Friday, August 25, 2006

Doing the work

There's an interesting article at the New Yorker by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber about the solution to the Poincaré conjecture. It describes two fundamentally different views of being creative in mathematics - one in which reputation, career, competition, and institution-building play a role, or at least a driving force, and another in which the purity of the work itself is everything - a state of affairs that I recognized immediately in musical creation as well.

My sympathies are obvious: of the two principle actors in the story Nasar and Gruber have framed, both are mathematicians with historical stature, and the contribution of Shing-Tung Yau to the institutions of mathematics (both in the US and in China) and future productivity in the field through both his own work and the work of his protogés is remarkable. But it is Grigory Perelman, who has simply stood away from* all the intellectually uneccessary apparatus of the academic world, who comes across as a man with a unique dignity and a committment that is, in the end, aesthetic.

As I read the article, I recognized the same emotion in my reading as some years ago I witnessed the composers - of historical stature - Ligeti and Nancarrow on a stage together in Cologne. Nancarrow's rejection, no, refusal, no, nothing so violent, his preference not to play the role of the Great Composer was completely apparent as he sat reserved, almost laconic, next to the gregarious Ligeti: it's all about the music. If a question could be answered with yes or no, then for Nancarrow, yes or no sufficed, and if he disagreed, he disagreed rather than get caught up in the storm of Ligeti's flights. Let me be clear, I love the music of both men, and I probably do recognize in Ligeti my own nervous tendency to bubble over with my enthusiams, but that zenish, gelassenen, place where Nancarrow was was definitely where I would like to be.
*Is it perverse that I recognize the same dignity in Melville's Bartleby?


Trevor Murphy said...

Whew, for a moment I thought you were going to praise that idiotic article about conducting in a recent New Yorker. I wonder how many mathletes are as irritated by the Perelman article as I am by the sycophantic worship of Michael Tilson-Thomas and his big chocolate poodles. And, really, I guess that's because the article attempted to depict conductors as the opposite of the Mexican-garage composer- jet-setting superstars, implied to be somehow superior in their magical gifts to any of the second violins.

Daniel Wolf said...

Trevor --

I haven't seen the article on conductors; but I think I agree with your remarks. There seems to be a built in problem with the music business, in that if you are the sort of musician who values music making more than your own ego, choosing to live otherwise anonymously, the whole proessional promotion and management system will often conspire to build a cult around your very rejection of the system. My favorite case is Carlos Kleiber, perhaps the best conductor I've ever heard, and a man entirely out of sorts with the management system. One recognizes that Kleiber was able to do what he did within the system, but the mechanics of the systems were such that Kleiber played as little as possible, presumably to keep pysche and muse in good order.