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Mere Virtuosity

Variations on a Slippery Idea

ISSUE:  Spring 2018

Mere Virtusoity Playlist by Ben Ratliff


When you are really young a song is often practical or compulsory. It has a function. It tempers loneliness when you sing it to yourself; or it breathes a different life into a schoolyard game or a movie; or it’s sung at gatherings, as a hymn or anthem; or it’s what you play on an instrument, for obligatory reasons that might be obscure to you, every Thursday at 4:30 with a teacher, sitting on gray metal folding chairs in a basement classroom.

And then one day you happen to hear something special, and you feel an integrated response in spaces of your body that you do not have names for. You may find it hard to believe that someone made music so fluid and purposeful, in which fast melodic steps, or changes of atmosphere through tone, come down like law. The musicians are not only better than you, if you happen to be someone who plays, but so much better than they need to be, and they are bringing back evidence from an atmosphere you cannot access. Sometimes they are doing it nonchalantly, or as if an outside force is guiding them. They can do this from their instincts and learning—in technique or show business—but at best, it probably comes from their understanding that virtuosity is a means to an end. There is something beyond virtuosity, which is difficult to understand at an early age. And what that something is may be a question worth keeping open.

To some extent the listener recognizing virtuosity is made naïve, at least for a moment. To respond to music performed at such a high level is to temporarily leave the Earth; it is to take part in a kind of fantasy. It might be a fantasy in which everyone in the world is musically virtuosic. Or it might be a fantasy in which there is no such thing as virtuosity because there is no such thing as a musician—because a musician is just another person, and all our movements, all our thoughts, all our speech comes out in this fantasy as uncannily graceful and purposeful art.

In any case, I wonder whether the first virtuosic performance we really notice might be the most satisfying one we hear in our lives. It might be “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey, or “Come On” by Jimi Hendrix, or Aaron Rosand playing Camille Saint-Saëns’s third violin concerto, or John Coltrane playing “Giant Steps,” or Andre 3000 rapping in OutKast’s “Return of the ‘G’.” You are hearing, most certainly, Merriam-Webster’s definition of virtuosity: “great technical skill (as in the practice of a fine art).” It can make something shift internally within you. It can reset your coordinates. If it serves as encouragement, it is not the kind of encouragement which signals to you immediately that you can do the same thing. It is something loftier than that, and what you do about it says much about who you are.

What do you do about it? Do you worship it? Reject it? Negotiate another kind of response? Can you convert it to something you can use? Where should you put it?

I wrote a little bit about this subject in a book, and a few years later I find that I haven’t yet finished thinking about it, because certain performances and certain songs continue to suggest the idea of virtuosity for me. 

“Siempre Estoy Llorando” is one example, sung by La Niña de la Puebla, born Dolores Jiménez Alcántara, and accompanied in a recording from the 1930s by the guitarist Agustín Castellón Campos, better known as Sabicas. Niña de la Puebla, who was blind, and a touring star by her midtwenties, admired the unremitting intensity of the cante jondo form of flamenco singing—even if her own voice, thin and fine and capable of flickering microtonal precision, wasn’t quite suited to it. In this recording, she does something distinct: She makes it possible for us to register all the articulation as it is happening through technical precision—a quality I associate with virtuosity. She’s an achieved singer; this is an achieved performance, hitting its marks. Her voice moves through a relationship with the guitar, the two musicians saying “olé!” to each other, and to the atmosphere they are creating together.

Years later, Sabicas was asked whether a non-Spaniard can hope to play flamenco well, to which he gave a very all-or-nothing flamenco answer. “Of course,” he said. “But flamenco is one hundred percent atmosphere. And if you are alone without the atmosphere, you won’t get anywhere. You must mix every day with people who sing, dance, or play.… If you don’t do that you’ll have a lot of technique but you won’t know how to use it.”

“A lot of technique” is an interpretive translation of what Sabicas really said. He really said “muchos dedos”—a lot of fingers. 

