Swapping Songs With Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov

Music|Swapping Songs With Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov

Music brought a critic and a guest together, in a conversation about Bach, Beethoven, chess and politics.

Credit…Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Music, we all know, can bring people together. To stimulate a conversation between a music critic and a guest — in this case, the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov — about listening and life, there was one ground rule: Each participant suggests a single piece for the other to listen to ahead of the chat.

I chose Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. Mr. Kasparov picked Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”

Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Mr. Kasparov comes from a musical family: His paternal grandfather and uncle were composers, his grandmother was a pianist and his father studied the violin before becoming an engineer. A former World Chess Champion, Mr. Kasparov is now a political activist, a prominent critic of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative. He spoke by phone from his home in Croatia, where he has 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 full orchestra and the Bach is a solitary puzzle.

The “Goldbergs” are not just one piece! It’s like an encyclopedia of music.

I like that. There is that sense of trying out a problem according to different possibilities. I picked Bach for you, with all his fugues, because I think of chess as having similar qualities. The elegance of algorithms and the beauty that comes out of processes that actually obey very strict rules.

For me it was a new experience. I don’t listen to much music before Mozart. It was quite a discovery to understand that Bach introduced many future themes. From the chess or computer world, I would use the term founding father. I am amazed by people who are ahead of their time.

Listening to the “Goldbergs” I was struck by what I see as parallels with 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 much more freedom.

I’m not sure. I see the Aria as something godly, heavenly — but then it goes back to earth. It’s this combination.

What do you make of the fugues in strict counterpoint? These lines that interlock in a way that is both a beautiful mechanism and has this creative freedom to it.

Well, it’s about variety. I read the legend that Bach wrote it for his patron to fight insomnia. But it doesn’t strike me as something that helps people go to sleep. The first 10 variations, he’s basically demonstrating his power as a composer. But then he shifts to something that is more interesting. In many of the variations we can hear the herald of new music. I have one favorite: Variation 25. It’s Chopin. It’s the first Ballade. And I love Chopin.

What is it that attracts you to that? I hear a lot of melancholy in that variation.

It’s not sadness. It’s a kind of realism. The world is as it is, and we have to accept it. It makes me feel comfortable. I also like Variation 13. It draws you into this water of music. And for energy and style I would pick number 16. In Variations 14 and 29, Bach is a virtuoso à la Liszt.

I get the sense that the connections I made to chess don’t feel true to you at all. Did you find anything that you could relate to the game?

It’s more how the music relates to me, Garry Kasparov, the person. I left the professional game years ago. Sure, the “Goldbergs” are an encyclopedia. It’s a demonstration of what could be done. It was prescient.

I was also curious to ask you about artificial intelligence, and to what extent beauty can come out of a closed system with its own rules. Can a machine make moves that are elegant or is the human spark required? There are efforts that try to teach machines to write music, even in the style of Bach.

A machine can learn rules, whether it’s chess or music. Offered a variety of options, it can eventually come up with something. But creativity has a human quality: It accepts the notion of failure.

The way machines approach a problem is always about the bottom line: “This move is good because it offers the best return.” But creative beauty is not to go against the rules, but beyond the known pattern.

You’re setting up a nice transition to the Beethoven symphony you picked. So much of that is about changing received patterns and disrupting expectations. He has accents in the wrong place that take you off guard and build drama. A machine would never see the advantage of breaking those rules.

In a closed space a machine will beat humans. But when we are talking about art, the lines are blurry. We enjoy the journey into the unknown.

In Beethoven’s period, music was structured around the development of a theme. It encounters an opposing theme and out of that a story unfolds. I was curious if you could connect that to a chess game. In the sense that the opening determines a lot, but that it’s in the encounter with your opponent that the game develops.

Sorry to disappoint you again. I view this from a different angle. They wrote the music because they heard it in their heads. It’s pure genius. They can make very complicated constructions. But it’s flow. It’s intuition. That’s also my playing style. That’s the only time I can make a parallel to my playing. I know when a move is right.

With Beethoven I see it as heroic. But it’s different from Wagner. That’s mythology. It comes from another world. With Beethoven it’s human.

At a granular level the “Eroica” has this energetic play with the idea of disruption — creating crises and then rushing forward again. Are there parallels you can draw to your political activism, with how to effect change?

Now you hit the right button. It’s more about my political engagement. You have to pretend to be heroic. But our fight is not for some mythological object or carving our name in the history books; it’s about other humans and improving the world we live in. And that’s a shift. The “Eroica” is very rich with this shift.

I appreciate you being honest and rejecting my high-flung theories about counterpoint and chess. It shows that what one person reads into music is not necessarily what’s there at all. It was fun to try out these ideas with you.

Thank you for forcing me to listen to the “Goldberg” Variations. Now I have a greater appreciation of Bach. I was very surprised by how modern it feels.

It might have something to do with transparency. Because in Bach’s keyboard music the structure is visible, the same way in really good modern architecture form just follows function.

I could use another analogy. These days I’m doing a lot of Lego with my five-year-old. You have a plan and then you have the Legos. And you can always see the structure.

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Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim