‘Wrong Notes’ – the skeleton key to free thinking

by Jack Kohl Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and the forthcoming You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press. 09.06.2017


As a pianist, I have spent a lifetime reading interviews with other pianists. But I would know, above all, what it is precisely that others think about when they play. People often ask me that question. I do not know if I have ever answered fully before giving what follows.

I believe that all great piano pieces and all works of art at last, for the thinking person, recede into their component parts from nature. They are at their best for us when they reach this stage. And thus great works of music and art only become truly valuable when they start to bore us – when they disintegrate figuratively in our mind’s hands like a clipping of overused and sweat-soaked newsprint.

When I perform a masterwork I feel that the piece passes by, but I do not. And yet as it passes I know that all its parts are always still ahead – as if any work is a closed loop, like an oval track: one is always headed for the ground already passed. The sensation I describe may be akin to one walking in the midst of a tame flock of pigeons. The pigeons gather round as one walks and feeds them in a park, yet they maintain a static circumference for safety around oneself at the center. As one walks forward some of the front birds keep their distance by moving forward, some by taking a position behind the walker. Some in the rear make up the ground by staying behind yet continuing to follow, some by moving up to the front. But always the circle is consistent in size. And after a time a walker feels that he does not move although he walks. A sense of universal starting point is felt, though one is moving in an ostensible sequence.

A pianist is in the midst of all of the notes all of the time – in part because he has rehearsed the piece, already knows what is ahead and behind at all times. Could this be in part why a wrong note can continue to preoccupy a pianist even when he does not know why? Because he does not realize the degree to which his latently healthy non-sequential mind is inviting him to hear the work out of order even in performance, to recognize the illusory quality of all sequence in life? Does the superficial pianist respect the score too much, the superficial and ostensible sequence, respect too much the figurative map of the stars as they appear from Earth as fixed constellations? I think, yes.

I have thought for years about the remark of one my teachers, about his fixation with a wrong note early in a recital, because it would putatively befoul the recording of the event. But I submit he should have welcomed the preoccupation as a reinforcement for non-sequential suspicions. Perhaps the nature of practicing, of repeating, of rehearsing, fosters this suspicion in some pianists, and in any kind of worker who incessantly confronts cycles and repetitions.

A piano text provides a narrow path for the interpreter: rarely as wide as a narrow hallway; rarely even of the width of a well-worn single-track woods trail. It is by custom as dictatorial as the course for a toy slot car. I suspect external factors projected by witnesses, listeners, cause the illusion of greater breadth of choice and personality from performers. How different, really, are the renderings of the greatest virtuoso from that of the simplest amateur if one really knows the material of the finite constellation of a score?

But an observant pianist is freed, in practicing, from perceiving a work only in sequence. Behold how many listeners have pined for such a freedom that they have been seduced at times by any rumor that secret messages can be revealed on LPs that are played backward. Even the manual technique employed to play a record backward is part of a universal suspicion that there may be freedom from sequence.

Having a series of successful sequential experiences which reinforce one’s Identity can sometimes blind us to the supremacy of ultimate Principle. One becomes protective of any chain of good experiences; one becomes vain of them; one starts to become cautious so that they are preserved – as much in one’s own hoarding mind as in the imagined storehouse of others. I recall a violinist with whom I played frequently in graduate school. He and I experimented with the idea of intentionally inserting discreet errors from time to time in a recital so as to prevent any accruing note-perfect performance from growing too unwieldy in the mind. But, at last, the wrong notes that a performer leaves are only of value if he has done his best to avoid them.  And if after striking genuine clinkers he realizes they are as the guideposts to a non-sequential perception of the world, then there is some hope for him.

But first a pianist must realize that the text is not the sacred thing in his performance; nor is his rendering. There comes a moment in any deeply read person’s life when texts no longer seem as representations; they recede into objects again. A reading text is no more significant at last before one’s eyes than the space it occupies in the surrounding spherical range of vision at any given moment. The printed text ultimately has no more or less significance than, say, the light switch on a wall, or a tree seen out a window, or a leg of a piano, or any opaque object within the visible range of the reader. Thus one can say all mankind is equally well-read. And due to an underlying sameness of all objects one can also say that an equality of reading history also applies regardless of disparity in length of life at death. Everyone has the same amount of reading. But how many have undertaken the same amount of synthesis? But a wrong note honestly earned, or any ostensibly deleterious experience in life, can start to point the way to the illusory aspect of all sequence, to the notion that Principle trumps Sequence always.      