A different singer, La Niña de los Peines, born Pastora Pavón Cruz, is considered in some quarters the greatest female flamenco singer that ever lived. When I hear her 1946 recording of “El Corazón de Pena Tengo Traspasao,” I hear more range and mass and blur. Her voice is bigger and broader and rougher—often on the verge of a shout, or in one. Accompanied by the guitarist Melchor de Marchena (born Melchor Jiménez Torres), she is singing about “piercing the heart of grief.” She alters the shape of her mouth to liquefy a phrase and calibrate its timbre. She throws herself into a trebly rip and then recedes into the tonic, shaking the note, managing the opposite of overstatement: She makes the note small and ominous. (García Lorca, in his famous essay on the death-haunted, all-or-nothing mindset in art and life known as duende, praised her for being able to “kill all the scaffolding of the song,” and suggested that she sang “not forms but the marrow of forms.”)

I wonder why, with Niña de los Peines, the idea of virtuosity never comes to my mind as a marker. With her I am not thinking about the vocal equivalent of muchos dedos. You could call this performance “achieved” too: Unmistakably, she has technique and purpose and strength. But in doing so you might notice that the word “achieved” suggests something prepared, an achievement that has already been made before the tape started rolling, a reenactment. This performance may well be a reenactment of something, but I don’t know what it is and I don’t know where she is. I understand it to have more to do with the inside of the song than the scaffolding. For a long time, when jazz people have described a performance beyond simple understanding, they evoke the void: They used to say it was “gone,” and they still say it’s “out.” That’s what’s going on here. She’s in the heart of grief. She’s gone. She’s out. Perhaps you are, too, as you listen to her.

It is transformative to encounter musicians being great, within the range of what “great” means to you. And it is moving to notice them even try to be great. I don’t have anything against muchos dedos—technical or techno-spiritual excellence in music. I love it, and I’ve learned how to respond to it: I think olé and then move quickly past the achievement in search of a door further down within a sound, which, when opened, tells me who they are and what they’re trying to do. 

Regarding “virtuosity,” I sense that this movable and slippery word has grown more so through the evaluation of music, particularly in the European classical tradition, rather than through actually playing it—in other words, virtuosity is more a beholder’s value, rather than a musician’s. Of course, not every beholder thinks the same way. So I can’t imagine writing about this word without asking other people, musicians and writers and friends, what they think of when they encounter it. 

Teju Cole (writer): When I watch master classes, what strikes me is that the master in question takes the matter of technical ability for granted. Of course you can hit all the notes, else why would you even be in a master class? And more often than not, what the master then teaches is where to place the accents, how to vary within repetitions, how to create little narratives. True virtuosity lies in an accumulation of those little touches. And, of course, the superlative virtuosos are all interpretation, and they drop lots of notes along the way. I think of Horowitz, Rubinstein, even Richter. But perhaps few artists have shown how far interpretation can surpass technique as well as Thelonious Monk has.

Kwami Coleman (musician, musicologist): I’ve come to understand virtuosity as a musician exercising a certain “virtue” in how they work out and execute their music. The most obvious example is John Coltrane’s reputation for his disciplined, compulsive, and prodigious practice habits—a dedication to self-mastery in the service of creating a music poetry with deeply spiritual undertones.

Leron Thomas (musician): To call Coltrane a virtuoso would be to reduce him.

“Virtuosity is about shifting borders,” Dana Gooley writes in his great book The Virtuoso Liszt. “The musician, the athlete, and the magician are potentially virtuosos as soon as they cross a limit—the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine. Once this act of transgression is complete, the border shifts, and the boundaries of the possible are redrawn. If the performer does not cross a new, more challenging one, he will no longer be perceived as a virtuoso.”

But at a certain point, the listener matures and decides that many virtuosos are alike. Or, to be more precise, it’s not the musicians themselves who are alike, but the borders they represent. Because in a certain way, Franz Liszt playing an unaccompanied recital in 1840 was Jerry Lee Lewis in front of a pickup band in 1964, who was James P. Johnson playing solo piano in a basement casino in Harlem in 1913.

Liszt and Lewis both had long, romanticist hair. Liszt and Johnson both deployed powerful rituals of stagecraft just before sitting down to play: Liszt threw his gloves and handkerchief on the floor; Johnson shook out a silk handkerchief and dusted off the piano stool with it. All three played piano in a way sometimes called “orchestral,” with glissando and double glissando and almost frighteningly dynamic shifts, projecting a kind of domination over their instruments. Johnson said that he used to perform Lizst’s “Paraphrase de Concert sur Rigoletto” as an introduction to a stomp. Hans Christian Andersen, having seen Liszt perform in Weimar, wrote this about him: “He seemed to me a demon who was nailed fast to the instrument whence the tones were streaming forth.” Lewis told his first record producer that he thought that the devil was inside him.

