Perfection is a concept I didn't fully appreciate until my eleventh grade Latin III class.
A classmate of mine used the word perfect to describe something, and my Latin teacher took the opportunity to teach us about Latin, and life. He was one of those rare teachers you usually find in the mold of your parent or your grandparent. The stereotypical teacher in a coming-of-age film, a living, walking, breathing life lesson waiting to happen at any moment.
His lesson was that the word "perfect" comes from the Latin verb perficiō, perficere, perfēcī, perfectus. In its infinitive form, it means "to finish". He explained that something described as perfect is something that cannot be improved because it was flawless. In this world, nothing can ever be truly perfect. So that adjective should be left for something that deserved it. He taught us that words were powerful things and that they must be reserved for the right circumstances.
After that day, I never heard my classmate speak that word again.
* * *
A few things have challenged for the title of perfection since then. A nickname that suited one of my friends. An image that made light of a rather dire situation. An instance where my iPhone's shuffle feature played the right song on a sad day. But to me, nothing has deserved the word like the album Program Music I by Kashiwa Daisuke. Especially the first song, "Stella" -- a thirty-six minute musical odyssey. And a perfect allegory for the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs.
A haunting arrangement of piano notes are backed by the sample of running water. But the water doesn't flow - it glitches, it halts, it stutters. Music is supposed to flow in a constant tempo, like a river snaking through a forest. Yet the song smears the sound of flow all around; violins and drums seem to hesitate to make an entrance, while the sounds of trains and laughter glitter in the background. It should be complete pandemonium, but there's a sense of purpose in each sound with each entrance and withdrawal. The song keeps its integrity in becoming music as opposed to just carefully arranged noise.
Last season, the San Antonio Spurs made waves throughout the league with their style of basketball, one that has been evolving ever since its inception: a system predicated on ball movement, player movement, and spacing. The players moved in perfect harmony, playing off each other's reads, cuts, screens, and drives. And the mastermind of it all, Gregg Popovich, holds his players accountable to playing within this system. Once a player steps even a femtometer outside of the parameters, he usually finds himself on the bench. However, the System is not a scheme that exists in rigidity - instead, it lives in a similar controlled chaos that "Stella" is in; it gives birth to dazzling plays. It is the employment of this system that is inflexible. Move the ball or die.
One exhale, and the music starts to build. One by one, instruments begin to play off each other; chords support the increasing tension; a rhythm is established by the unity of the composition. From there, music settles into a pattern. It heightens to a climax, then softly cascades to a calm before picking up once again. "Stella" is nature in song, playing its cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The focal point of each climax is different: the piano is the center of one, but the clarinet stars the other; the guitar enchants with a charming melody, then the oboe tickles with its precise notes; a torrent of syncopated drums erupts, only to be followed by a chorus of voices. However, the song is not feckless - it does not wander the heights of beauty aimlessly; it is not an anticlimactic book that disappoints where it should shine - it's the novel that shines so brightly that the words blossom in your mind, each breath in rhythm with the prose. Daisuke knew where he was going with his composition: a synthesis of soaring strings, piano runs, and driving drums awaits.
The 2013 NBA Finals did not end well for the Spurs. They stood on the precipice of glory, a few seconds away from glory. But they never attained glory - you know how the rest goes.
As the 2013-2014 Season proceeded, there was something different about the team. Their determination was palpable, fires alight in their eyes. The playoffs approached, and their resolve heightened with it. Along the way, on each night, you could count on any Spur to bring home a win. Sometimes it was Tony Parker with his brilliance in crunch time; other times it was Manu Ginobili with his signature point-sprees; sometimes Kawhi Leonard with a one-man stop and an easy two points. Like "Stella", the focal point of the Spurs changed as they built up momentum toward a Finals reappearance. Players stepped up and won games; they knew where they were going.
"We'll do it this time." Five words that each player had in his mind; five words that Tim Duncan declared before their rematch with the Miami Heat.
The haunting piano melody appears once again. Bass strums accompany it once in a while as it gently withers away into silence. The song ends much like it begins.
Once again, the Spurs faced the Heat. This time, they left no room for Lady Luck to fight against them. This Finals lacked the competitiveness that characterized the last. The Spurs showed overwhelming dominance from Game 3 to Game 5. And at the end, they stood happily where they began the journey one year prior.
Looks like last season could contend for the title of perfect too.
The Next Song
The two-song album follows with "Write Once, Run Melos".
Garbled noises again materialize. The feel switches, as if searching for an identity. Then, it settles into a jazzy ambiance, the piano and drums playing off each other. Soon, it builds, quicker than its counterpart: tension by way of percussive glitching and beeps, a chorus of strings play chords, the drums continue unrelenting. The climax is reached, and the tension built is let loose in a sound that blooms like a flower. Unlike "Stella" there is a gigantic climax right at the beginning of the song, leaving the last to be a gentle recession into silence.
. . . Or not. Once again, an energetic pressure builds: the gentle cascade of the piano is cut off - a brisk tune occupies it; the drums regain their intensity. Daisuke smudges distortion in increasing quantities, but takes it away before it becomes overwhelming. The song seems to have calmed, the remaining sound is a slow piano melody marred by glitching and accompanying strings. Three beats, like knocking on a door, signal that it's time to pick up again, and a rapid jump in action is blindsiding. The song doesn't seem to stop.
The Spurs currently stand 20-14 in the Western Conference, a record which puts them at the seventh seed. In the wake of their championship-winning season, a struggle might have been expected: the championship hangover, other teams getting stronger, the core getting older. Coupled with injuries, this forecast has materialized in a worse way. Not only that, the schedule has been unrelenting; the climax has quickly built. The Spurs played 18 games in 31 days this December, many of these against Playoff-bound, quality teams. January brings a more hopeful prospect: there are fewer games, less difficult opponents. The recession is coming, and, as the Spurs cascade down, they will find their footing. Soon, their momentum will build. The call for the Playoffs will knock on their door, and they'll blindside the rest of the league.
Program Music I is a two-song album. The album doesn't end until "Write Once, Run Melos" stops. Right now, its melody still manifests itself on the basketball court; the Spurs are gearing up for their next journey to the top.