“I don’t get —” intervened Ilya Poletaev, pianist extraordinaire, frustrated, with his chin in his hand, brow furrowed. “I am not getting the consistent narrative. Some of it has to do with balance, for example, when you play this —”
The melody became immediately deeper, more vibrant, in his hands, compared to those of the student who had been performing moments earlier.
Someone must have been telling me lies about classical music, because I awoke one fine afternoon to find myself arrested by a beauty and a tension I did not know existed. One might assume, for example, that Poletaev’s masterclass was held for the education of a variety of Swarthmore’s best undergraduate pianists on Sunday, that it was surely a relic of some distant past, and that it was just another attempt by the College’s budget and reputation to endow itself and its signifier, the Swarthmore website, with flair and value-added ornaments. One would not expect to find a beautiful expression and performance of stylistic depth with a certain throbbing light of institutional resonance.
The master’s hands, without hesitation, resumed their place on the grand piano’s keys, steadily aimed at the heart of Beethoven’s intentions, like a highly calibrated weapon or perfectly debugged computer program.
“Staccato,” emphasized Poletaev, as he changed the timing of its strokes, bending the volume slightly upwards as a DJ might turn a knob, only with ten fingers instead of two: “It’s a very crucial line, an asymmetrical line.”
The intentions of Beethoven were themselves invisible to viewers, but nonetheless everywhere heard, echoing beneath the spotlight of the Lang Music Building. The master, Poletaev, of average height, slight build, dark hair, glasses, and a noticeable Russian accent that only intensified his articulation of the English language, leaned over his student of this particular half-hour with impressive passion.
The master-class was a conversation: first, between the student’s lack and the master’s possession. There was, in many ways, nothing exactly new to it, except for the fact that this particular possessor of Beethoven’s intentions had probably never physically set foot upon Swarthmore’s campus, or taught Swarthmore’s students how to play. This by no means took away from the conversation’s beauty; on the contrary, it only provides a bass line to it.
“But,” continued Poletaev, alternating his gaze from student to the soul of the piano, “what is symmetrical —”
Poletaev does not finish his sentence with words. To the student’s attempt, he replied with a crescendo that is, with no disrespect to the student, like hearing Sinatra’s vibrato after Rebecca Black’s. There’s obviously a reason he’s the master here. The introductory tone of the Swat student, like a trireme coming to face a battleship in the Atlantic, is blown apart entirely by a contrast added to expression of Beethoven’s text that simply wasn’t there a moment earlier, like looking at a Study after Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” after seeing the original.
The master-class was a conversation: second, between classical music and culture and popular music and culture.
“I,” said Poletaev, intensely, politely putting himself in the student’s position, “will make sure that —”
The building of the melody continues, with Poletaev appearing as though he’s not even trying, removing his hands as instantaneously as he replaces them on the keys, asserting into the play of the student the deaf vengeance of what he argues to be, more in action than in word, Beethoven’s intentions.
“— give myself a chance to —”
The crescendo is repeated, more nuanced, richer. It’s almost oppressive.
“It’s much more mysterious,” stated Poletaev, after revealing his power.
Mysterious like Kafka is mysterious. In “The Trial,” Franz Kafka tells a parable, “Before the Law.” There’s a doorman reminiscent of the master in this situation. Like Beethoven, Kafka wrote German in his own musical way; only his writing became stigmatized by the label of “modernist literature,” while Beethoven’s writing became institutionalized as, if not definitive “classical music,” then at least “Classical Music.” The instruments each used to convey their arts provide a perhaps insurmountable obstacle, one that Kafka would perhaps prefer.
“We have,” interjected Poletaev, “to establish pulse right from the beginning.” The student repeats the bars, better, but not yet there.
“Imagine something — umph.”
I saw Kafka laughing about something behind the shade pulled over the imagery of the Crum forest that one normally views on such occasions. The master-class must have been deemed too serious of an event to contaminate with the distractions of nature or perspective.
“You see,” continued Poletaev, stepping back to the piano, taking the reins from the student: “you cannot just play casually —”
A man stood before a door in Kafka’s story, not unlike the student, blocked from entering it by a gatekeeper.
“First question,” asked Poletaev directly, taking a step back from the piano, chin in his hand: “What is this music about to you?”
The student was so caught off guard that an awkward silence uncomfortably filled the hall dedicated to music for an entire fifteen seconds.
“What do you mean?” asked the student, finally, seated at the piano after performing the piece assigned him, unsure either perhaps of what the master wanted him to say or of what would sound best to the audience. Caught in between master and masses, like a journalist, he paused.
“I ask you,” replied Poletaev, immediately, covering for his pupil, as was what seemed to be his rehearsed custom, “because the textures of this piece are distinct. I think you are trying to do this —”
“When I play this piece,” intervened the student, before the gatekeeper, “I think of someone running a marathon,and when it gets to this point, I see him stumbling. The next part, then, is the success of that recovery.”
“There is,” paused Poletaev, reflecting on the signifier, the student’s words, and the signified, the student’s playing: “one problem.” The “problem” has a distinct Russian undertone to it, as the word is the same in Russian, only pronounced with a stress on the “e” and not the “o.”
“One thing is that your marathon is being run by a machine.”
If the master, Poletaev, is definitively human, then what are we?