Illustration by Mathieu Bourel

All of them pumped their forearms at the piano, as opposed to keeping their hands low by the keys. It has been suggested that Liszt raised up off the bench while playing his famously fast concert-closer “Galop Chromatique”; Lewis ritually did the same thing and kicked his stool away. I doubt that Lewis is a virtuoso in terms of harmonic fluency or range of expression—he is no James P. Johnson—but he is fluid and purposeful and in control of his own musical language, and to see him play his music is to feel implicated by it. 

You can hear a performance and think “virtuoso,” but seeing it as well might contribute more to the uncanny, high-end nobility of the idea, the “virtue” inside the word. I encountered Lewis past his prime. I know Johnson through his recordings. I can only imagine Liszt’s presence and sound through accounts from the time, many of which are overheated. In any case, it’s easy for me to suppose that what makes a group of musicians remarkable is also what makes them similar. But I have also seen Prince, and he really did the thing that Gooley talks about. He didn’t just represent the borders of the possible; he could seem to redraw them, purple-crayon style, as you watched.

I remember seeing him in Madison Square Garden about twenty years ago, and being under the childlike impression that he could control lights directly through motions with his hands. He probably was doing that, indirectly, through cueing, and if that was all he was doing, I might not have been quite so impressed, but he was also playing a highly articulated guitar solo and, I think, spinning in place. He did this with fantastic attention to gestural detail: In my memory, his actions were not unlike those of a South Korean pansori singer, whose excellence would be judged on how well she embodied a narrative.

More than that, he merged with his actions and materials: He was the guitar, he was the spin, and he was the lights. And he also seemed to point toward something else, some value of human endeavor greater than him and his song. He was marrow and scaffold and also whatever allows there to be marrows and scaffolds anywhere, in the past and now and forever.

So here is another aspect of virtuosity: doing and being more than one thing very well at once.

Johnson used to perform a piece called “Imitators’ Rag,” whose final strain had “Dixie” in the right hand and “The Star Spangled Banner” in the left. And so on. This kind of virtuosity is not about returns, but about generosity: The musician adds an extra level to their work just to do it, just for the feeling, or to specify the exact crossing of discipline and love.

And this is the right time to say that parents, for many of us, are our first virtuosos. With intent, they pick you up with a left arm, feed you with a right, and walk with you, sometimes while talking to someone else. They are Prince: They know they can do this any day of the week. You are in awe of this for some years, and then someone with a guitar or a microphone surpasses them, and as far as you are concerned the border has shifted.

Reading sentences with the word “virtuosic” in them has been part of my life for about twenty-five years, as long as I have been a music critic. It sometimes comes from other writers; it often comes from people who have a professional stake in putting an idea in your head, particularly publicists. “Virtuosic” represents, or purports to represent, a language of rare aestheticism. The person putting an idea in your head may or may not know that the rise of the word, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the time of Liszt and Paganini and Schumann, coincided with the rise of the critic and the rise of the touring superstar solo recitalist. But never mind that—whoever uses the word “virtuosity” to a music critic knows that it is a word with muscles. That person is strutting, just a bit. And so a music critic’s response to it, in whatever direction, is Pavlovian, or at least irrational. Attraction or repulsion. I’ll be into it or I’ll be skeptical of it (most likely, I’ll be skeptical). Because virtuosity in and of itself, without the instinct that precedes it or the grace that may follow, means shutting down doubt. It is the projection of a system of power, particularly well suited to certain kinds of music—mostly those with their own academies and preservationists. I don’t want to be part of that system of power, and so it becomes my job to question it.

Geeta Dayal (writer): To me the word “virtuosity” is biased towards melody—whether you think of a virtuoso pianist, or a particularly ripping guitar solo. And while there are certainly drummers who are considered virtuosos, the concept of virtuosity is biased against rhythm and timbre. The big innovation in the 20th century for me is timbre—the invention of new timbres and textures. Timbre is threatening to the establishment, in some way, because it’s not easily quantifiable, nor is it easily notated.

