The tile fitter

24 September 2006

I had just finished reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and at the back of the book was a little story about our narrator and his friend, a talented violinist, strolling through the mall when the woman hears a piano permeating the hubbub of commercialism. They come upon an Estonian pianist playing Mozart in the middle of the mall. It was the malls way of differentiating itself from other shopping outlets. The concert level pianist was largely being ignored by the thronging crowd apart from our two narrators, one of whom had tears in her eyes from the beautiful music. This of course pricked tears in my eyes as the passage was intended to.

Later on I was sitting on the patio in the back garden of my home enjoying the warm sunshine and a beer (this weather is definitely unseasonable) and thinking about the story. I realised that the sentiment of the story was disingenuous. The man at the piano was making a noise – that’s it, that was all he was doing. The fact that we interpret it as beautiful music is probably an accident of consciousness, some pattern recognition program hardwired into our brains. He was playing Mozart, a genius we are told, something to be revered and worshipped. The thrust of the story was that the pianist, down on his luck, still played the piano with intense concentration, it didn’t matter that he was in a mall, the music still moved him. I realised that you didn’t need an artist to give this story power, it could have just as easily have been a handy man from the mall replacing a floor tile in a corner somewhere. The handyman could have been putting as much love and concentration into making that tile fit as the pianist was playing Mozart. But would our emotions be similarly roused by such a lowly character?

I think not. It is merely a writers trick to use such a device as art and passion. I don’t know why we attach such importance to the arts and regard it with such romantic reverence. I guess it must be from all the stories we heard about mad artists like Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. There seems to be this tenuous connection between suffering and art which probably dates back to thousands of years ago when the shaman of the tribe would get high from weird drugs, suffer physically from the effects but afterwards report astonishing revelations.

The poignancy of the story was achieved by the pianist being ignored by the shoppers apart from our two protagonists. This is seen as some kind of tragedy. But surely, if the music was any good it would have attracted an audience? Perhaps if he had played some rock ‘n roll he would have fared better. Who is to say Mozart is the pinnacle of musical genius? – if there is one thing I have learned about the arts it is that it is purely subjective; you either like it or you don’t. I accept certain works can be demonstrated to be working on several levels and there are clever uses of this or that device but ultimately is Shakespeare in the dvd collections of most people or even on their bookshelves?

If it’s any good, people will appreciate it. I remember going to a concert of Ukrainian performers who were visiting England. There was a group of children in the audience who had been dragged along by their Ukrainian parents and were there under duress. The children were, understandably, bored by the procession of minstrels who sang and played a mixture of traditional and comic folk songs. The children rustled crisp packets and crackled sweet wrappers throughout the show.

Then a pair of identical twin brothers came onto the stage and sang. The term ’sang’ does not do justice to the most exquisite harmonies that issued from their mouths. They were by far the best performers of the show. Not only did I realise this but the entire audience did too, including the group of children who became transfixed by the beautiful sound and never moved a muscle throughout their entire performance. That is the power of beauty. Had the twins sang those songs in that mall of Paulo Coelho’s story I have no doubt that such a crowd would have gathered that security would have had to be called to clear a thoroughfare.

The fact that no-one was listening to the pianist says more about the unfashionability of pianos and Mozart than it does about the ignorance of the crowd.

I dare say Mr Coelho would concede that a tile fitter could experience the same emotions as a concert pianist but the fact that he doesn’t use him in his story suggests a certain amount of artifice.

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