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  On Prodigy
By Yue Tan David Tang

* Some friends of mine have been exchanging views on this issue for several weeks, mainly by means of email. I am delighted to join, though their main concern is prodigy in music, a realm that has always forbidden me to voice anything reliable.


I took the liberty of postponing my reply to such an extent, that the word "reply" might have already been abused. It is always very tempting for me to write endlessly, but less so if I were to venture into a field my command of which could at most be embarrassing. Too bold to regard myself a pianist-whatever sense the title may convey-I dare only ponder upon the question of prodigy in very general terms. In fact, it seems to me that people have quite different conceptions of a prodigious figure, but not rarely do they only focus on the technical aspect thereof. Breath-taking renditions can often capture the ears of many listeners, yet disappoint the thoughtful soul sitting in the last row, shadowed in the dark.

I am not sure how closely-or loosely-life experience and musical emotion are related. In literature, my happy digression, there is a kind of heaviness that almost no prodigy can pen. Well, Keats wrote his most famous poems in his early twenties, a few years before he died in a duel. Is Keats a prodigy then? Where, if any, should we find a matching table between age and expected achievement?

Furthermore, my biased impression is that prodigies are usually quite proud of their natural endowment and actual achievement. Can they thus be compared with the old masters, who might be even less technically astonishing? Truly, I gather, art is not something to be isolated from life; it is life. Brilliant technique without deep reflections from life is but a wandering body without a living soul. Though yet, I cannot say for sure what is deep in music, for the depth might very well come from the listener instead; the same subjectivity and ambiguity that literature suffers and enjoys.

The progress of a prodigy, therefore, can be compared to the progress of a man's mental maturity, though, indisputably, this latter concept is equally vague as that of prodigy itself. If we force the prodigy to stop playing, but rather to become a listener, can he then communicate with another master on the stage through musical terms? Or, I wonder, can there be a prodigious critic instead? A question without answers; a song without words...

My acquaintance with Roland Barthe's work is poor enough to free me from any guilt of distortion, but I do remember how hard he had pushed for the rise of the reader after this millennium-long domination of the author. He did not talk about pianists, nor listeners, nor music critics; yet, can there be an analogous case here? While having little sympathy for Barthe's views, I do think this late French gentleman would lead us back to the original question, namely, what is a prodigy? The one under flamboyant stage lights might be a prodigy; he might not be a young musician, God knows.

... a song without words; words without a song. And many are still singing for the prodigy. For his music.

Yue Tan David Tang
April 27, 2001. Cambridge.


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