Artists in conversation: pianist Fleisher. Michael Zirkle
Artists in conversation: pianist Fleisher. Michael Zirkle

Two Minds

A filmmaker and his latest subject, a classical pianist, talk about the joys, mysteries, and tribulations that underlie creative expression.
April 1, 2008
 

The themes of creativity, adversity, and capturing life stories ran through this academic year's Duke Magazine Forum, held in November. Featured in the forum were renowned pianist, conductor, and teacher Leon Fleisher, who, in the course of a short-term residency on campus, also performed and led a master class; and Nathaniel Kahn, who, as a documentary filmmaker, found a compelling subject in Fleisher. The moderator was Anthony Kelley '87, A.M. '90, an assistant professor of music, who is also a composer.

 

The program began with a showing of Kahn's short documentary Two Hands. The documentary describes what happened after Fleisher—once called "the pianistic find of the century"—lost the use of his right hand to a neurological disorder. It covers his effort to reinvent himself as a teacher and conductor, his relentless search for a cure, and his triumphant return to the concert stage. "His comeback," wrote The New York Times, "has catapulted him up next to Lance Armstrong as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit and an inspiration to a broader public." In December, he was recognized as a Kennedy Center honoree for a lifetime of contributions to American culture through the performing arts.

Filmmaker Kahn is also well known for My Architect (2004). That work chronicles his five-year odyssey to explore the legacy—personal and professional—of his father, Louis Kahn, the acclaimed modernist architect. Both documentaries were nominated for Academy Awards. As a Yale student, Kahn took a literature course with Richard H. Brodhead, now Duke's president.

Along with the magazine, the forum was sponsored by Duke Performances and the President's Office. President Brodhead opened the conversation, which appears here in an edited version.

Richard H. Brodhead: I just said to the two people I'm about to bring onstage that it's as if I had been asked to appear at a production of Hamlet—after which I got to introduce Shakespeare and Hamlet to the audience for a conversation. It is, of course, a great pleasure for this university to host Leon Fleisher. Your story is the story of the mystery of talent itself—of someone being given an extraordinary gift, a gift that made you a prodigy, a gift that had you debut with the New York Philharmonic when you were sixteen years old. And then, a gift that was mysteriously, or at least partially, withdrawn as mysteriously as it was given. The fact that you then, out of your sheer love of your art, went on to a career as a conductor and teacher, is just an extraordinary saga.

I know a little bit, personally, about the other person who's about to come on stage, Nathaniel Kahn. I don't know about your musical talents; I know you used to have theatrical talents. But now, you have become one of the most gifted documentary filmmakers. Many of us will know your other wonderful work, My Architect. In this case, "my architect" carries an intimate reference, because it's your father, a person who was loved by many people, who fathered children by a number of people, and who would intermittently appear and disappear. The temptation in telling that story would be to indulge in self-pity, or sentiment, or anger. Instead, the guiding emotion in that film is curiosity: "I wonder what my father was like, since I didn't really know him?" There is curiosity, too, about the rest of your family—and empathy. But in addition, the documentary shows respect for the strange conditions that sometimes underlie creativity.

Anthony Kelley: I want to ask about the idea of your media having something in common. Do you both see an interplay between truth and artifice, for example?

Nathaniel Kahn: I've rarely been able to work with someone who gave so much truth in such a short period. We really only had two or three days together. It was unlike my previous film, My Architect, in which the energy of lots of people was coming at me in a very forceful way. I found a totally different energy from you, Leon. And it was fascinating to me. At first I worried, you know, he's so good at this; he's like a great actor who's done this performance, or told his story, a number of times. But I found in looking at the footage that there was so much more there than I could even feel in the room. I realized this is what great actors work all their lives to achieve, which is an enormous reality in the smallest of gestures. I found in your eyes and your hands and in all the things that are most expressive so much truth, so much beauty, and so much pathos as well, that it really knocked me out—not with its artifice, but with its truth.

In concert: Fleisher, with violinist Jaime Laredo and horn player David Jolley, perform chamber music at a New York concert last year

In concert: Fleisher, with violinist Jaime Laredo and horn player David Jolley, perform chamber music at a New York concert last year. G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times/Redux

Leon Fleisher: Well, it was an extraordinary experience for me, because, as you say, I've recounted that story countless times. And somehow you elicited from me something fresh. Nathaniel has an extraordinary gift this way; I really can't describe it. There were a couple of times when I was rather tired, and maybe he didn't get what he was looking for. So he goaded me. And like a real creator, he managed to get what he was looking for. It was a great joy.

