May 13, 2013 13:46

A Perfect Harmony

A Perfect Harmony

Recently I saw the movie A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman, about four professional musicians in a famous string quartet struggling with rivalry, love and old age. Playing a little bit of classical piano myself, I found it interesting to see a Hollywood movie taking the subject of classical music itself seriously. It also reminded me of chess quite a few times.

Classical music in movies is mostly used as an illustration of a theme or a character trait – which is exactly what chess is often ‘used’ for as a motif in movies. With chess, you usually get symbols for strategic insight or madness; with classical music, it’s mostly a symbol for death.

Two of my favourite actors of recent times, Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman, play the main characters. But despite their greatness as Hollywood actors, in A Late Quartet they were clearly struggling to credibly ‘playback’ their instruments (cello and second violin respectively). It often looked rather clumsy, but this clumsiness, too, reminded me of chess. A clumsy black square in the right corner or a king and queen reversed in the starting position are very common indeed in movies featuring chess.

Yet despite these criticisms, I did like the movie as a fine portrait of the struggles and challenges that all professional top performers face. In one key scene, Robert, the quartet’s second violinist (played by Seymour Hoffman) discusses the personality of the first violinist Daniel (played by Mark Ivanir) with his beautiful daughter Alexandra (played Imogen Poots). Alexandra remarks that Daniel, whilst being a brilliant first violinist, doesn’t seem to be capable of loving. Robert drily answers: “Oh, he has plenty of love. He just saves it all for his violin.”

This striking remark very much reminded me of a certain type of chess professional, of which Bobby Fischer (“chess if life”) is just the most obvious example. Dutch grandmaster J.H. Donner once remarked that for chess players, “living in their own small world” is actually quite normal. Every time I visit my local chess club it strikes me how passion for a ‘mere’ game can totally dominate ordinary people’s lives. The Amsterdam chess scene is well known for a lot of typical chess types who are almost like recluses, and a lot of literature has been written about them. 

Perhaps, like Daniel in A Late Quartet, in order to become really good at something – just a little bit better, for instance, than the second violinist in your very own string quartet - you have to give up a certain part of your personality. Never mind having a wife, kids and an ordinary job: some of the greatest writers, scientists, composers and chess players in history have defied this kind of life and preferred a rather more solitary approach to existence. In the movie, the consequences of a musician’s life are painfully brought to light when Alexandra furiously accuses her mother of having preferred a music career over being a good parent.

A Late Quartet is also a very good portrayal of the technical expertise required to become a top performer, and the endless practising that goes with it. In one very striking scene in the movie, Alexandra must play a certain Beethoven fragment over and over again without ever getting it right. The same is obviously true of chess, as for instance Malcolm Gladwell has noted: you can’t become a top player unless you start memorising typical positions at young age, and you can’t become a top player unless you’ve played – and lost - countless games as a learning experience – approximately 10,000 hours according to Gladwell.

Playing a musical instrument on top level and playing chess on top level may be comparable when it comes to developing and expanding one’s individual talents and passions, but in a string quartet, the individual performer also has to take into account the ‘bigger’ picture, i.e. the three other instruments and his fellow musicians playing them.

This, I think, is where A Late Quartet is most convincing. In music, certainly in making music with others, there is a constant tension between individual expression - individual brilliance and skill - and team work, which chess is lacking. Ultimately, it’s not passion and skill alone that make for an interesting movie – it’s the conflict between personal ambition and the ability to work together as a team.

In chess team matches, something similar can be observed. I am not only talking about uncomfortable situations where the team has lost and everybody is down, but one player seems to be happy because he won his individual game. Remember those the cases where you had to choose between accepting a draw offer, thus securing victory for the team, and playing on for a good personal result, putting the team victory at risk.

In my opinion, playing chess in a team is in fact completely different from playing chess individually, but for some reason chess federations don’t recognise this. In team matches, it’s only the collective result that counts, and this should be reflected properly in the evaluation of the effort. FIDE and other federations are experimenting with new ratings for rapid and blitz chess – one of their less absurd ideas actually - but why don’t we have separate ratings for teams, and why not abolish counting games played in team matches for individual ratings?

If A Late Quartet makes one thing clear, it’s that all individual voices must in the end merge and serve the higher purpose of perfect harmony. This is something we chess players can still learn from – not only in team matches but also, for instance, in terms of changing some of the uglier sides of chess politics. Yes, the best chess players in the world are all geniuses, but wouldn’t it be great to see a movie about a brilliant chess player who not only conquers his own inner demons, but also somebody else’s?


Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Anonymous's picture

beautiful insight!

Dan's picture

Okay that's it, I think I'm in love with CHESSVIBES!

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Wim Nijenhuis's picture

With due respect, I think Arne overshoots here.
I must protest. Chess is always on two levels: a fight between two persons of life and blood, and between black and white. So is harmony. The harmony Arne advocates is the political harmony, of teamplays etc, of FIDE, it is not the harmony of Smyslov's "In search of harmony". THAT is a purely musical harmony, of black and white, point counterpoint, whatever.

bronkenstein's picture

Well, that was really inspired =)

prokof's picture

A pity Arne Moll does'nt write more often !

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