Harsh Texture

Seymour: An Introduction

A documentary on the life of Seymour Bernstein, a virtuoso pianist who retired from public performance

“Seymour: An Introduction” concerns itself with Seymour Bernstein. A small man who eeks out a modest living in a one bedroom rent-controlled apartment in New York City through providing piano lessons. However for decades Seymour was one of the preeminent classical pianists of his generation. He toured the world, received rave reviews from the notoriously gruff critics of the day, and enjoyed the patronage of wealthy dowagers.

He is the subject of Ethan Hawke’s first documentary feature. It's clear Hawke views his subject with a mix of awe and respect. Seymour’s interviews are filmed in comfortable quarters. His interviewers are most often former pupils applying his teachings to their own playing or lives. They speak to him as an elder, even those who ascended to the elite ranks of musicianship hold out for his approval.

Ramsey Fendall’s camerawork first establishes Seymour as a creature of New York City. His apartment is draped in regal reds with volumes of books neatly filed up to the ceiling. Eventually he frames Seymour’s face in soft focus floating in a hazy warm glow. The effect must be liking to looking into the eyes of Siddhartha the river man.  

Ethan Hawke appears just a few times in the picture, and these appearances are very brief. While he does not dominate the picture in the same way as a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, he does establish the thesis. Seymour is presented throughout as a man of zen-like calm and easy grace. Hawke who’s increasingly suffering from intense stage fright is intrigued by a man who found inner peace through his art and furthermore merged the persona of the artist and the person into the same whole. So our examination of placid little Seymour is through Hawke’s harried lens. We’re constantly asking “how”.

That was Hawke’s intention, but my intention in seeking this film out was as a rejoinder to the recent Whiplash. I wasn’t alone in this. Seymour Bernstein attended my screening and engaged in some audience Q&A. When someone asked about Whiplash, he sighed. “Ah Whiplash,” he said in with a jovial cynicism, “my favorite picture” and nothing more on the subject.

There are actually many similarities between J. K. Simmon’s Fletcher and Seymour. They’re both relentless in their own way. They won’t let a student finish a piece incorrectly. The smallest errors, the lack of feeling of tempo are corrected on the spot. The bars of music repeated endlessly, the changes from attempt to attempt indistinguishable to the untrained ear.

Both men physically engage their students. While Fletcher invades and antagonizes with slaps and dominates by crowding, Seymour gets explicit invitation works almost as a spiritual masseuse, assessing their breathing, keeping time by tapping on their wrists.

By the end of the film I was able to appreciate classical as an interpretive artform. Not like jazz, where the performers are expected to produce whole passages and solos from scratch at every performance, but instead to add shape and form to existing music. Sheet music may come with instructions--Beethoven wrote directions in German and Italian to try convey his intentions while Bach only wrote notes (according to Seymour). In the film’s climax Seymour plays a piece by Schubert which is filled with playing instruction from the composer until the last part. Seymour ruefully notes that intimidates many performers into playing that portion quietly.

Of note from the audience Q&A at various points through the film images of Seymour’s contemporaries in pop and jazz fill the screen. They include the Beatles, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, and Woody Guthrie among others. Given Seymour’s seemingly sole focus on classical music its an open question whether these other artists represented his tastes or of Hawke’s. When asked this by an audience member, Seymour collected his thoughts and charitably offered “I admired them all greatly,” and then honestly “but I took nothing from them”.

Published: Jan. 21, 2018, 4:08 p.m.
Updated: Jan. 21, 2018, 4:08 p.m.