Stephen Hough on Pleasure: its delights and dangers

Stephen Hough’s tour is now well and truly over, and Stephen has arrived in the US for his next concerts, however we’d like to reflect on his time in Australia by reposting the text of the talk he gave at Musica Viva‘s Sydney gala.

I was delighted when the folks at Musica Viva asked me to give a talk at this dinner. But then they told me the topic: pleasure. Now even though I have an Australian passport there’s enough of the Englishman left in me to worry whether there wasn’t something almost indecent about discussing such a subject with people you don’t know very well.

I’m joking of course. Pleasure, whether we ‘talk’ about it or not, is like a magnet guiding our every move in life. It was the evolutionary path which led all of us to the place where today we live and move and have our being. It’s the carrot guiding us to do what’s good for us and avoid what’s bad for us. Food and sex, to take two obvious examples, are pleasurable because they ensure our existence. Pleasure is simply the way our bodies are designed to function, whether that pleases us or not.

And yet, if someone said to us: “All I live for is pleasure” I think we’d find it rather strange, even a little disturbing. I don’t think we’d entirely trust that person, or take him or her seriously. We’d have the sense that anything or anyone which got in the way of their pursuit of pleasure would quickly become dispensable. “All I live for is … music or money or justice or my family”; these may seem limited by themselves and we may have different reactions to a life built on any of these categories alone, but at least they somehow make sense. We may be hardwired to live guided by principles of pleasure, but it has to be as the fruit of something else. If we pursue it as an abstract ideal, outside of the tangible goods (important word) which bring it to us, it will most likely turn bad. If we go foraging for pleasure like a pig for truffles we will probably find that our hands get dirty and the fungus itself is lost – and a fine truffle is a terrible thing to lose! In a strange way, to reach out and grasp the bubble of pleasure it to pop it. To enjoy those bubbles requires us to let them float past. To shape our lives by pleasure alone would be like forming the rooms of our house with sheets of wallpaper but no walls on which to hang them.

Pleasure is an essential part of being human and, therefore, has within it a spark of the divine. As one of those strange creatures known as a Catholic, I believe that all things created are essentially good – or, as the Jewish understanding goes, life on earth is God in search of humanity, not the other way around. And yet I’m only too aware that religion has probably been the main force trying to root out pleasure across our planet, across the centuries. Let’s not even talk about sex, which has been fenced around, poisoned within an inch of its life, suffocated … despite the fact that we sort of need it to keep this show on the road. Music has been banned in some Islamic cultures, and dancing has been banned in some Christian cultures – so many things which flavour our lives with joy and ecstasy have been the subjects of suspicion and repression.

And yet, understood correctly, fasting or celibacy are not about despising pleasure, but rather acknowledging its importance, its value … its danger. When a monk gives up food he is voluntarily giving up something good, something to be treasured, something to be grateful for. When a nun gives up family life it’s a similar situation, or should be – she wants to offer God the most precious gift possible, with all of its pleasures and treasures. And beyond this life, it is only by some analogy with pleasure that the promise of life after death (heaven) has made any sense – eternal pleasure: if we deny pleasure now we can have it later for ever and ever – another kind of carrot. Of course we need a taste of it now to tempt us to its permanence later, which has made the whole question so confusing and contradictory. Perhaps we’ll leave that topic for another occasion! But I think the important issue here is with the pursuit of pleasure rather than the pursuit of the good things which carry pleasure in their trail. The roots of pleasure are the acts of a good life – well-being rather than well-feeling. Avoiding pain at all cost will not give us pleasure, but conquering our fear of pain may well help us along the way. And sharing pleasure (or making others happy) is one of the surest ways of experiencing pleasure or happiness ourselves.

All of this leads us to consider one of the main paradoxes of pleasure: we grasp it either as an anticipation of the future or as a reflection of the past, but it grasps us (usually without our control) in the present. We often look forward to a holiday or look back on a birthday party with greater pleasure than in the moment of partaking. We relish or savour pleasure in the past or in the future; the present moment of its visitation flies past too fast.

And so to music. It is the perfect example of this pleasure principle in the arts. Whereas with a book or a painting we control the time in which we experience the beauty, with a piece of music the beauty is carried along in the passage of time itself, a ‘passing’ (a journey and a decay) which is the pleasure. The notes vibrate past our ears, into our ears, in a sequence of sounds. Music does not have a ‘moment’ like the first bite of a rhubarb crumble, or the climax point of love-making, or the very last day at work before the holidays; music’s magic evaporates in front of our ears, leaving only a trail, an echo, a memory behind. Yet the very handicap of its transience is its greatest asset because it enables us to enjoy it over and over again. It creates its own time-frame of relish unlike books or paintings. And even though the sounds disappear, in classical music the score remains, the formula which can be mixed into potency once more – musicians as the witch-doctors of these ‘controlled frequencies’.

Related to this is one of the reasons I believe music needs tonality. It is part of the internal swing of pleasure and pain mirroring that of our lives. We desire, we crave the pleasure of concord after the pain of discord. And to refuse to resolve is to prevent the future repetition of the very pain that in turn allows the resolution. It is to freeze-frame something which only has meaning in ebb and flow. It is to halt the intangible ‘procession’, the journey which is music. For me (although I readily admit that others have an opposite and perfectly valid viewpoint), music which is irresolvably atonal has nowhere to go. It is a poor hamster on a wheel instead of a stallion galloping freely in the fields. I love a lot of atonal music, don’t get me wrong! But it no longer excites me when it is no longer creating tension against its opposite. Take away tonality from atonality and you are left with … A. All black or all white is myopic; it is in the greys where the colours begin to form, where the vision begins to entrance.

I’ve mentioned intangibility in music. It’s a strange concept for me in a way because I am ‘hands-on’ the keyboard for so much of my life. Playing the piano is very physical, and involves muscles and tendons from fingers through arms to shoulder and back. And yet all of this is to awaken sounds which resonate invisibly in the air. The existence of the vibrations is real of course – measurable as sound waves and controllable as such; but these waves are beyond touch in the way the music they create touches us. And here music is related to perfume, another real yet intangible art form existing for the purpose of pleasure. Perfume requires a chemist’s expertise. It isn’t exactly invisible or literally intangible – from bottle to spray we see and feel the liquid – but its effect on us is indeed unseen and mysterious. It awakens memories and it alters moods in a very similar way to music. It is also a ‘time-traveller’ – passing, evaporating and changing with us, quite literally as it blooms and then dies on our skin. Perfume is as ‘useless’ as music, but it has been said that great art, by definition, has to be useless. The minute we harness it, try to use it for a purpose other than to appreciate its intrinsic value, we de-struct the magic.

Puddings usually have little nutritional value and thus rarely have a purpose other than pleasure. Actually one of my greatest pleasures when dining is to see the extra cutlery laid indicating that something sweet and fattening is on the way. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to facilitate our mutual pleasure by speaking my last words and calling for dessert to be served.


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About Musica Viva Australia

Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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