Sunday, March 06, 2011

"Etude, Opus 10 No 1"


— n , pl -sos , -si
1. a consummate master of musical technique and artistry
2. a person who has a masterly or dazzling skill or technique in any field of activity
3. ( modifier ) showing masterly skill or brilliance: a virtuoso performance

It's an important word in music. To be the master or mistress of your instrument to such an extent that you leave your audience dumbfounded, open-mouthed at your skill.

In popular music, for a long time, there's been a subculture within virtuosity (if I can put it that way) which suggests that if you look like you're working hard, then you're not really that great. So for every rock god that screws his eyes shut, pulls faces, adopts the legs-apart stance and wields his axe like it was a broadsword, there's a "proper" muso hunched over his fretboard, poker-faced like Robert Fripp, just getting on with the business of being really, really good.

Ah, some of you might say, but the whole posing, facial expressions and whatnot are just a manifestation of an Artistic Temperament. It's the Artist Getting Into His Work.

And that may be. I mean, Joe Cocker wasn't doing all that... that... *stuff* he did for adulation. I hope.

Case in point (though it is fictional) is the guitar duel at the climax of the otherwise awful film "Crossroads", which starred Ralph Macchio and, in the critical scene, Steve Vai as Jack Butler, the Devil's own lead guitarist:

Jack Butler's all over the place, dancing round the stage, pulling faces, sticking out his tongue, doing the whole cod-Hendrix showmanship schtick. Meanwhile, The Kid (Macchio) just lets it happen, lets his talent do the talking. And when the duel reaches its end-game, The Kid..... pulls out the classical joker. Game over.

And that's where I'm headed here.

For some reason, at some level, the classical repertoire still, to this day, trumps modern music as a test of virtuosity, of the physical mastery of one's instrument. Stretching a point, a guitarist would go as far as flamenco as a true test of ability.

I realise it's not all a matter of how many notes per second one can play, that it's also about tone, colour and the rest, but that's precisely why the classical repertoire is still a standard. Not only does a classical pianist need to be able to play this:

...but they also need to be able to play this:

Nobody gets as excited about a rock guitarist playing a love song as they do about an uptempo number. Compare Eric Clapton playing "Layla" and then "Wonderful Tonight" - which one gets more fanmail?

Having got *all* of that off my chest, the SongWithoutWhich I wanted to blog today is this:

As long as I can remember I have wanted to be able to play this. To me this piece, all two minutes of it, is a glorious, complete whole, a combination of bombast and delicacy. It explores the range of expression you can achieve on the piano, and it represents one hell of a manifesto for anyone who reckons themselves a bit of a keyboardist. Get one note wrong, the whole thing falls apart. You can't hide behind a wall of sound from the rest of the band: it's solo.

It's also properly virtuoso. You can't Autotune your way through this, you can't "hide it in the mix": if you're good enough to play this, then you're good enough.


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