehow. It doesn't feel as constrained as classical does either, which is a shame when there's as much passion and feeling in the likes of Smetana (Ma Vlast is a favourite of mine) and Chopin as there is in Springsteen and Black Sabbath. There's definitely a marked difference between how classical and rock/blues/jazz music is played.

introspect said...

Yeah, I left the Beethoven for last after an edit since it's anecdotal and only added to the initial rambling.

But it's true, classical music is all about having a plan, whereas with jazz, rock, etc. you just get a bunch of people together and jam all afternoon. Both sides of the spectrum can be deeply personal, but the latter is much more spontaneous. It's what Nodame brings to the table with the series.

I've heard MBV's Loveless - it came strongly recommended after I began hunting around for information on Ulrich Schnauss. I felt at the time, though, that shoe gazing is more planned than spontaneous. It may not be true, but I thought that a wall of sound and distortion was something carefully crafted into the song beforehand.