Monday, 25 August 2014

On the Laws of Knock-About Table Tennis

While on Summer Holiday in Normandy, France, staying with some friends, there was a brand new outdoor ping pong table which enabled me to observe the faces of the avid ping pong players as they won and lost points, batting the ping pong ball to and fro, each player vying for number one position.

I myself dared knock about a few balls, but stayed short of playing a match, other than with my own father who is closer to my level in the game.

Yet it dawned on me that knock-abouts are not as uncompetitive as all that. By this I mean that there is an element of reciprocity at work in friendly ping pong ball exchanges and if someone decides to smash the ball - sometimes the temptation is too strong - then the other party will no doubt hesitate much less in smashing the ball when the occasion arises on his half of the table.

The point being that friendly knock-abouts which do not have the burden and competitive angle afforded by score keeping, still have a negotiating edge, that is, ping pong knock-abouts are negotiations for who will or will not smash the ball first and introduce friction in the knock-about rallying and otherwise casual batting exchanges.

Thus war - in this case, a ping pong match - is always close by, as the friendly knocking about, which could be termed diplomatic negotiation by comparison, barely hovers over outright competition - and the winner and loser rationale that comes with score keeping - where only one may come out on top.

A fine line it is then between diplomacy and war, where diplomacy depends on a fragile sense of reciprocity which is liable to be broken the moment one party makes a weak move (in the case of ping pong, a smash-able shot) which invites the other party to humble him and seek overall lordship.

Composing and Interpreting



As a minor piano musician who creates his own pieces and improvisations, the following insight sprang to mind in discussion with my girlfriend over my latest piano recordings. 

Composing for the piano in my case follows an innate, gut instinct but also reflects my own piano style down to the bone, to use a hackneyed yet in this case literal coinage, as well as my technical capacities (as determined by my technical limitations) and my own emotional life at the moment of devising a new piece or improvisation which itself reflects my own progress not only as a musician but also as a human being. 

It dawned on me that my compositions and improvisations follow the movement of my body and my thought pattern and that playing my own work as opposed to interpreting works as laid down by ready-made compositions follows a law of its own, in so far as the memory of my pieces is far deeper implanted in my fingers so to speak than pieces I have learnt over the years. 

The reason for this is not only the fact that I practice my own music to a greater extent than learnt pieces but that there is an immediacy of connection with my own piano work which is no doubt symptomatic of my own bodily physiology as a musician-piano player. 

To look at this phenomenon from another angle, I grew up learning to play Bach's preludes and fugues. Bach shaped my understanding of the instrument but also made exploring the work of other composers rather unfamiliar and difficult, to the extent that, aged sixteen, I took up popular piano lessons so as to be able to play and sing The Beatles, which my classical training made a more difficult exercise than it would seem at first glance, Bach and Beethoven being prima facie more difficult to play and master. 

A study should be made - and no doubt such a study has been made - of how interpreting is also, to a large extent, a matter of physiology and of the physiological compatibility between interpreter and composer. After all there is Beethoven, there is Bach, there is Chopin, there is Debussy... 

Like the works of poets, thinkers and artists, these names reflect a certain sensibility and bodily constitution, a certain spirit, a certain outlook on life or, in Heideggerian terms, a certain understanding of Being (Seinsverstandnis) - which, by the way, is what distinguishes the creative from the scientific arts, in so far as in scientific work the names of the great shakers and movers are of lesser import than in the realm of poetic art-making, of ποιήσις. 

Thus in maths, the theorem is what matters, not so much the name of the mind who established the theorem; in art, it would seem that the creator's name has more import by reason of the greater influence of the creator's physiological constitution and Seinsverstandnis on the created work (ἔργον).

I have a very fast metabolism which reflects I think in my piano creations; to take an example, Nietzsche's piano works are more ponderous, slower, more majestic than mine, perhaps because his metabolism as an individual was slower and used (that is, habituated) to a different climate - namely a Mediterranean one, at least at some stages of his life journey (as opposed to the erratic and dank climate of the British isles where I am based). 

This physiological understanding of composing and interpreting could perhaps help explain why some interpreters have their pet composers, e.g. Gould and Bach, Kempff and Beethoven, Rubinstein and Chopin, Michelangeli and Debussy... Would this be a meeting not just of minds but, since minds themselves are physiologically determined, a meeting of metabolisms, of bodily approaches to the piano as a physical instrument?

It would seem that an interpreter brings his own body and fingers to his playing the work of composers which is no doubt why, in the world of classical music unlike popular music, interpretations of the great works are just as key among connoisseurs as the composed works themselves; for example, I own about five interpretations of Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, all of which are equally valid (though not equally as good) appropriations and incorporations of Bach's 48, each version adding its own dimension and ring tone to the sheet music, so to speak.