The Pursuit of Imperfection

It hasn’t come up before, but some years ago I was a fairly serious amateur cellist.

When you’re a cellist, and you hear that Pieter Wispelway is playing the complete Bach Cello Suites in your home town, you go.

The six suites are the cornerstone repertoire for the instrument, and playing the whole thing in one hit in live performance is a marathon feat few musicians attempt: almost three hours of solo music, played from memory with nothing to hide behind. Pieter Wispelway has been doing it for decades.

You go even if you’ve heard him do it before. I had, back when I was an impressionable teenager who had only ever heard Bach played with the kind of nerdy precision that was deemed to be the Correct Way Of Doing Things, all mathematical formulation, intricate patterns implemented with sublime, inhuman perfection . Suddenly some wild-haired Dutch dude threw this hard-assed diligence out the window and played the dances as dances with what (at the time) was outlandish, daring unorthodoxy. I was hooked.

The guy who appeared in the Angel Place recital hall on Sunday afternoon was not a wild-haired young radical. At 55, he’s  in the position where he can settle down into the comfortable role of an undisputed master of his art.

But that’s not what he did.

Characterised by an austere, understated tonal style and extreme shifts in tempo, it was a vastly more risky interpretation than his earlier work. The instrument spent the majority of its time speaking in modest, human tones well below its capabilities for projection.

The performance was littered with minor errors, literally hundreds of them, stuff that perhaps only a cellist would notice, but the kind of thing a student would dread in an examination: a tenth of a note flat in a chord here, a string accidentally brushed on a crossing there, basic, elementary technical mistakes. Then there were a handful of major glitches, stuff that anyone who was paying attention would have raised an eyebrow at, happening in passages that I could play flawlessly in high school.

And then, he would hit the hard stuff. The bits that young cellists have nightmares about. He ran headlong into material that is brutally, legendarily difficult, and he ripped through it with an obliviousness that had one guy at the end of my row (an alpha middle-aged corporate type who had taken up amateur cello as stress relief) guffawing in disbelief. It wasn’t bravura flair, it wasn’t showing off, it was just making the thing sound how it needed to sound. What are you going to do, hold back because you’re scared?

It was dynamic, unpredictable and utterly compelling. In places, like the haunting, desolate Sarabande from Suite 5, which in many ways felt like the only thing he’d really come across the world to play, it left the hall in stunned silence.  This was an interpretation by an artist who had immersed himself in a work so fully and for so long that he had absorbed its soul and made it his own.

Given that level of mastery, the errors are fascinating. They’re fascinating because someone who could so obviously have eliminated them didn’t bother. They’re fascinating because they were so irrelevant. These ephemeral, trivial little intrusions of chaos and discord into such a monumental performance served only as a reminder of the humanity that produced it, and the inherent trade-offs involved.

You can be fearless and let the soul of the thing flow, or you can make it flawless. You can’t do both.  Fear of imperfection in art will kill the spirit that animates it. And a machine that plays music with scrupulous precision cannot do what a human just did.