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Monday, June 19, 2006

Maybe it is "Let's be stupid day" 

I hardly ever do read-and-rip commentaries on other articles, but here I am doing two in one day. Victim the second: Richard Ginelli. He thinks that Vladimir Horowitz' special piano is analgous to Barry Bonds' steroid use.

Apparently I missed the part where piano concerts had become a competitive sport.

Yes, yes, I know about piano competitions. I suppose that, if for no other reasons than space, time, and cost, in most competitions all the performers use the same piano (or pool of pianos). But piano competitions are not the focus of professional (or, more to the point, great) piano performances.

Piano competitions exist almost solely to discern among the many student and amateur pianists to find the few pianists who have a chance of becoming world-class pianists.

But really, I'm missing the point with my little digression. Let me sum up the article for you: Horowitz used his own personal (and "doctored") piano for almost all concerts and recordings during his later years. This is tantamount to Bonds taking steroids, as in each case a great performer used a special enhancement to improve his edge.

I am moved to bloggery by the stupidity of this argument.

Barry Bonds is in a competitive sport which contains meaning only to the extent that it is played among competitors who abide by the rules of the game (which include, among others, "don't take so many roids that your hat size grows noticeably"). Steroid abuse includes a non-trivial risk of really horrendous side effects including liver damage and tiny testes. The key reason steroids are banned is that they are an extraordinary and risky enhancement, and permitting them for those competitors foolish enough to risk the consequences would effectively force clean athletes to take the same risks just to keep up.

Since competitive sports should not have "don't care about long-term liver damage" as a prerequisite for participation, we choose to ban steroids (and lots of other bad stuff) in almost every form of pro sport.

Now how does this compare to concert piano performances? Well, first of all, I think the goal of a great pianist's performance is to extract the most transcendent sound possible from performer and instrument. It's not a competition, though: pianists approach music in a variety of ways, and while one can certainly distinguish technically capable players from most lousy pianists, the question of "best" pianist eludes easy answers.

Not only would it be a bit tedious to debate "Glenn Gould versus Oscar Peterson versus Vladimir Horowitz," I'm not sure it would have a sensible answer: the way that each played the piano was completely different, and unlike sport statistics, there are no practical measures of "best" pianists that sensibly distinguish great pianists from each other. Maybe best-selling, but I am doubtful that many would take that to mean "best." Not even a free-marketeer like me believes in the market's taste.

One might as well ask what the best food is. Consensus exists about where greatness and badness may be found, and yet the question of "best" dissolves into arguments that are emotional and personal at best.

But again, I miss the point, which is this: If Horowitz, as the article suggests, had his piano modified with an especially light action so it suited his style better, does that make him a cheater, or just an astute pianist who used the best piano he could find? Best question of all: what possible knock-on effects would Horowitz' use of a special piano have on the rest of the world's concert pianists?

In other words, the author is just being dumb. I don't even feel like elaborating on the twists and turns musical instrument technology has taken in the last few hundred years, except to say that we now routinely hear Bach's keyboard music on the piano, an instrument existed in an entirely different form than today during his lifetime.

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