Tag: rituals

Music As Performance Art (Part 1 of 2)

Musical performance is an inherently theatrical experience. Like all performance art, its paradigms evolved from the religious ritual and community meetings that were conducted publicly on the edge of towns where people gathered, at the crossroads. Part of the enjoyment we take in live renditions of our favorite music derives from the rituals surrounding these shows. The arena rock concert experience begins with memorabilia purchases before settling into seats to wallow in an immersive multimedia spectacular. Club shows generally involve holding beverages while standing amid a tightly packed crowd of like-minded spectators. We time our arrival knowing that the opening acts won’t begin playing until well after the announced starting time and if we want to hear the headlining act we’ll need to wait several hours. The musicians array themselves across the stage in a predetermined order, with the singer nearly always placed front and center and the guitarist commanding a wide swath of downstage right territory while the bassist and other instrumentalists fade somewhat into the stage left background. Intense amplification allows the sound to envelop us so that our cheers and shouting barely register with our immediate neighbors. The experience is all encompassing and communal.

For people who grew up going to rock concerts, the classical concert experience can be a bit difficult to figure out. The performances start on time and latecomers are not welcomed. Instead of showing appreciation by shouting and cheering vociferously as often as possible and whenever the players launch into a personal favorite, the delicacy of the music forces the audience into such complete silence that even shifting in one’s seat or slightly rustling a program can disturb people several rows away. Singing along with the performers is absolutely verboten. The instrumentalists might stop and retune in the middle of a piece, but anyone who claps in these spots risks ridicule from others. These artists dress like waiters in a fancy restaurant, a costume reflecting their status as servants to the music created by long-dead composers, who were often employed as domestics in ancient courts themselves. All of these traditions developed over hundreds of years, and, while they remain very much intact in the orchestral world, few experimental ensembles abide by most of them. Instead, if you’re interested in hearing acoustic instruments create odd sounds, you’re more likely to hear that in a bar performed by people dressed like … people.

When I first began to explore experimental music, I found one aspect of the classical performance tradition absolutely thrilling and far superior to rock shows: the relationship between the physical gestures of the musician and the sound created. While rock guitarists might run around the stage and whirl their arms like windmills, these antics are extraneous to the sound itself; the strength of the chord derives from the volume setting on the amplifier rather than the size of the windup before the strum. Conversely, the body control needed to make a violin scream or whisper is immediately apparent to the acoustic audience, even to my untrained eyes. When I discovered the music of George Crumb—whose piece Black Angels asks the members of a string quartet to use a wide variety of techniques to get unusual sounds, while also having them play percussion instruments and vocalize—I could viscerally relate to the relationship between the physical gestures of the performers and the incredible variety of absolutely beautiful sounds they produced. I knew I was hooked.

I’ve always been drawn to musicians who think of themselves as performance artists, who consider the staging as an integral part of the listening experience. The first album I remember buying for myself was Double Platinum by Kiss, a purchase that I made because their costumes comforted me due to their resemblance to cartoons. As I moved into high school, I discovered Peter Gabriel and his penchant for donning outfits expressing the texts of his songs. He led me to Laurie Anderson and the idea of “performance art.” David Byrne and his big suit served as a gateway to Brian Eno and also the stage director Robert Wilson, who in turn led me to his collaborative partner, the composer Philip Glass. In Glass and later Meredith Monk, I discovered a new conception of the term opera.

[Next week: Incorporating the influence of rock and opera into experimental music performances]

Oh, the Ironing!

As I’ve discussed previously in this space, I took an unusual path towards a career in music. I didn’t perform music in any formal concert setting until I was well into my doctoral studies, other than a brief stint as an improvising (because I couldn’t read music) auxiliary percussionist in my high school orchestra and another as a tenor in my college choir. My interest in composing stemmed directly from my high school exposure to electronic music, and yet as an adult I’ve mostly avoided creating pieces with any synthesized elements. As an adult, this odd background has served me surprisingly well. Since I approach classical music from the perspective of an outsider, I can continue to question the basic assumptions that can detract from our experience of new music.

For the past several years, during the time that I’ve been teaching full-time at the Peabody Conservatory, I’ve been working towards filling the lacunae in my musical upbringing. Finally, I’ve set aside my fears and have begun performing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in this regard to have quickly moved from someone with a remarkable dearth in performance experience to someone who has been able to play live with people whose musicality and warmth have moved me to my core (my favorites have included Susan Alcorn, Dave Ballou, John Dierker, Tim Feeney, Mike Formanek, Dana Jessen, Bonnie Lander, Courtney Orlando, Erik Spangler, and Ken Ueno—I’ve been a very fortunate son). Last week, I even premiered a new concerto of mine as toy piano soloist with a chamber orchestra.

As part of this new journey, I’ve gleaned several helpful pointers. Among the most surprising was this: before a big event, it’s important to take a few minutes to iron my shirt. I know this tip seems trivial to the point of ridicule; however, it’s actually an important part of my routine. At a premiere, a million things can go wrong, and I take great comfort in knowing that there is this one small aspect of the performance that I can control. I might miss an entrance (actually, I can pretty much count on missing at least one entrance), a wind instrument might experience a buildup of humidity, a string might break, a percussionist’s hands might slip while changing mallets, but at least my shirt will be clean and crisp.

For me, the simplicity of the task is a source of comfort in and of itself. It requires enough concentration that my mind can’t continue to obsess over the details of the upcoming event, and the rocking motion soothes my subconscious. The physical labor requires me to slow down, to take a moment to stop everything and to focus on something other than the music. Finally, this ritual allows me to gain confidence. The friend of mine who originally introduced me to the joys of ironing points out the importance of the following paradigm: Look the part, be the part.

Gentle reader, I’m curious as to what pre-performance rituals you’ve created in order to calm your nerves. What non-musical tasks help you to prepare for a performance?