Kahn: Thank you.

Kelley: As a pianist, do you find that when you're interpreting works of the past—you know, in the documentary, we heard Bach and others—that you're capturing a spirit of the past, or do you see it as music that is continuously alive?

Fleisher: Oh, absolutely, it is alive. I think that's what a masterpiece is. It's not dated; it is alive for now and forever. And it is capable of being plumbed in endless ways. You're always looking for what's behind the notes. The fact is, I've reached the age that I have, and I'm still finding new implications in the music. I think that's what keeps great art alive.

Kelley: There's something remarkable about the struggle between yourself with these physical limitations and your devotion to the music. How tough was it to boil this down to a short documentary?

Fleisher: Right, all of this took up just seventeen minutes on the screen. And it took me seventy-five bloody years! I think that's the genius of Nathaniel—that I still choose to talk to him.

Two Hands
 
 

Kahn: Leon, this story deserves to be a long film and not just a short. I'd like to make it as a feature film. I think it's so enormously inspiring, and I asked Leon who should play him. So he said to me, either Daniel Day-Lewis or Danny DeVito. And I said, well, that's quite a range. How do you rationalize that range? And he said, "Well, I feel differently on different days."

But the short documentary has its own discipline. You know, we have novels and we have short stories. When you pick up a novel, you sort of know what to expect. It's going to be a long experience; you're going to live with it for a while. If it's War and Peace, and if you read at my speed, you're going to live with it for several months, maybe even a year. Of course, if you read at President Brodhead's speed, it's probably a day. With films, there is a kind of tyrannical length. It used to be two-and-a-half hours, then it was two hours, now it's ninety minutes, sometimes even eighty minutes. When I was young, short films were part of our world; they were part of the output of the greatest filmmakers of all time, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and there would be newsreels before film screenings as well. It was a very exciting thing to watch a short, and many times the shorts were better than the features. I remember one particular short about a boy and his chicken. I have no idea what the feature was, but I remember the short. I think that's a form that we've lost, unfortunately, but it is coming back.

Kelley: To what extent was there negotiation between the two of you about which compositions would be represented, which ones might best serve the structure?

Kahn: We worked very hard on choosing a piece that went with the moment. And we listened to every recording we could get our hands on. So it was not just saying, "Oh, we should throw some music in there." We recorded "Sheep May Safely Graze" a number of times. And someone said to me that the film on some level prepares you to listen to "Sheep May Safely Graze," which plays mostly over you, Leon, going out on the stage as the film closes. It's a moment when the audience can just sit and listen to the music, without the visual stimulation. So musically, it's my favorite moment in the film—playing over the credits.

And I remember asking you, how do you determine how long a pause is? So tell me. How do you determine how long a pause is? Because that moment in the film, where there's a pause just before another chord comes in, is extraordinarily beautiful.

Fleisher: I don't know.

Kahn: Well, that's the mystery.

Kelley: What's your process as you coach a student who's about to play that next chord? I've heard you say that sometimes it's nice to kind of wait and give space.

Fleisher: It's hard, really, to put into words. I think, basically, later is better, because it helps free the imagination of the listener. With inexperience, with young kids,they're always coming in too early. And if you come in just a wee bit late instead, it sets it off; it gives the composition that sense of structure.

I gave a class the other day in Las Vegas, of all places, the World Piano Pedagogy Conference. I started my remarks by saying, "I've just thought of a title for this lecture, and that is 'How Do We Know When to Play the Second Note?' " The first note is no problem, but how do you know when to play the second note? If you can set off silent clicks in your head, you're much more likely to find that sweet spot, the timing that is just right.

Kelley: How do you feel about the resurrection of the story of your dystonia [leading to the loss of the use of your right hand]?

Fleisher: The more I get up and scream about it, the better it is. There are some 300,000 people in this country who suffer from dystonia. One form is genetic, and it's painful. The other kind is what I have. It's called focal dystonia; it hits one set of muscles, usually the one that counts the most. There are some 10,000 musicians in the world who suffer from focal dystonia. They even get it in the lip—horn players. I really was the first to scream out loud about it, because so many musicians have it, and they don't want it to get to be known: Any diminution in their chops, as it were, means they're out of work. So they disguise it as the flu or something.

Kelley: I have two last questions. One is in the form of a plea: You both agree, I know, that we could use some better pianos at Duke. Okay, good, now that's on the record. The other question is, sometimes you're talking to someone you love a lot, and the very next day, you say to yourself, "I wish I had said this instead." Are there any such second thoughts around this film?

