The lonliness of the long distance pianist

They seem superhuman to us. And it isn't only on account of stage lights, ovations, astronomical fees, fawning groupies. Nor of the technique -- so obviously superhuman. The root of their near-divinity lies deeper: there is something about their interpretations -- Gould's Well Tempered Klavier, Archerich's Prokofiev's Toccata, Pogorelich's Scarlatii -- something unique, solitary, apart, something unmatched in its perfection, its widsom. Yes, wisdom: it is as if no one else had ever understood these works until they came along and showed the way.

But look closer: Gould was not merely an eccentric, he was a medications junkie; Ivo is fragile; Argerich went through at least one well publicized crisis. All are "intensely private", refuse to give interviews, are brief and superficial when they do.

The world's greatest pianists are not normal and this should be obvious: us chickens ("neurotypicals" kindly say neurologists) are not content to take on a profession which requires six or eight or ten hours of solitary finger practice a day, day in day out, for years. But they are. It is one of the defining features of autism: the ability to focus on and find contentment in ceaseless repetition of manual tasks. The clearest evidence comes at the end of the Richter documentary: ya syebya nye lyublyu are his last words in it: I do not like myself. One plays the piano -- a challenging, flow-inducing technical task -- so as to forget himself.

Which is why so commonly they suffer from stage-fright (so beautifully painted in Thirty Two Short Films): one does not like himself because one does not like people (and is alas one of them); but there are five thousand of them in the concert hall. Richter liked to play in a darkened concert hall: he could pretend to himself they weren't there.

Often they suffer an artistic crisis in early adulthood, right after their greatest triumphs: they win the Chopin competition, complete the first world tournee, make that celebrated debut recording, a huge bank account; best of all, they can hear themselves play and know they have arrived. Thus, they have scaled the peaks, attained perfection, won: what is there to do now? (Gould turned to making radio programs). And then there is the money: if they are in the West, they are immensely rich by the time they are twenty two. What motivation is there to keep going?

But evetually they do. Playing is the only way they know to forget onself -- and others.

Nor is this true about great pianists alone. Great lacquerers -- a medicine box the size of a large matchbox may well require three months of work -- 30 layers of immaculately laid lacquer paint are like that, too, taking great pleasure in the task which consumes their whole day without the need to talk to anyone.

Great weavers, too.

In a way, the root cause of their greatness is their greatest failure -- their failure to be normal, like the rest of us. Normal like Pat Sabatini, the overweight, always blissfully smiling chef of a small place in Little Italy, smacking his lips while he cooks things up for his customers, the people he loves, "his family". Tutto bene? How about that Pastore Tedesco, eh, "violent religion"? And have you tried the new bowling alley yet? Oh, but you must be starving, what can I make you today?

Whatever, Pat, whaterver you have; it's always very good, you know it.

For sheer happiness, Pat Sabatini is the real winner of the game.


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