Final steps to ridiculous.

Bobby Fischer

I would like to begin by offering a quick apology to you, my readers for having been absent as of late.  I won’t go into details except to say that I have been thrust into a bit of a violent tectonic shift in life and locale.  In some ways it seemed easier to follow in the steps of chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer and disappear, as he did in 1972.  I probably won’t get arrested for suspicion of robbing a bank anytime soon though, as he did in 1981…  But I know all of you know – sometimes its easier to be Houdini and escape.  One must return, someday.


So the other day I was trying to decide what type of bowed pitched percussion I wanted to add to a composition I am writing.  I had it narrowed to vibraphone or glockenspiel.  I decided to scour a bit to see if there were sound samples to help me decide.  There were, but in usual fashion, the sidebar videos suck you into a never-ending fog of videos.  Its a huge trap, like the mini-doughnut vendor at any fair.  One must stay far away or you are helpless.

Well, I ended up clicking on a video called Vibraphone Madnesssss.  This is what I witnessed:

Enter Raphael Meinhart. Age 23.

Ok. Obviously lots to say about this performance, but I already know what you are thinking….and it isn’t about the piece, the performance, his technique, etc.  Let me guess.  “Sunglasses?  Really?  Why?”  Well, I read down the comments of the video and found the answer from davidsantosmail.  He says “He put on the sunglasses because his eyes cant stand that level of awesome.”  There you have it.  Who really knows why he is wearing sunglasses?  Maybe it was bright in Berlin that day.  Lets hope.

Getting beyond that, I was blown away.  Sometimes when you see someone really, truly talented it stuns you.  In many ways I was indeed stunned and impressed.  I have to admit that I thought “This kid must be considered a top mallet player in the world right now…or one of them, right?”  A colleague of mine walked into my office while I was watching it a second time, and had the same initial reaction.  This was genius in action – a curious mix of talent and time, paying off in something amazing.

So I had to dig in.  I read some of the comments and found out what piece this was.  It is a transcription of the choro “Chega De Saudade” composed by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim.  A while later, something interesting happened.  I clicked on another video with the same title, played by a different player.  As I watched and the seconds ticked by, everything changed in my mind.  I was witnessing a different kind of genius, or a different level.  It was ridiculous.  (Watch it all.  You won’t see better than this….ever probably.  And remember, this is live.)

Enter Gary Burton.  (Age 23)

Lets notice something right off the bat.  I bet you laughed at the tasseled cowboy jacket and the Friedrich Neizche stash, then you forgot them and went “Holy….”  This live performance is like watching Wilt Chamberlain score 100 points in 1962.  So sit back, watch it again and admit to yourself you wish you had that jacket.  The accuracy is astonishing, and subtlety is so obvious it becomes not subtle (if that is possible).

On a serious note though, I think this is a very tangible lesson in what I will now refer to as the final steps to ridiculous.  I say ridiculous, because…. well, it is.  In this context, what does it mean to be ridiculous?  I think it is the meridian of genius where an extremely few travel.  Lets look to these two wonderful performers for my example.  I think we can all admit that Mr. Meinhart is a genius.  He is a player that is playing like probably only a handful in the world could match.  But after watching Mr. Burton, one can now see the shadow the ridiculous casts upon the genius.  Mr. Meinharts playing suddenly comes into light, the subtleties not as present, with some inaccuracy here and there, and also something we must not diminish:  his air of pretense (whether he is or not) from the sunglasses to the look he gives after the final note.  The ridiculous player (Mr. Burton in my example) doesn’t need any of this.  Don’t get me wrong, there could potentially be showmanship with the ridiculous performer, but it takes a back seat to what is really important, the art.

Sharon, a friend of mine who is an incredible viola player, recently returned from a chamber orchestra gig with YoYo Ma.  She of course considered it amazing to play with someone that talented.  But what she could not stop talking about was his humility and servant-hood, not only with the music he was playing, but with his fellow performers and every single audience member.  He gave, and he didn’t need sunglasses to block the brilliance of his awesomeness.

I think the final step to ridiculous is a letting go of something.  This only becomes evident when one begins to understand what really matters.  I remember having conversations with colleagues about who is the best choir in the world.  Who can say really answer that question with full confidence?  How does one separate the top 1%?  I wonder if there is a way and markers that we can look to?  The final steps to ridiculous are probably the hardest of all, because they have nothing to do with working harder or longer than the genius.

I think the ridiculous player understands that he is a genius and then makes the conscious decision that in the end it doesn’t matter that he is.