Saturday, September 17, 2011

`What Matters Is the Beauty of the Attempt'

"The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.”

I spent the morning interviewing a postdoctoral research fellow in computational and applied mathematics who also plays violin and viola. That math and music are intimately meshed isn’t news. We’ve known it since Pythagoras. This researcher’s aim is to “optimize” – in the mathematical sense – violin design. He writes algorithms to customize fiddles for individual players, indulging nuances of eccentric taste in a notoriously intransigent instrument.

Among the instruments he owns is an experimental violin with an angular, asymmetrical body painted black and red, built of balsa wood by a boatmaker in Maine. In his small office with the door closed, standing six feet away from my chair, the mathematician played the opening of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. My eyes teared from the unmediated force of his playing. I asked if he knew “Ashokan Farewell,” and he played it, and my eyes teared again.

The poet Donald Justice was a pianist who studied composition as a young man with Carl Ruggles at the University of Miami. Among his last poems was “At the Young Composers' Concert”:

“The melancholy of these young composers
Impresses me. There will be time for joy.

“Meanwhile, one can't help noticing the boy
Who bends down to his violin as if

“To comfort it in its too early grief.
It is his composition, confused and sad,

“Made out of feelings he has not yet had
But only caught somehow the rumor of

“In the old scores--and that has been enough.
Merely mechanical, sure, all artifice--

“But can that matter when it sounds like this?
What matters is the beauty of the attempt,

“The world for him being so far mostly dreamt.
Not that a lot, to tell the truth, has passed,

“Nothing to change our lives or that will last,
And not that we are awed, exactly; still,

“There is something to this beyond mere adult skill.
And if it moves but haltingly down its scales,

“It is the more moving just because it fails;
And is the lovelier because we know

“It has gone beyond itself, as great things go.”

The lines at the top of the post are from Richard II (Act I, Scene 3). The king has halted Mowbray’s challenge of Bolingbroke and banished him. Stung by the arbitrary severity of the king’s pronouncement, Mowbray replies, already knowing words fail him. There’s no human gift I envy more than musical performance. Words are a second-best substitute.

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