From my perspective, here’s what the situation looks like: The publicist, in general, is paid to consider using the word as a term of praise; the critic, in general, is paid to consider using the word as a term of disapproval; and the musician is esteemed, if not necessarily paid, for being only guardedly interested in the concept, for not wanting to show it overmuch, or wanting to get free of it. The three of us are not thinking about this word with a shared frame of reference.

In her book Anthropology of the Performing Arts, the scholar Anya Peterson Royce quotes Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has often been called a virtuoso: “One part of me is dancing, the other observing from the side. This control protects you from an overdone, vulgar presentation. You constantly keep yourself under fire, as it were; you watch, with an ironic eye, as if saying, ‘well, well, so you can do it, but don’t show it too much.’” 

In other words, perhaps some kinds of virtuosity wouldn’t have much power if they weren’t right on the edge of being vulgar, or thoughtless, or rough.

Virtuosity, the word, is too easily used as a cudgel or a boast or a threat or an insult or a form of ogling. It puts its thumb on the scale. There is something about the conversation-stopping charge around the word which implies that it is the last refinement, even though most sensible people agree that it is not. If it means anything, as I’ve already suggested, it’s a means to an end. What is the end? Profound communication, or some kind of absolute freedom, or the discovery of a power in music that goes beyond notes and musicians and even audiences. It has been described in different ways. Murray Perahia gives the same advice to younger pianists that Vladimir Horowitz gave to him: To become more than a virtuoso, first you have to become a virtuoso. But what is it to be more than a virtuoso?

Kim Kashkashian (musician): If you think of a composer or a composition as being an empty building with nothing in it, the interpreter’s function  is to inhabit that building—with warmth, with love, and with material objects of one sort or another. We have the job of inhabiting an empty, pure structure. The music of  Bach is  architecture of the highest level. It is in perfect balance and there’s not one single line out of place. But it still needs to be inhabited and made visceral. To fill these perfect shapes with the sound of your own unique voice and yet not disturb the pure architecture: that is virtuosity! 

Here is the strange bind of virtuosity: When the word is beheld coldly, without attachment to someone in particular, it generally refers to technical or mechanical skill. Virtuosity, by that measure, can be taught or manufactured. There are many musicians with great technical skill, and maybe this has led to the devaluation of the word and of the idea. But surely part of the reason the word persists is because of highly unusual cases like Prince, or like Liszt.

Marianna Ritchey (musicologist): Liszt was able to cultivate a hybrid persona, as both a crowd-pleasing performing virtuoso and a composer and champion of difficult, serious, super-heavy music. The conventional take on how he was able to do this is that he married high-falutin’ Romantic musico-philosophical ideas about authenticity, inwardness, spirituality, and Ideal forms with the display of technical virtuosity, which up until that point had always been positioned as the opposite of those values. In this period—the time of “art religion”—audiences and critics were really into seeing artists turn inward, forgetting the presence of the audience and just jamming out, communing with their Art, as though playing music were allowing them privileged access to Hoffmann’s spirit realm of the infinite! Jimmy Page again—this thing where you’re so wrapped up in the amazing music you’re expressing that you don’t even look at the audience, you’re deep within your own self, expressing yourself so purely and authentically. Liszt is kind of the fountainhead of this idea. When people say he was the “first rock star,” they do mean that women swooned and that he was a hot sex icon; but it’s also in this “art rock” sense of being a great genius so swept away by the power of music that he left himself, society, the concert hall, and communed with the spirits.

In musicians, virtuosity usually implies great charismatic fluency and dexterity; sometimes great memory and problem-solving skill, perhaps near the limits of human ability. Virtuosity is virtuous when it is understood as disciplined and rare; it is corrupting when understood as ingratiating, or a matter of disguising a lack of profound thought. Certainly, the word does not imply anything about artistic taste, whatever that is.

In a funny and almost nonsensical way, the idea of virtuosity in any arena implies tradition and singularity at the same time. Virtuosity, the word and idea, is perhaps best understood not as a neutral certificate or an objective virtue, but as a set of specific, historical practices and values, whether in Europe or India or South Korea or North America, involving teachers and gurus, performance expectations, systems of media, specific strata of class, race, culture, and age, and specific marketplaces. It tells you everything about the culture of the music and little about the music itself.

Jason Moran (musician): Generally I think about Thelonious Monk when I think about virtuosity. In that people said he was not virtuosic. And by people I mean idiot assholes that don’t know shit. Monk defines it for me because he does what he needs to make the phrase shine bright. From the arpeggio down the entire piano landing with a low boom, like a stunt man knowing how to fall.

I can’t shake the thought that one can be not “good” at one’s instrument in some traditional way, or simply not want to bother with appearing to be “good,” and still be virtuosic. Rather, what that virtuoso might possess is confidence, grace, a knowledge of their own musical language, and an ambition that just slightly outpaces their physical ability. They might be asserting dominance over their instrument, but they are still chasing something—mostly themselves. I saw Arto Lindsay do this last fall. He sang, lightly, and played electric guitar using mostly rhythm and timbre, without forming a single conventional chord or playing a stand-alone melody, and he did this while interacting with Gustavo di Dalva, a Brazilian percussionist with more traditional skills. He had set up speakers and amplifiers on the floor throughout the room so that a single rhythmic strike on the guitar could ricochet in various patterns through the audience. It was somewhat confrontational. At the end of it he said something I will never forget: “Thank you. I hope we raised some doubt.”

For me, the word virtuosity works best in writing when its meaning and function can be restricted; or laboriously defended, so that nobody takes its power for granted; or put in a strange context; or made to modify an intangible or negative thought. I have found the word most effective  when praising musicians for not being virtuosic. Ralph Ellison described his fictional character Rinehart, in Invisible Man, as “an American virtuoso of identity.” That’s good. Kit Lambert, one of the early managers of the Who, once called Eric Clapton “a virtuoso of tedium.” That’s great. A German music critic in 1844, quoted in Žarko Cveji´c’s The Virtuoso as Subject, tellingly praised Franz Liszt as “more than a mere virtuoso.” 

Iggy Pop (musician): The first words that come to mind are boring, clueless, noodler. These words are in response to an imaginary musician (one we’ve all heard before) who has done a lot of practice, but not a lot of thinking, or feeling or living. However, I suspect that in the classical tradition, in which the true virtuoso interprets the composer’s work, the physical skills at his or her disposal may indeed free him or her to approach a great performance, which nevertheless must come from within. And it must come with awareness of the most vulgar circumstances.

Some virtuosos, the boring ones, seem to have a fixed outcome in mind. Perhaps that means drawing a border. It might be at a very high level, and it might be fighting against exterior performance issues more vulgar than anything the musician is playing, but it is fixed. 

And then there is, say, Sarah Vaughan singing “Lullaby of Birdland.” The typical and limited ways one might evaluate other great singers—that they operate best within certain particular ranges, that they are in charge of certain particular effects—seem not to apply to her. To me, every single sound she makes is equally purposeful, strong, stylish, disciplined, articulated. This performance, too, is achieved. But while achievement can be evaluated, Vaughan makes you consider what she’s doing in a way that must be categorically different from evaluation, because she is conjuring levels of achievement that probably never would have occurred to you. That is more than mere. There should be a word for that. I’m not sure that “virtuosity” is the right one.

Arto Lindsay (musician): If I consider it as it’s usually conceived, I think about controlling many aspects of a performance at the same time. I think about technique close to an edge where it will lose control of itself, where technique is honed past being an issue, where virtue gives way to grace. Or I think about establishing a virtuosity of indeterminate skills, scales of diminishing self control, places we can go when we are absent from ourselves. Or just admit that when I think about virtuosity I think of getting over it, getting past it.

Virtuosity is sometimes understood as a definable quality with an end point. If there were an end point in music, Liszt and Prince and a large but finite list of others might be enough.  They might have closed the case. But evidently they have not been enough. There is a stage beyond acceptance and rejection of an idea, and I don’t mean indifference.  I mean something like what Lindsay referred to:  wondering about the idea, testing it, maybe even worrying about it, all in order to get past it. 

And now I, too, in my own way, am getting past virtuosity. I’m gone. I’m out!  


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Staci Braun's picture
Staci Braun · 5 years ago

This is an incredible article on so many levels.  I'm way grateful for you sharing your profoundly insightful journeying, your deep dive into the realm of the beyond which we can share (if we're lucky) with music.


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