Perpetual Caveat: Analogies between athletics and musicianship are problematic, and present cultural understanding is too reliant on them. (See my 2015 thoughts on Grand Piano and Inside Llewyn Davis.)
Essay: I’m a little stuck on Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb of El Capitan. On the one hand (one thumb?), I’m hesitant to praise a movie that seems almost certain to accrue a body count. On the other, I must acknowledge that this is a new perspective on human capability—and a new document of the lengths people will go to try and be happy.
My hands are sweating at the keyboard just thinking about this movie.
Two moments keep returning to me and suggesting a connection to musical practice. At one point Honnold describes the nonexistent margin of error in free-solo climbing as central to its appeal. “I don’t want to fall off and die either,” he says, “but there’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment.”
I have previously compared climbing to performing music. While I’m only lightly experienced in the former, I’ve noticed a connection between the moment your foot leaves the ground and the moment you start a piece in front of people. Rope or no, there is a feeling of commitment. The other day I played Lukas Foss’ solo piano arrangement of Billy the Kid for about 200 listeners. Once I started, I was started. I’m thinking of that old chestnut about people fearing public speaking more than they fear death. Maybe, on some deeper level of the mind, playing solo piano in front of 200 listeners isn’t so dissimilar from free-solo climbing.
Later, discussing his preparations for the climb, reading through his notes, Honnold describes his plan for the most difficult move of the route. He looks right at the camera and says, “autopilot.” The Buddhist teachings tell us that if we’re suffering, we are thinking; similarly at the piano, if I make a mistake, it’s probably because I’m thinking. I don’t play solo much lately, or from memory. When doing so, there comes this eerie moment when you realize you’ve come mentally detached from the playing and your hands are just doing it by themselves. Sometimes this realization comes with a lurching stop—I notice that I don’t know where I am in the music, muscle memory disengages from conscious processing, and suddenly I’m Wile E. Coyote having run off a cliff, finally looking down.
Let’s consider this notion of “muscle memory.” No one is suggesting that your hands literally have memory capacities. We’re talking about a different level of the mind. Playing the Copland, I realized that if I ever thought about what was coming next, I was already too late. I couldn’t think. It was too slow.
Over New Year’s I attended a meditation retreat in California with the renowned teacher Shinzen Young, who talks a lot about this mysterious notion of operating “from auto.” In other words, speaking or moving or even thinking with true and complete spontaneity, without surface-level thought breaking the flow. The irony is that we do this all the time: tying one’s shoes is a classic example, or brushing your teeth, or walking. But the difficult thing—and I mean difficult, I mean a lifetime’s work—is to do this consciously, to operate from auto with immediacy and intention and know you’re operating from auto.
This may seem very abstract, but when you see it in action, it is completely palpable, undeniable. It oozes from Alex Honnold’s figure in the climactic footage of his climb. My favorite musical example is this video of an elderly Vladimir Horowitz playing Mozart 330. Look at his face. He is almost completely disengaged, on the surface, from the activity of his hands. He’s watching them like they’re a couple of gazelles grazing in a meadow someplace. That’s auto. These performers become Don Genaro somersaulting over the waterfall. The importance of what they’re demonstrating lies no longer in the specifics of the athletic or musical achievement, but in the manner in which it is achieved.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues