Beethoven/Turner (Overdrive)

There’s nothing like writing procrastination research- attending a free gig by three members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performing three movements by Beethoven, while in between Ronald Vermeulen, Director of Artistic Planning, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and John Payne, Senior Conservator, National Gallery of Victoria, chat enthusiastically about Beethoven and a William Turner painting they sit before but did not obscure.

There was art, there was music, there was me scribbling down everything I could, because that’s what I do.

I may have mentioned this before, but I used to play violin. By play, I mean attempt to learn. I wasn’t accomplished and my family had me practice in the disused shearers’ quarters. My parents may have been secretly relieved when I stopped. But watching this trio (Freya Franzen – violin, Christopher Cartlidge- viola and Racheal Tobin on cello), I was reminded of the physicality of playing. Listening to music on a device makes it too easy to imagine all music as disembodied. But people make it, and making is active. It is full of people moving: present tense. A bit like the painting is a record of movements made, by hand, by brush, by fingers: past tense.

And the rest, is silence.

And the rest, is silence.

This trio’s interpretation of Beethoven’s work tumbled down from doom into playfulness, with the notes chasing each other. First, the sweeter violin led the mellow viola, then the viola was echoed by the violin with the cello as a foundation. They flew through the air, notes crashed and sprang and leaped, like the waves on the rocks of the Turner painting, like the clouds in the Constable landscape, like swallows in spring through the poetically depicted ruinous castle. It was clever and I could hear what Vermeulen was saying about Beethoven following conventional classical musical expectations and then controverting then.

Before he could upend all musical history though, there were rules to be learned, and then broken. So too in art, Turner bothered to make his first rendition of the view accurate, even prosaic, as the x-ray much later revealed, before he changed it. He made the scene of the cliff more monumental, made the sea more wild. It’s like he made a perfect, accurate draft, and messed it up and by messing, made it better, I think. There’s a lot to be said for mess.

It probably wasn’t like that, but if it was, it is like the reverse of note taking. I couldn’t write a cogent essay straight off, as I listened. Instead, I made messy notes and got quotes in my bad hand writing. Then waited to organise my thoughts. But it doesn’t perhaps, have to be that way. Turner and Beethoven didn’t think so.

I need to remember too, to stop. Stop composing when I should be noticing. Stop cleaning when I should be messing. Stop note taking when I should just notice.

I need to stop composing when I should be listening. Stop cleaning when I should be messing. 

What appeals to me is that in music and painting, work must be done to discover the Ur-text – the most accurate and original version of the work. Time and decay, years of interpretation, yellowing vanish, fly marks on manuscript scores, all distort what the artist intended. So, there’s the picture and the picture underneath, or one version of the score, and one interpretation amongst many. I also like that while some of my stories are published, they may not be the definitive version.

Since I love reading into things as a critic, I feel affinity towards the conservator and the musicologist. However, if I misunderstand a text, nothing much is at stake, but with one flaw in their techniques and centuries of history and work is at risk. Messing with an artistic legacy is a big deal.

I need to get back to actively messing around with my stories.

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