Swapping Songs With Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov
We all know that music can bring people together. In order to stimulate a conversation between a music critic and a guest – in this case the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov – about listening and living, there was a basic rule: each participant suggests a single piece that the other can listen to before the chat.
I decided on Bach’s “Goldberg” variations. Mr. Kasparov chose Beethoven’s 3rd symphony “Eroica”.
Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kasparov comes from a musical family: his paternal grandfather and uncle were composers, his grandmother was a pianist and his father studied violin before becoming an engineer. Former world chess champion Kasparov is now a political activist, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and chairman of the Democracy Renewal Initiative. He spoke by phone from his home in Croatia, where he spent the pandemic with his wife Daria and their two children. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The two pieces we picked are interesting in the context of the pandemic. The Beethoven symphony has the social dimension of the entire orchestra and the Bach is a single enigma.
The “Goldbergs” are not just one piece! It’s like an encyclopedia of music.
I like it. It feels like trying a problem in different ways. I chose Bach with all his fugues for you because I think chess has similar properties. The elegance of algorithms and the beauty that results from processes that actually follow very strict rules.
It was a new experience for me. I don’t listen to much music before Mozart. It was quite a discovery to understand that Bach introduced many future topics. I would use the term founding father from the world of chess or computers. I am amazed at people who are ahead of their time.
As I listened to the “Goldbergs”, I noticed what I see as parallels to the way pieces move in chess. Even in the opening aria there is this very methodical movement in the left hand, while the right hand has a lot more freedom.
I’m not sure. I see the aria as something divine, heavenly – but then it goes back to earth. It’s that combination.
What do you think of the joints in strict counterpoint? These lines interlock in a way that is both a beautiful mechanism and has that creative freedom.
Well, it’s about variety. I read the legend that Bach wrote it for his patron saint to fight insomnia. But it doesn’t seem like something to help people fall asleep. In the first 10 variations he basically demonstrates his strength as a composer. But then he moves on to something more interesting. We can hear the herald of new music in many variations. I have a favorite: Variation 25. It’s Chopin. It’s the first ballad. And I love Chopin.
What do you like about it? I hear a lot of melancholy in this variation.
It’s not sadness. It’s kind of realism. The world is the way it is and we have to accept it. I feel good. I also like variation 13. It draws you into this water of music. And for energy and style, I would go for number 16. In Variations 14 and 29, Bach is a virtuoso à la Liszt.
I feel like the connections I made with chess don’t feel true to you at all. Did you find something that you could relate to the game?
It’s more how the music relates to me, Garry Kasparov, the person. I left the pro game years ago. Sure, the “Goldbergs” are an encyclopedia. It’s a demonstration of what could be done. It was forward looking.
I was also curious to ask you about artificial intelligence and the extent to which beauty can emerge from a closed system with its own rules. Can a machine perform elegant movements or is the human spark required? Efforts are being made to teach machines to write music, including in Bach’s style.
A machine can learn rules, be it chess or music. It offers a variety of options and at some point it may come up with something. But creativity has a human quality: it accepts the notion of failure.
When machines approach a problem, it’s always about the end result: “This step is good because it offers the best return on investment.” But creative beauty shouldn’t break the rules, it should go beyond the familiar pattern.
They are preparing a nice transition to the Beethoven symphony you have chosen. So much of this is about changing received patterns and disrupting expectations. He has accents in the wrong place that will surprise you and build drama. A machine would never see the benefit of breaking these rules.
In a closed space a machine will beat people. But when we talk about art, the lines are blurry. We enjoy the journey into the unknown.
In Beethoven’s time, music was structured around the development of a theme. It meets an opposite topic and a story unfolds from it. I was curious whether that could be combined with a game of chess. In the sense that the opening determines a lot, but that the game develops in the encounter with your opponent.
I’m sorry to disappoint you again. I look at it from a different angle. They wrote the music because they heard it in their heads. It’s pure genius. You can make very complicated constructions. But it flows. It’s intuition. That’s my style of play too. This is the only time that I can make a parallel to my game. I know when a step is right.
With Beethoven, I see that as heroic. But it is different from Wagner. That’s mythology. It comes from another world. With Beethoven it’s human.
On a granular level, the “Eroica” has this energetic game with the idea of disturbance – it creates crises and then hurries forward again. Are there parallels you can draw with your political activism to bring about change?
Now you press the right button. It’s more about my political commitment. You have to pretend you’re heroic. But our struggle is not about a mythological object or about putting our name in the history books. It’s about other people and about making the world we live in better. And that’s a change. The “Eroica” is very rich with this shift.
I appreciate that you are being honest and disagree with my high level theories on counterpoint and chess. It shows that what a person reads in music is not necessarily what is there in the first place. It was fun trying these ideas out with you.
Thank you for making me listen to the Goldberg Variations. Now I have a greater appreciation for Bach. I was very surprised at how modern it feels.
It could have something to do with transparency. Because the structure is visible in Bach’s keyboard music, the same path in a really good modern architectural form only follows the function.
I could use another analogy. I do a lot of Lego with my five year old these days. You have a plan and then you have the Legos. And you can always see the structure.