When motion kills music

| Staff Columnist

On Saturday night (Feb. 27), Holmes Lounge was fairly crowded and brightly lit by fluorescent lights. People came to see the Jay Oliver Quartet, although strangely, only three musicians were present—pianist and producer Jay Oliver, guitarist William Lenihan (who is also one of our professors) and drummer Miles Vandiver. Overall, I loved their music, especially when the trio started coming together and created some exciting numbers fusing “The Sound of Music” and The Beatles. It was when Jay Oliver played his first three solo pieces that I began to wonder about something entirely irrelevant to the music.

When Jay Oliver played some of his first solo electric piano pieces, one could definitely tell he was in love with his music—his jerking elbow, his guttural sounds (more pronounced since he was suffering from a cold), his swaying head. As I took in his gestures, I couldn’t help but recall when I first saw Lang Lang, a celebrated Chinese pianist, perform in the Kennedy Center. Having heard he was nicknamed “Bang Bang” by several critics, I half-knew what to expect. In reality, it was even more astonishing, and surprisingly hilarious. With his eyes closed, Lang Lang dreamily swayed, posing and making a cue signal in the middle of the performance as if he weren’t a concert pianist that night but rather some kind of a practiced entertainer, for lack of a better word. I was incredulous and amused; others haven’t been too generous with Lang Lang’s antics. Many concert goers have been shocked or even offended by his often-amusing expressions and gestures. After that night’s concert, I was certain of this: Lang Lang sure knows how to put on a show.

The example of Lang Lang reminds me of another memorable occasion. As a high school student, I went to a local piano concerto competition, and among the many competitors, an Asian kid—lanky, wearing glasses, and… you get the picture—was playing a Prokofiev concerto. Although I can’t clearly remember which piece he played, what I do remember is this. In an overly exaggerated manner, he was riding that bench, or maybe put more appropriately, he was leaping from his bench like a leprechaun time and again, vigorously ripping the notes from the keys. I was almost certain that he was going to fall off that bench if he could maybe jump a bit less than an inch higher. Sitting beside me, my mom, dazed and maybe a little confused by his stunts, whispered, “Wow, he must be really good.” Some would say he was playing like a real, possessed musician would. I mean, that’s how Beethoven would’ve played Prokofiev, right? And who doesn’t want to play like Beethoven?

Let me be very clear. I am not dismissing Jay Oliver, Lang Lang or the skinny Asian kid as inept musicians. These people are more mature as musicians than most of us will ever be. And to be fair, these outward gestures and movements are a way of expressing their emotions and channeling their affection toward their music. For all of us listening to good music, it’s perfectly natural to tap our feet to the rhythm or nod our heads in recognition or approval. But too much is for the worse, as it is with anything. Whenever I watch a musician perform with excessive gestures or movements, I imagine one of those buff guys in the gym grunting and proudly dropping weights every time he lifts. For me, excessive motions attract unnecessary attention to the background and thus detract from the music.

Aside from gestures and their effects on performance, my main concern lies somewhere else. Many are impressed by virtuosity and showmanship rather than by nuance and subtlety, just as piano juries are far more impressed by a performance of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” than by a Bach “Prelude and Fugue.” But music—specifically classical music—cannot be reduced just to virtuosity and showmanship, admirable but far from overriding traits. These two traits might draw attention and please the crowd, but they don’t necessarily bring about good or great performances. Music isn’t all about playing thousands of notes as loudly as one can. I’m far more inspired and moved when I’m able to connect with musicians through their attentiveness to even the smallest details and their expressivity enhanced by musical interpretation, not flinging arms and stomping feet.

Eugene is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at ekwon22@wustl.edu.