Friday, July 04, 2008

Performing music with Authority or Authenticity?

Dear Flutey readers,

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with James Boyk, author of "To Hear Ourselves as Others Hear Us." He brought up the topic of "Playing music with authority" and we shared a few ideas about this in the hopes of developing even more. Please join the conversation. :>)

The first problem that came up for me, having been born in the '60s, was my difficulty with the word "Authority". Right away my personality cries: "I don't want to be TOLD how to play by a board-of-perfect-interpreters-of-Bach, or an historically-informed-committee-on-the-motives-of-Debussy, I want to play with the freedom that the music shows me, and yet really give life to the composer's vison". So perhaps what I really want is to play music with authenticity?
And, of course, google as I might, I can find no learned articles on playing music with either a-word, so I shall open the discussion up to you the readers. What is it to perform with these qualities?

From my own training I know that I recognize a performer who is "playing with authority". The music sounds "in the now; in the zone; of the moment; deep, and very REAL". I've often used the "play with authority" phrase when a student is playing in a wistful, vague or meandering manner. The music may sound as though it's aimlessly drifting. So, as teachers before me, I too will find myself echoing those words "Oh please play that with authority" and will add: "Perhaps put some lyrics to it, create poetry. You want to be like an actor and SAY something with that phrase; something that you can believe in...." but what does musical authority really mean? Is it the Authority of the performer's vision, or the composer's vision? Or is it the Authority of the performer in recreating that vision in unison?
I often share with students the advice to "walk the razor's edge!" inspired by a passage by Herbert Whone in his delightfully pithy "The Simplicity of Playing the Violin".

"Life interest is directly dependent upon a play between opposites. The emergence of hope in the middle of despair, success in failure, or love out of hate, all give rise to a tension without which life would fall flat.
An actor's art is in manipulating such opposites so that an audience is never certain in which direction it is being led. A violinist may not have words at his disposal but he too has the power to hold an audience on a tightrope through his own particular
manipulation of opposites....
For the player, freedom is not an anarchic release from the bondage of the bar-line but with a subtle note to note flexibility which works within and transcends them.
Such freedom is seen in the whole creative process where the the free spirit, in bondage to matter, moves deviously within it to avoid captivity.
This deviousness is entirely unpredictable. Even in the laws of mathematics, in the structure of harmonics, and in the well-tempered scale, there is always something that does not quite fit. Art has the same unpredictability---the same itching to avoid confinement. It is man's attempt to return through beauty to the infinite: th aesthetic sense is adaptable and unpredictable, reconciling the opposites of free will and bonded intellect. Freedom---or beauty--for the performing musician, is the sensitive avoidance of restrictions that the beats and bar-lines would impose upon him. Such 'inaccuracies'--the holding back or the urging forward of individual notes, or groups of notes--are the unspeakable in music. If a composer were to include all he hears when he conceives his compositions, the pages of music would be black with print: he would also restrict the uniqueness of the individual performances. The written page is therefore the merest guide to playing the music.

...Another aspect of the free and the bound is the player's relationship with his instrument....A delicate balance must be found
between the effort from the player to play and the need of the instrument to play itself. As a human being hinders his understanding by an excess of his own personality, so a player inhibits the potential of his instrument by trying to force it to speak. His instrument wants to speak without his help: the acquiring of a technique is only a means of allowing this to happen."

Whone's quote brings home to us to the first point we must understand about authenticity or authority in music:
1. It requires a very fine technique. As we all know, a fine and freeing technique is not the result of chaotic or random freedom :>), it's the result of many hours of musical skill-building to obtain a finely honed technique on your instrument so that you can perform the composer's pure musical intentions. You want the composer's ideas pouring through you without any personal physical restrictions.
One of the ways to visualize this high level of technique is to observe the technical training inherent in the body work of very gifted dancers as they are interpreting modern choreography. I was particuarly taken with these dances seen recently in competition. Note the mesmerizing emotional purity that these dancer's technique has allowed them to express:

Mia Michael's Choreography on youtube:
Dance ONE
Dance TWO

Here is what the choreographer says about individuality and why it's absolutely required in order to find the dancer's own voice and expression.
A performer who really has the technical skills to be truly free is indeed "avoiding captivity" all the while spell-binding the audience. This can be done in music through the same kind of technical training that leads to creative freedom of expression.

Choreographer Michaels also speaks on "being in the moment" which brings me to the second point:

2. Musical authenticity (or authority) relies a unified body and mind. You perform so that you are "living in the moment" without internal conflict. The most emotionally moving and fascinating musical performances are those in which the performer seems to be "in the zone", completely focused, and utterly emotionally available to the music with the resonation of the whole body. There is no internal war with the self expressed by that body; it gives itself wholly to the task of expression.
This concept is very aptly expressed by deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie in her Ted Talk on "How to listen with your whole body"
Through merging yourself into the music and becoming a participant in the sound that arises, the sound and intentions of the music are amplified through focus and resonance.

3. Thirdly, authenticity often asks artist to look deeply into themselves and to find simplicity without pretense. This may mean removing blockages.
Here is an good quote about finding your authentic voice in music:
From an interview with singer Meredith Monk:
Q: When you are working on a new piece how do you find its authentic voice?
Meredith Monk: I think that it is an uncovering process, and I try not to necessarily accept the first or easiest solution. Making a work is a digging down process. I was thinking about it last night — how one of the things in practice is to really be in the moment and accept things as they are. And I was wondering about that in terms of the dissatisfaction aspect, because often one of the problems in art is that people are too easily satisfied. There needs to be some kind of sifting process, where you take the time and patience to work through the easiest and most superficial solutions in order to discover something deeper......
I think I still have some confusion about the critical mind. But it seems that there’s a difference between the critical mind, which is a kind of judgment, and has a harshness built in, cutting off impulses before they can develop, and discriminating intelligence, which can differentiate between what is authentic or genuine and what is contrived or forced. That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something.

These topics are also very interestingly touched upon in the following twenty minute films:
Amy Tan on Creativity

Robbins talks on why we do what we do and how emotion *is* the creative force in life.

Finally I'd like to open up the discussion to all readers: What do YOU think the paths to performing with musical authority are?
Who is the authority? Or is it human authenticity? I'd love your input on this.
Best, and lots to munch on in music, art and dance,
Jen Cluff :>)
Comments (1)
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had been listening to a collection of jazz standards that included multiple versions of 'Stella by Starlight', when Charlie Parker's version from 'Charlie Parker With Strings' came on. Immediately, the phrase 'playing with authority' came to mind. Yes, being in the moment seems the essence of it, and I was there with him. This is the right vehicle to say what should be said now in the very personal way I can say such a thing to these people who will be able to recognize the wonder of it.

Monday, June 08, 2009 10:11:00 AM


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