|Bob Thompson Music|
If you want to argue that it takes a huge amount of devotion to craft and the presence of an extraordinary person at an instrument to make great art, you might point people to the documentary Seymour: An Introduction. A classical pianist, Seymour Bernstein was struck by agonizing stage fright. Despite rave reviews, he quit performing and began teaching. In the following decades, he taught his students how to build a bridge between technique and emotion, between the sacred and profane, between the marks on the paper and the sound from the keyboard, and between their breathing rhythm and how they touch the keys.
His realization that a career in music was destructive to his authenticity was the other prompt for his "withdrawal." An artist like Glen Gould, who crossed his legs to get attention, is an object of Seymour’s gentle disdain. He says that he hears the personality more than the music in Gould's playing.
What is lost in the grandeur of performance is gained in a deeper Eros between teacher and student. The most magical moments of Seymour: An Introduction show accomplished students having breakthroughs, as if they were finding "the music in the music" for the first time. In the confines of Seymour's tiny New York apartment, it is as if the "Music of the Spheres"--a term used by the ancients to express celestial harmony--is ringing out.
The "rehearsal versus performance" dynamic represents a parallel chasm. An old musician's joke goes like this: A big band comes off the stage having burned the hell out of the set. “That was great” someone says. The response, “You should have heard the rehearsal!”
Perhaps ironically, Hollywood star Ethan Hawke brought Seymour Bernstein to life on screen. A chance encounter with Seymour frees Hawke from his I'm-famous-yet-unfulfilled dilemma. The documentary crescendos when Hawke convinces Seymour to perform for his theater group. Is Hawke trying to "cure" Seymour of the stage fright that pulled him out of concert halls; or showing that one must be "seen in public" to be artistically complete? I forgive Hawke for his narcissism, because he earnestly tries to touch the Authentic in his art. Most of us can only try--in life as well as in art.
Unlike an actor projecting from a stage, Seymour's voice sounds like music. He puts just the right amount of touch on every syllable; and the phrases come out like a gentle stream of water. He is unaffected and carries a touch of the feminine, which led his father to remark, "I have two daughters and a musician." Seymour explains that the feminine side of music animates the art, recounting that Beethoven's peers cried when they heard his new voice in the Moonlight Sonata.
A Kindred Spirit in Jazz: Lennie Tristano
The Jazz piano player Lennie Tristano also (largely) stopped performing around the same time as Seymour and shares his anti-careerist attitude.
Why did Lennie Tristano stop performing?
Although the music swings, there are all kinds of ideas and odd harmonies bubbling around his be-bop phrases (listen to "Wow," above). Tristano, despite the braininess of his compositions, emphasized the primacy of feeling again in his documentary Manhattan Studio. That complexity and craft serve feeling--and not the other way around--is an ardent belief for both musicians.
Sensing and participating in the artists’ state of mind is part of the pleasure of music. To aspire to the Music of the Spheres, an extraordinary being must be present. Seymour is such a being.
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.