In performances that I have thought were going well in an early stage in a traditional sense, I began like a man reveling in the heap of sand that still resides in the top part of an hourglass, and marveling at the starting grains that fall in the first seconds of any flow, cherishing the sequence, hoarding what lies ahead. But then I was granted the masked joy of a wrong note. Then it is, for the thinking man, that the hourglass becomes as one held in outer space, outside of gravity, outside of sequence. The grains float and lose their ruthless power. The wrong note discovered honestly is the best note. It is the skeleton key to all. Our misfortunes, our ostensibly deleterious Experiences, never trump Principle. I submit that when one realizes this, there is no sequence, and one can never come to harm.

A weak man is devastated when something happens to him because it has happened to him. He may as an observer believe, in part, in Principle – hence another man’s tragedy and another man’s wrong notes do not overturn his observer’s stability – but a weak man with only partial faith in Principle over Sequence allows his senses to overwhelm him when he is the subject of misfortune. He misplaces identity in his senses. Identity is in Principle. That way all Experience becomes Illusion – only grist and puzzle piece in the exercise of metaphor perception.

If one subscribes to the notion that ultimate principles are common to all, what difference if misfortune happens to me? I do not grieve when another grieves -- for I see his experience as a symbol almost immediately, almost immediately as a generalization. Yet we are all conduits to the same few Principles of the light and the good. Thus why should I grieve if I am direct witness and subject to a misfortune? Being a direct witness, a direct subject of misfortune or any experience, is an irrelevant circumstance. If I think with sober intelligence, my own experience should also seem as immediate grist for symbol, as well. The amount of time anyone requires to grieve is in direct relation to his ability to convert any experience into emblem. If one sees himself as an emblem even in the present then nothing can go wrong for him. Again, if we all did not believe in the supremacy of Principle over all else to some degree, another man’s – even a stranger’s – misfortune or tragedy would devastate us. I can walk a mile in another man’s shoes yet find that the ground below is still the same. But a man who believes completely in Principle over Experience and Sequence is not devastated by his own misfortune or tragedy – not at all.

If one conquers the illusion that direct experience is any more harmful than secondary experience, then also a left-to-right faith in sequence is soon to fall happily, as well. If my principles are sound on, say, June 2 because no misfortune has come to me since June 1, my principles should be sound on June 3 as well even when I am a witness to calamity on June 2.

Progressive perception of personal time and history says very little. But, again, we aim to play all the right notes; but welcome the skeleton key placed in hand by the clinker struck amidst noble aims. Knowing that any experience will or can be rendered into metaphor and ground down to its relation to Principle in an instant, a strong man going through turmoil will hesitate to confess it, for his confession of distress will soon be a lie to him. To a strong individual nearly all experience is instantly dated. Thus the emotional distance, invulnerability, of strong persons.  Because of all this faith, I can say with sincerity that in almost all public and private conversation I am hesitant to use certain phrases – to wit: That I don’t feel happy; that I don’t feel that it is a good day; that I feel I’ve had better days and the like. And I do not mean that I conceal my real feelings, more painful feelings. Even if I experience such things, knowing them to be phenomenal, transitory, compels me to believe that I cannot use these common phrases because they will be soon false. I do not use them because they would conceal the imminently permanent truth. I say again that the degree of a man’s insight can be recognized by the speed with which he recognizes any event – as soon as it has passed – for an emblem.

Disabuse ourselves of sequence even further! If everything we experience becomes an irrevocable part of the past as soon as it is past, which means just in an instant, why need say “that time heals all wounds” – as if that time need be significant in duration? By coursing forward constantly and superficially in time, we are offered health by the instant for everything, for everything becomes past, and thus an emblem, in a moment. Our nominally forward movement is always a blessing; we render everything at a constant rate into grist – mentally digitizing All without need of the cumbersome and fragile actual equipment of technology. All Experience passes over the shoulder as we move ostensibly forward - and even one’s own body starts to pass over one’s shoulder as it ages – even to a degree while in the best of health, and that is when an immortal mortal of invulnerability begins to be born. Even at death it is then as if one’s own interpretative engine simply concedes one’s person into an emblem.

