Christian Long

Eric Lewis: Plays Chaos and Harmony

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 10:36 am

Reflection by RIVU D.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Eric Lewis: Plays Chaos and Harmony

When you hear the terms chaos and harmony, you are most likely to come to the conclusion that the words are in fact antonyms of each other. In other words, direct and complete opposites. When one thinks of chaos, one thinks of mass disorder, pandemonium, and non uniformity, while when one thinks of harmony, they think of balance, tranquility, and peace of mind. Eric Lewis employs uses a breed of chaos in order to create a more subtle harmony, and he seamlessly mixes the two entities together to create a very unique, powerful, and undoubtedly emotional sound.

Whether you like the music in the video “Plays Chaos and Harmony” or dislike the music is another matter entirely, for music is something that different people interpret in different ways.

Some people may enjoy hearing violent screaming and guitar riffs while some may prefer soft piano. So, the question isn’t whether or not you like the music, it is whether or not the music manages to delivers its message to you. Now, this video is one without a single word, so the only medium in which it can deliver any form of message is through its music, meaning that it is relying on one sole entity to demonstrate a point. At first thought, you may think that a video without any words and only music is difficult to interpret due to the fact that most people tend to get incredibly opinionated, including myself, about particular music. But to me, the actual music wasn’t necessarily the point of the video, because well, anybody can learn to play the piano myself included, but it takes someone special, and in this case radical, to be invited to a convention of this caliber and prestige. The point of the video to me was rather, how he went about playing the piano, and that’s where we bring back our friends chaos and harmony.

The first thing you might notice is that at times Eric Lewis is just banging keys, as though he were a young child who had no clue as what to do with a piano.

Going off of that comparison, if you’ve ever been near a child and he sees a piano, the first thing he tends to do is bang his tiny little fists down onto the piano. From all of my personal experiences, the sound is, for lack of a better word, disgusting. But then the question that comes to mind is, how does Eric Lewis pull it off without making it sound irritating? Simple, there is a very subtle difference in a child banging his fists on keys and Eric Lewis doing the same. Both create distorted chaotic sounds, but the difference is that Eric Lewis knows where to bang his fists, while a child does not. What a child does with his fists on a piano is what I would call true chaos, because it is blind and in a sense not controlled, but what Eric Lewis does can be dubbed with the oxymoron calculated chaos, as he knows exactly where to create the disturbances to make them sound “harmonious”.

I previously implied that anybody can play the piano well, so there had to be something incredibly special about Eric Lewis. In my opinion, that special something is not the fact that he can play the piano incredibly well – its obvious that he can – but rather, his knowledge of the instrument to the point where he can hit seemingly random keys and know where to go from there to create something that, while maybe not pleasing to some, is undoubtedly music. Another quirky thing he does that illustrates his knowledge of the instrument is the way he adjusts the strings on the inside of the piano, which is in fact a revolutionary idea. The knowledge of the instruments inner mechanisms and workings gives the pianist ten fold the control he originally had over the instrument, as not only does he know that a certain key makes a certain sound, he knows why that key makes that sound and how to adjust that sound accordingly.

If you watch the video, another thing you might notice is the incredible passion and fervor that Eric Lewis plays with. The easiest way to notice his enthusiasm is simply to look at his facial expressions and how frequently they change. The expressions on his face are borderline euphoric when the music is “happy”, and depressed when the music is in a sadder tune. The music seemingly has such a tight grip on his mind that his facial expressions naturally change in dramatic ways along with the music which is a brilliant illustration of true passion and confidence. And if he is purposefully changing his expressions to go along with the music, it can be safely said that he is just as much of an accomplished actor as accomplished pianist.

In my own personal opinion, the title of the video (the only words available for interpretation, therefore important) is a bit misleading, provided you are a literalist such as myself. Chaos can never create harmony simply to due to the fact that it is chaos, it is wild and uncontrollable, and adding more chaos isn’t helping the chance of creating harmony, just creating more chaos. Rather, what creates harmony in Eric Lewis’s piece isn’t necessarily chaos, its his immense knowledge of the piano itself. This knowledge gives him the ability to disguise his key thrashing gestures as merely random banging, when in actuality he is more than likely just being incredibly precise with his hands.

Thus, I don’t believe the title should be “chaos and harmony”, because Eric Lewis isn’t necessarily playing chaos. Chaos by nature is something that is almost always considered dislikable, and Eric Lewis wouldn’t be at TED just to play music the vast majority of the audience would find unfavorable. What the title should rather be in my opinion is, “Eric Lewis uses knowledge to create disordered harmony”. “Disordered Harmony” may seem to be an oxymoron, similar to “Calculated Chaos”, but after watching the video, the viewer will understand how harmony can in fact be created under the mask of disorder.

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