Art vs Chemistry

The curious tale of the musician, Dr Frankenstein, and apocalyptic Tesco on Christmas Eve…..

A guest post by pianist Emmanuel Vass

Definition of art 


1 [mass noun] the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.


Definition of chemistry 


1 [mass noun] the branch of science concerned with the substances of which matter is composed, the investigation of their properties and reactions, and the use of such reactions to form new substances.

As I sat by the piano in the recording studio waiting for the next red light, I couldn’t help but think about my abrupt transformation from artist to chemist, as defined above. I was sixteen and, having just played a Chopin Nocturne from start to finish, there were one or two small fluffs and errors, which I considered re-recording and editing. Why? The track was for my own personal use and was never going to go beyond the four walls of my Yorkshire bedroom. Until that point, my teachers encouraged me to discount any mistakes in live performance and continue regardless of the odd inaccuracy: bigger picture and the overall artistic communication what I was always told to aim for. We’re only human, after all. Unexpectedly, the option of appearing ‘super human’ and re-recording sections of pieces until they were perfect had a certain appeal, and it was from that moment on that my potential status as an artist-cum-chemist, a Dr Frankenstein, first began.

It is no secret that musicians strive for perfection, a perfection that may involve securing a technical inconsistency, or developing a better form of communication within a piece – we are all a work in progress. Whether you are a beginner or professional, there will always be something further to strive for and now, as a 24-year-old pianist, I discover new possibilities and developments within my playing on a regular basis; I also hear it whilst teaching my pupils. It is wonderful how much can change within as little as five days, especially with regards to a live performance of the same piece, say, twice in one week. After all the blood, sweat and practice tears striving for perfection, a live performance may go fantastically well one day and less so on another. Comfort and enjoyment onstage knowing the piece has gone well a number of times in the past can, for instance, suddenly yield to confusion as to where that random wrong note came from. It is something we all experience to varying degrees, and is part of the exhilarating, impulsive and unmistakably human-world of live performance, which I fell in love with aged seven. To dedicate yourself with total abandon to a live performance, both as a listener and performer, is to accept that occasionally, just sometimes, the unexpected may occur.

Now consider the world that surrounds us and the ensuing paradox: we live in an age of convenient, digital, airbrushed perfection where a vast amount of items presented to us are expertly designed and manipulated. The lines between reality and illusion, and how we perceive and identify them, have been blurred to the point where entire body parts of celebrities can be digitally sewn on and removed, ‘Frankenstein-ed’, as to morph our opinions and perceptions. We have the luxury of driving around in cars that can protect us from ever making a wrong turn; international news can break on social media via eyewitness films long before newspapers or twenty-four hour news can give a detailed description, and the entire country seems to go into apocalyptic meltdown when the instant convenience of supermarket shopping is lost for just twenty four hours on Christmas Day. I rarely buy bread, but come Christmas Eve there I am elbowing past panic-stricken mothers who also appear to have the entire contents of the cheese aisle stuffed into their pushchairs. In many ways I believe the entire world as we know it is just an all too convenient, disposable and HD-streamed click away: I won’t read the book and will just wait for Hollywood to feed me their version, or, I could probably learn a language but online translator machines can do it for me. Who needs to write a letter when you can talk instantly via webcam? Why bother travelling to Paris, you’ve seen all the stock, generic photos on Facebook and Google Streetviews, right?!

I’m here neither to argue that we should do away with these modern conveniences, nor rant about how the world has changed for the worst and we’re most definitely, direly doomed for all eternity. Rather, my fear is that certain audience members may have been conditioned to believe that a live performance that is anything other than note-perfect is not a worthy one, that the lines between the supposed illusion within the world of recording and reality of the concert hall are far too blurred. There is, of course, a difference between the odd wrong note and a distinct, noticeable problem with fluency and continuity; here I accept that in this situation a performance may start to be deemed ‘less successful’. That said, as humans, we are bound to make mistakes and we should never aspire to be machines; nothing should ever anaesthetise us from the raw reality of life. Does this not contradict the whole point of art in the first place? Perhaps some would be more satisfied listening to pre-programmed robots over real musicians?

 As mentioned in my opening paragraph, recording can be a very complex process for musicians. Of course, not every musician heavily edits or relies on sophisticated recording software – indeed, I didn’t have the time or the money to do so for my first album, ‘From Bach to Bond’. Similarly, it would be absurd to comment that a 100% accurate performance is impossible to achieve or less artistically valuable. I hope the discerning audience member of a live performance would value their experience based on the authenticity, emotion and artistic powers of the performer, and not just their ability to mechanically replicate the exact formula. Judging an artist on their capacity to be an onstage chemist is not an equation for success.

For those of you who prefer the anaesthetised comfort of CDs/recordings and hate wrong notes, I tell you what, you can go ahead and look at pictures and videos of Paris on the Internet, and I’ll go and travel to Paris myself. We are all a work in progress.

Emmanuel Vass will be giving a lunchtime concert at St Sepulchre, the musicians’ church in London on Wednesday 10th July. Full details here

Emmanuel Vass

Named as ‘one to watch’ by The Independent newspaper in April 2013, twenty-four year old Emmanuel Vass is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most charismatic pianists on the contemporary scene. 2013 has already seen the launch of his first CD – From Bach to Bond – and his first UK recital tour under the same heading. The tour, which took in seven venues across the North of England and culminated in his London debut at Steinway Hall and St James’s Piccadilly, attracted considerable media interest, including a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune.

Emmanuel Vass was born in Manila, Philippines and grew up in East Yorkshire. Having passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of 15, he subsequently studied with Robert Markham at Yorkshire Young Musicians, the centre for the advanced training for gifted young musicians based at Leeds College of Music. This was followed by four years at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Manny studied with John Gough and was supported by scholarships from the Leverhulme Scholarship Trust and the Sir John Manduell Scholarship Trust. He graduated in 2011.


  1. Hi Tony! I would certainly agree with the “good enough” analogy. I’m sure many fellow musicians would share these anxieties; all we can do is try to be good enough in an industry which is brimming with excellence and talent.
    I would assume those who have performed anything themselves would ‘detect’ a missed note, but one would hope they would be sympathetic to the demands of live performance. Otherwise, I’m sure the majority of audience members would be none the wiser, or at least not care enough for it to cause any problems.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful article. As a recent graduate in a Counseling program with an interest in music, I am reminded of the term coined by the late, great psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, “Good Enough.” Winnicott applied this phrase to parenting in general and mothering in particular. In other words, we try to be good enough. No more, no less. I think that applies to musicians as well as any creative artist. Also, I wonder how many attending a performance will be so familiar with a piece of music to detect a missed note?

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