If we do not hold fast to the notion that Sequence is always trumped by Principles, we then slight the sound philosophy and happiness of those to whom incessant disasters have been presented, but who preserve the good cheer of the most sheltered man.

We may live in a Cosmos where no extinct species ever recreates itself – such is the tyranny of web and sequence – but this should not cause the individual to believe too much in that web and sequence as one’s teaching master. If it imparts a lesson, it is only that each individual has a singular chance and a unique means by which to testify to an ultimate suspicion and faith that Sequence is illusory to thinking. One can stand at the moment of Creation even at time’s end. Our birthdays are always ahead. We move forward constantly along an illusory Sequential line. That line runs down the center of an alchemical horseshoe of Mind; we face the open end. Into one prong of the shoe enters Experience; it leaves as Principle out the other end. We use the common phrase, “I put it behind me.” Should it not be “I put it ahead of me”? Principle always lies ahead of us, and it futurizes all past things. We are always on an eve.

A sense of the overpowering supremacy of Principle and a suspicion about the fallacy of Sequence makes me feel that memories are not at last cumulative. They do not load into the mind like an ever-increasing set of figurative common Russian Nesting Dolls; memories are as figurative Nesting Dolls that are free from concentricity; they contain each other, but are of the same size. With figurative Nesting Dolls of the same size, all are present, but their mass and layering do not increase with their number.

I think such an image is a key to good cheer in the strong man’s mind: all Experience, all tuitions come in but are as naught – be they behind or ahead. They are all of the same size, and always trumping these finite-sized dolls in the mind is Principle – rendering moot any deleterious outcomes; rendering impermanent any accidental cheerful affirmations. So we move forward – must move forward – as collectors who at the same time do not take on weight though we are always taking on cargo. But there is no limit in the hold.

There is always musicological debate about the necessity of observing the Exposition repeat in sonata-form movements. But I now arrive at those repeat signs and wonder not if they should be observed or omitted, but if they should be honored countless times. Repeated sections invite one to collect an entire census of non-concentric Nesting Dolls which can live as if within the same footprint. Even in seemingly ruthless sequential Classical forms we are permitted to render our most recent expository utterance into instantaneous emblem by repetition. We are invited therein to avoid honestly a previous wrong note or to come honestly by a new one.

Indulgence in backward and forward time travel fables, and, I think, the tendency to fear ghosts, are all parts of an inability to live properly within the obligation of Sequence and yet to suspect and know its illusion. Most popular-culture time-related fables seek to avoid deleterious consequences and choices. I submit that the real underlying and benign suspicion of Principles over Sequence is that in a highly qualified and subtle sense there are no deleterious consequences to avoid. I even feel a weakness in myself when I indulge my interest in books of Then and Now photography. For their starting points, their Thens, have no real claim to preceding! I marvel instead after children’s books in which the endpaper illustrations are the same at both ends of a volume.

In a desperate yet futile effort to deny the illusion of Sequence, commercial recordings almost always repair wrong notes. Yet edited recordings deny one the chance to imagine what reconciliation a performer may have achieved. They deny one, as well, the chance to render reconciliations and emblematic status oneself onto another’s best efforts. Live recordings are best; life is best, as it is.

When I say that I am happy to hear for the Faithful that their Gospels may be true, but that I am indifferent if they are not, I mean this by indifference: I am indifferent to narrative reinforcement of Principle. If I woke up and found myself the only man alive at the height of the Cretaceous, alone as a man during the reign of dinosaurs, my feeling is that the demands of the Ten Commandments would still be true though they had yet to be spoken, and though I had yet to hear them. I cannot use narrative outcomes as evidence of Principle. Principle must survive negative evidence; Principle must precede positive evidence. Principle is a part of no Sequence. A man has more than the power of time travel if he believes in Principle. Principle spins the clock in all directions and also stops it. Principle does better than this; it obviates the clock. The weakest utterance a man can make is “If only!”

Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and the forthcoming You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.


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