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James Boyk Being Lucid


  The cake had come in with candles, not 150, some lit and some not. "I was so dumb. I thought somebody's forgotten to light all the candles," recalls James Boyk. "Boy, was I slow. It was 150 in binary!"
   Where else would you find computer-language candles on a cake but at Caltech? It was not James Boyk's 150th birthday, but the 150th talk he had given at Caltech's Dabney Lounge on Wednesday afternoons.
   "It was my idea in the first place—I wanted to do it!" he says when I ask him how the talks had gotten started. "Technically, they're for the Caltech and JPL community, but I don't care if anybody comes!"
   Which, as an anybody, is why I'm here.
   Also, technically, Boyk's talks are on music performance—"everything and anything from opening up a piece you've never seen before to playing at Carnegie." But, as so many things taught by someone knowledgeable and vitally interested, they seem to relate to everything else.
   What I like about Boyk is that he doesn't tell you anything. He makes you listen and make up your own mind. "What I hate in music education is condescension," he says. "I hate the word appreciation; it implies you can create it. How can you? But the fact is music is beautiful, but people don't know how to respond; they're not insensitive to it. The whole business of criticism is nonsense. If I could do anything for music, I'd eliminate them [music critics]."

   Half the people who come to hear Boyk on Wednesdays are professional or semiprofessional pianists; half are people "who don't know noth ing!" Boyk likes that. "The less they know the more I get to teach them. "I always envied my first-grade teacher—imagine, teaching people to read! By the way, she was Gloria Steinem's aunt, she taught first grade in Toledo for 50 years; they had to make a special retirement exception for her.)"
   Boyk says his Wednesday audience, which certainly has learned a lot from him over 10 years, has been a tremendous help to him; he has been "doing a heck of a lot of developing as a player" as a result of their comments. The problem with professionals, he says, is "we hear not what we're doing, but what we wish we were doing. Professionals are always off the track. Laymen's criticism is virtually always right on the button. Oh, it's enough to drive you crazy—but there's always truth in it." Unlike Boyk, most professionals don't want to hear laymen's criticism. "They're so threatened by anyone else doing anything—you're on my turf!"
   Why, I asked, do you often hear professionals (I was thinking of string quartets) play a piece perfectly and it's dull? "It's a problem with most professional musicians," Boyk answered. "It's perfect but dead. There's a danger in getting involved with details. Wrong notes, start worrying about exact hand position. The result is that direct physical expression gets confused. Rubinstein never had it, it was always dancing, his pianissimos always alive and breathing. Arthur Schnabel was with a chord like that? What do you think—should I play that for my spring recital?" He is continually aware that there are non-musicians in his audience, explaining terms. "It's not a matter of being intellectual, it's a matter of being lucid."
   Often other musicians join in his Wednesday talks. The first one I went to, a clarinetist, Marga ret Thornhill, played and we moved rugs—under the piano, under the clarinetist, to one side. "A little balcony music" while someone went up to the balcony to see how it sounded from there. Piano lid up, down, up on short stick. Then to focus on location—the audience has to feel where the musicians is. "It's like a predator," he said, "where is the predator?" Then, getting more specific, "It's the same way."
   Boyk, who would like to give 50 or even 100 concerts a year, "would never want to give up everything else I do." He is artist-in-residence at Caltech and is lecturer in music in engineering and humanities. One course, "Projects in Music and Science, involves engineering students in mechanics, physics, mathematics as well as aesthetics. Boyk also writes articles, runs his own record production company, Performance Recordings, distributing his records through Harmonia Mundi USA, and also helps people as a consultant on choosing stereo equipment, "purely my advice, I don't sell anything else."
   Boyk doesn't lecture. He jumps up and down from the piano bench, plays something—"did you like that? Which do you like better? Listen—did I hear something contrasting in the middle? Can you tell it's going to change? How can he get away of no interest to know a bear is going to eat you—it's where's the bear?"
   Then a dissection of how a sensation of excite ment comes in piano music, a demonstration of duplets going against triplets. "Sometimes I do trills triplet against duplet," he says. "Gives great excitement—cute, huh?"
   The next week Boyk played Mozart, playing one measure over and over to show us "there are no rights for it, but all kinds of wrongs." Then on a Muzio Clementi Sonatina he demonstrated how to play the softest sound, quite the opposite of what you might expect. "Not fingery. Consider your hand as a wooden kitchen utensil," using the whole arm, "there should be much more whole-arm playing than most people do."

   "Practice at correct tempo," he said, no matter how fast. "Never practice slowly, that boring stuff only weeds out people who don't love music." He plays several passages leaving out notes, showing that the spirit of the piece remains; playing it slowly "invites destroying the musical sense." "It has to be pleasurable; later one you can add the notes." And then he says, grinning, "Practicing at tempo, you never come to that horrible moment: How I have to, gulp, do it at tempo."
   I've been to only three talks so far; maddening to think I've missed all the others. But so uncondescending is Boyk, so genuinely interested in what I, as a member of the audience, think and feel—unprofessional, unpianoed clunk that I am—that I feel as enthusiastically responsible as anyone to see that the celebration of his next anniversary event is as unique as the 150th was. I can't compete with the mathematical whizzes who came with the binary candles, and mixing chemistry and cake might be fatal. Say, I've got an idea! I think I'll just toddle over to the Caltech Earthquake Engineering Library and see what they can tell me about engineering volcanoes in cakes.

Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1984

Copyright © Miv Schaaf 1984. Used by permission of the author. Appeared as "Boyk Lets Fingers Do The Talking." Title given here is author's original, used at her request.

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