Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Child Prodigies, the Arts Industry, and The Devil’s Violinist

So, as I’ve said, I’m going to watch “The Devil’s Violinist,” the movie, starring David Garrett and live-tweet it. Just to be fair, I am not the normal, typical movie-watcher, and I feel like I need to come clean before I do. I’m going to have to brag a little, but I need to present my bone fides. I find it obnoxious when partially trained reviewers go to ludicrous snark without understanding the art involved.

First of all, I’ve read reviews. Most of them are less than complimentary about several aspects of the movie. First of all, many people have mentioned that the writing is less than stellar, to be polite. Bernard Rose is listed as both the director and the writer. I loved “Immortal Beloved,” but his more recent films have devolved, which worries me.

So why do I get to judge, you ask? What skills do I have that mean I get to review this film?

Okay, I’m a pretty good writer. I hold an MFA from Iowa, which is the Juilliard for writers. The metaphor is apt for several reasons. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop tends to attract the people who are already the very best writers of the generation because The Workshop has the best reputation (self-fulfilling prophecy) and the best financial aid. Why would anyone go to USC and end up $100,000 in debt when they could go to the better-ranked Iowa (#1 according to all the grad school rankings) and emerge with no debt? Most people who went to Iowa who become major talents are compelled or convinced to come back and give seminars or teach, so the faculty and visiting faculty are stellar. Also, it’s the literary program, the classical music of writing, as opposed to Columbia University, which is more like the Berklee School of Music. Twenty-three of the twenty-five students in my class (including me) have trad-published a novel-length work of literary fiction, and I know why the other two didn’t. There were big reasons, not just oopsie-reasons. I was the Truman Capote Fellow, a very prestigious fellowship. Also, I’ve been on the USA Today bestseller list five times in the past two years. Yeah, I get to judge the writing.

Yes, David Garrett can play the violin, and I’m looking forward to see what he’s going to do with Paganini. The thing is, I also get to judge the acting. Garrett is about fourteen in this photo (right), and he had been playing the violin since he was around four. He’s marvelous. He’s an exceptional violinist.

My fourth set of headshots.
The photo of me (left) is from when I was nine. I started taking acting lessons when I was four and got my first big gig when I was five. I worked for hours every day, long hours every week, on all the triple-threat skills. I was one of those child actors who took classes and private lessons in every spare second to hone my skills. I acted and modeled until I was about sixteen, when I blew out my knee in ballet and, without ballet as the lynchpin, decided to walk away (as best I could) from the performing arts. I don’t want to discuss it much, other than to say that I did enough that I can judge the acting. I’m also not going to get into my rant here about child labor, the manufacture of child prodigies, and the arts, but no one escapes unscathed, or even mostly whole, from that machine.

(Yep. Actor/Model as a kid. Writer as an adult. There was more stuff in between and since. I’ve had an interesting life. When I do something, I do it hard. And I don’t need a lot of sleep.)

Anyway, I have some thoughts about the movie “The Devil’s Violinist” even before I begin.

From what I understand, the running time is 122 minutes, of which over 40 minutes is music.

That’s not a dramatic movie. I don’t think you can quite call it a musical, due to the genre promises that “musical” implies, but it’s more of an opera, closer akin to “Tommy,” “Quadrophenia,” or “The Wall.” It’s about a rock star, the music, and the life. Any time you cast a movie with non-actors for authenticity, it shouldn’t be judged against films that aren’t comparable. It’s a different art form. You have to come into it with different expectations, and you have to establish a different rubric to judge it.

And because I am a hell of a writer and an accomplished actor, I can figure that out.

Soon, I will set up to watch the film and live-tweet, and then we’ll see if this team pulled it off.

David Garrett, Music, and Synesthesia

I love music.

Most music.

I can listen to Eddie Van Halen shred “Eruption” on a loop or listen to Imagine Dragons, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, Queen, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, No Doubt, Rush, The Stones, Nirvana, The Who, Stevie Nicks, U2, Taylor Swift, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Joel, The Decembrists, or most classical music for hours.

And I listen to a lot of classical music. When I write, I prefer to listen to orchestral classical music or opera in Italian so that those words don’t get in the way of my words. I love everything about classical music.

Except for the frickin’ violins.

But I’m a little odd. When I’m listening to music and close my eyes, I see colors and shapes, and the music shifts around in front of me in a way that is not related to the mixing for the speakers. I have synesthesia, which means that I am “a synesthete.” It means that my sensory neurons interact with each other in nontypical ways.

To be clear, I’m not autistic. I can read facial expressions and body language and get inside other people’s heads to the point where it’s creepy. I’ll make eye contact until you look away. It’s some of my other neurons that are crossed. It’s just an unusual way to experience the world. It’s not so much a sensory disability as a sensory bonus prize.

I also hear music when I read, as the words have rhythm and specific words have tones, and yes, I use it in my writing. I have to be careful not to go too far into it because it can become incomprehensible to other people, but either it has seeped into the language enough or that enough people have a low level of synesthesia that just about everyone understands bright treble musical notes and dark, mournful low tones. I gave synesthesia to one character (Alexandre) so I could let it out and play with it. I reread Nabokov ravenously.
"Hallelujah" by Melissa McCracken
A fantastic artist and synesthete, Melissa McCracken, paints what she sees, and she does a remarkable job of transforming a four-dimensional experience (three dimensions plus time) into a two-dimensional canvas. It’s the best representation of what it’s like to have synesthesia that I’ve seen. I don’t see exactly the same things, but when I saw this painting of “Hallelujah,” I knew immediately that it must be Leonard Cohen’s song and could not be the chorus from Handel’s Messiah. What I see is generally rounder and smoother, more like billowing fabric that blossoms with colors, less spikey. I see different colors, but we both agree that the white in the foreground here is the most intense.

Classical music is especially friendly to synesthetes. The first time my ballet teacher played proper classical music in class when I was about six (Swan Lake), she could barely get me back to the barre because I was pressing my head against the speaker. Some pop music is so busy with the seven-second rule that it’s like watching a fireworks finale from inside a popcorn popper for three and a half excruciating minutes. I’m a little more tolerant than a lot of synesthetes in delving into pop music to find the underlying elements and listening to those, but it’s still overwhelming sometimes.

"Imagine" (John Lennon)
But not all music or instruments are friendly to synesthetes or to me as a synesthete.

Violins are especially problematic for me. I like classical music, and I listen to a lot of symphonies and piano concertos, but I have rarely listened to violin music, except for certain musicians. Within an orchestra, the violins don’t bother me because the other instruments blend and smooth away the problematic sounds, the buzz of the strings on the lower notes and a shrill screech on the higher notes that are the higher harmonics of the tone. The brass section is particularly important in blending out the painful tones.

I can only listen to three solo violinists: Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, and David Garrett.

That these three violinists play with a similar style isn’t surprising. Itzhak Perlman has confirmed that he’s a synesthete, too, and David Garrett counts Perlman as one of his major influences. For example, J.S. Bach’s “Sarabande,” I can only listen to those three violinists play. Especially for the first few bars, those first low,dissonant tones, listening to any other violinist is like iron-black, silver-edged sawtooth spikes erupting from the ground all around me, and it yanks down on my ears. It feels like someone stripping the nerves out of my lower arms. It hurts. James Ehnes’s technique is supposedly flawless, but I can’t listen to him play. I want to run my fingernails down a chalkboard and chew aluminum foil afterward to get it out of my head. Joshua Bell’s colors are monochromatic and flat, not nuanced, except when they’re shattering and like grating sandpaper on my palms.

And before anyone gets snarky about David Garrett, please don’t. I don’t snark about people, especially other authors and other artists. People are dismissive of him in bizarre and reactionary ways that seem little based in reality. Yes, he’s pretty. Yes, he’s popular. Get over it and listen to how he plays the damn violin. If you’re talking about his hair or his cheekbones, then you’re falling into the same hype trap that you’re pretending to disdain. Seriously, when I read a review of his music that mentions his hair, I know the reviewer is an idiot. It’s exactly the same thing as a review that gushes about his looks and doesn’t mention his music but with a troll’s evil intent.

There are many reasons why Garrett is outselling other classical musicians, and if you can’t figure out what they are, then you need to sit down, set your preconceptions aside, and listen more deeply. Technique is craft. Craft is the foundation of the arts, but mere technique is just draftsmanship. It’s tracing another person’s painting and coloring by numbers.

Art is communication of what it means to be human, conveys emotion, and causes an emotional change in the viewer/reader/listener. Popularity is a measure of the effectiveness of communication. If no one responds, it isn’t art. If a lot of people respond, it is the very definition of art. Close your eyes and listen to Garrett play Bach’s Sonata No. 2, here. I don’t think I drew a breath for three minutes while I listened to this because I didn’t want the rushing of the air in my head to interfere with hearing it. Listen to that emotion. Expressivity like that is art.

A very smart friend of mine said, “I think a lot of commoners,” she was speaking of herself, bless her heart, “are put off by classical music because they won't be valued as fans because they can't give a technical 'educated' commentary. The genre is set up to make Joe Average feel inferior.”

Garrett doesn’t talk down to his audience like most classical performers do. He gives them something familiar and that is widely understood, like Metallica or Michael Jackson, and then he shows them connections to classical music. That’s brilliant. That’s communication, and that’s art.

All artists work with the tools of craft and the inspiration and ride the blinding lightning bolt of art. Some are better at one than the other. It is easier to explain why artists with better technique are “better,” because technique can be objectively and rather easily explained, and it is what can be taught. It’s why the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (my alma mater, don’t want people to think I’m randomly bashing an MFA program,) concentrates on dissecting and discussing prose at the word- and sentence-level. Technique is easy to discuss.

Art is almost impossible to quantify or to explain. A lot of my friends (after I have ruthlessly converted them to being David Garrett fans, but they became freaky-psychotic fans all on their own,) have said that they don’t know a lot about classical music, but they know how they feel when they listen to Garrett play.

That’s art.