Fleisher: I can't think of any. I don't know how many hours you filmed, but I loved your choice of material.

Kahn: I felt at the time that we got everything that we needed. But I know that there is so much more. Coming today to your master class, there were so many things that I saw. You've mentioned that when you're teaching, you have to find the right words. And the day that we filmed you, you found some of the right words, but I think maybe the particular students were not at the right point in their performances.

Return to form: Fleisher in a scene from Two Hands

Return to form: Fleisher in a scene from Two Hands. Courtesy Nathaniel Kahn

Today, at Duke, was the first time that I'd heard you put into words exactly what you were feeling about the playing. And it was enormously descriptive, in the same way that you would describe to any actor how to improve his or her performance. Sometimes it's very specific—slow down, speed up, hold back the second note—very technical. Other times, it's enormously metaphorical, like when you said, "Your playing is like water, it's too thin. It's falling down the keys. It needs to be thicker, like maple syrup, or honey—dripping down." It was phenomenal, a marvelous metaphor for what you wanted. And you know what? The next time the student played, it sounded somewhere between maple syrup and honey.

And then you told another student that there wasn't enough struggle and pain in that moment. It was this idea that you wanted the student to understand—exactly when it was in Brahms' life that he had written the piece, right before he died.

Fleisher: Schubert.

Kahn: Schubert. Sorry. But I thought that that instruction was remarkable, because many times I've heard people say in talking about My Architect, "Well, I don't need to know all those details about the guy's life: I just want to see the work, I want to see the architecture, I want to see the painting. I want to analyze it on its own terms. I don't need to know what happened to this person at that moment." But when you made the opposite point, I had to agree that it makes an enormous difference, in terms of the performance, to know exactly what was happening in the life of the composer.

Fleisher: Mozart, you know, wrote one of his most upbeat and triumphant and majestic piano concerts right after learning of his father's death. You can go Freudian on me, if you want, but knowing something like that might change the context for the performance.

[Question from the audience]: Did you ever struggle with being self-conscious about having your story told?

Fleisher: No, I didn't feel any self-consciousness about it.

[Question from the audience]: Was there a particular moment that marked the turnaround from despair toward acceptance?

Fleisher: It's probably different for different people. I just woke up one morning, and I was tired of my self-pity. I can only compare it with my decision to stop smoking; I stopped after forty years of smoking. So maybe that's my nature, I don't know. I had had enough. I think I was missing music, so I told myself, there are other ways of doing it.

[Question from the audience]: Given the level of your expertise, is it possible for you, Mr. Fleisher, just to enjoy a concert? And for you, Mr. Kahn, to enjoy a movie?

Kahn: Oh, definitely, I can. I'm always in awe of anybody who gets a movie made. You know, it's really hard. Of course, there are movies you see that are crafted poorly, or that just are dumb stories. But anybody who's really trying to tell something that is clearly close to them, I always admire.

Fleisher: I do try to go listen to great musicians.

Kahn: There's a big difference, I think. I mean, Leon is a master of what he does. And a lot of people go out and make movies. There are not a lot of people who can play the piano at that level that allows you to go on stage. And it's one of the reasons why I think classical music continues to be so important, because there is a standard. You've got to be pretty damn good to be able to be listened to in the context of the concert stage and to maintain a career doing that. There are a lot of hacks out there making movies and doing very well with it. It's pretty hard to be not a good piano player and continue your career.

Fleisher: Not as hard as you think.

Kahn: Really? Okay, I stand corrected.

[Question from the audience]: You've made two really wonderful movies about love and artistry. Is there more you want to say about those themes?

Kahn: It's funny you asked. Someone just asked me today, "Why did you want to make this movie about Leon?" I heard your recordings growing up, and I always loved your music as a boy. And then a few years ago, I opened up a copy of National Geographic, and there was the story of a man—it was Leon—who was helped greatly in his medical condition by the application of a poison. So, I thought, boy, this would be a marvelous story to tell. But I realized the real reason that I made the film is that we live in a time of such violence, and to be able to tell a story of someone who through his whole life has changed the world through art—through music—seemed terribly important. There's a rather noisy, clamorous way to protest. And there are more sonorous, beautiful ways to do it. I think that music, which speaks the universal language, can calm the restless soul and can restore dignity in a world that is not very dignified right now. That's why I wanted to make the movie.

[Question from the audience]: Your mother proposed two alternatives for you, becoming either a concert pianist or president of the United States. As your prospects in concert piano were fading, had you considered the other?

Fleisher: You flatter me, sir.