by Drew Martin
I saw an interesting documentary today by Ethan Hawke about Seymour Bernstein, the American pianist, composer, and music teacher who turned away from public performances at the age of 50 in order to enjoy a calmer life.
Most of the film is a direct conversation between him and one of several friends and students.
At the age of 15 Bernstein said he was aware that when his practicing went well, everything in his life seemed to be harmonized by that. And when it did not go well, he was out of sorts with people. From this he concluded that...
"The real essence of who we are resides in our talent."
Many times his close-up, placid face dominates the frame and he speaks so directly to the camera that you lock eyes with him. His musings border a line between artistic philosophy and guru self-help advice.
"Motivated by a love of music and possessed by a clear understanding of the reasons for practicing you can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment."
When asked by an off-camera Hawke about extremely talented yet extremely horrible people and whether there is a connection between the monsters and the gift, he responds:
"The contrast between the unbelievable attainment of art, and the unpredictability of the social world is so great that it makes them neurotic."
Bernstein relishes and thrives in his solitude. He has lived by himself in a one-bedroom apartment for nearly 60 years. He expresses trepidation of social interaction outside his music world and explains that even when someone is really close to you, one comment may dissolve a friendship. He takes comfort in the "predictability" of music.
"When Beethoven put a B-flat down, that's there forever. Because of the predictability of music, when we work at it, we have a sense of order, harmony, predictability and something we can control."
He says that and then switches gears...
"Your initial response to music occurs without intellectual analysis. Gifted children, for example, often project deep musical feeling without being aware of musical structure or historical facts. It is this kind of innocence from which adults can learn. Therefore in practicing avoid excess of analysis and allow the music to reveal its own beauty. A beauty that is answered by something deep within you."
Hawke asks Bernstein how he felt when his father used to say he had three daughters and a pianist. Not only does he respond negatively but then he explains about a "transparent dome" he protects himself with that ravens whirl around, and says that his father was one of the ravens pecking at the glass. This patriarch is one of many people he explains that hope for your failure. But Bernstein was world-class and got rave reviews. He even performed on a grand piano for his fellow soldiers during the Korean War. These personal stories play nicely into his comment that "the struggle is what makes the art form" and his expressing that the dissonance, harmony and resolution of life is captured in music and that it is the dissonance that gives meaning to the resolution.
The ideal of music as a universal language because it is a language of feeling, also becomes his religion. He talks about the ecstasy and transcendence of music and that while religion requires faith, music is present in its language. His theology is of a god within us, which he calls a "spiritual reservoir."
The film is full of his great musings and conversations of craft versus talent, the effect of nervousness (that more people should be a lot more nervous and that many artists are not nervous enough), the importance of composing to be closer to the creative process, and how learning to listen to yourself play will allow your to better listen to other people, which he complements with a comment...
"The greatest compliment your can give people is to tell them the truth."
The film ends with a wondrous Bernstein saying...
"I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky."