His Own Worst Enemy

Mozart is his own worst enemy

A lot to chew on in this post, especially when juxtaposed with Neal Schon’s statement in the “Escape” interview that I can’t stop talking about, where he mentions having written a much more intense and challenging solo for “Who’s Crying Now” and being requested by Perry et al. to ratchet it back.

His response was to purposefully (“I was feeling cocky”) play something that he considered “stupid” and too childish to be impressive. “We love it,” was the unanticipated response.

And it ended up being one of the most beautiful and most quoted guitar cadenzas in the literature.

There is in all arenas of music a big, fat land mine in the territory between “beautiful enough to go down like water” and “hard enough to impress people.” Do you want to appear effortless, or do you want people to appreciate all the hard work you’re doing? Do audiences appreciate just how hard it is to play something like Mozart (or Schon’s final cadenza) and appear to do so effortlessly? Do they understand that certain pieces of music are in fact brutally difficult precisely because any jagged edges are going to show instantly against that icy smoothness? Mozart, as the author of that blog post says, doesn’t afford you any place to hide. Neither did Schon’s solo, funnily enough. He had to get his nose rubbed in it, though.

And in fact … do audiences care in the end? Do musicians make too much of getting it right or bowling people over? Do they value kudos for successfully doing something hard more than kudos for making emotional connections? The feeling among some of the more technically deft musicians is that if they are going to be killing themselves up on that stage, then they want the audience to know exactly how hard they’re working, flying sweat drops and all. This means that music that is brutally difficult but doesn’t read as brutally difficult to an audience when performed correctly doesn’t give them the “food pellet” of recognition that they are after. All of the work, but none of the reward.

But is virtuosity something that should be consciously recognized or something that should be assumed tacitly? Is technique the pinnacle or the foundation? Is it both at different times, for different composers, in different situations, or to different audiences?

And is there a fundamental difference between playing for other musicians, who will notice that shit, and playing for lay people who simply want something moving? Is there a fundamental conflict between being acclaimed by audiences and being acclaimed by critics? Both pop/rock and classical music are stuffed to the gills with examples of composers and musicians who offended the second in pursuit of the first, and vice versa. It’s stuffed with musicians who, in the words of Philadelphia Orchestra trombonist Eric Carlson, “can play a mile a minute, can play 16-note chords … and there’s nothing there.”

Few composers and musicians can make both critics and audiences happy at the same time. Both Mozart and Tchaikovsky have been derided as mental lightweights — and still are! — for nothing worse than satisfying audiences with magnificent music that has more than stood the test of time.

There’s just a lot to chew on here.

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