I read back through Draft 1 and realized that I did it again – I started in the middle and took it for granted that you all (the figurative you all – you who are not me who are reading this) know what I know – the eureka moment that got me started on studying rehearsals and performances.
It’s true that this isn’t the real beginning. That, unfortunately, would mean telling you my life story and doing the thing that irritates every experienced scholar; hearing someone say, “since the beginning of recorded history” – always a red flag. This is, though, the beginning of when I began to think about the construction of performance actively.
The date is June, 1993. It’s probably a Sunday, and I’m definitely at a string quartet recital at a church in Old Town on the near north side of Chicago. Ernest Hemingway’s old neighborhood, incidentally. He lived across the street and down the block when he first got married. I know this because around the same time as the story I’m telling, I taught about two months’ worth of piano lessons to a woman who lived in the apartment below what had been Hemingway’s. A neat bit of history. At least I was impressed by it.
The church was a lovely old thing, and the recital was one of those moderately nice shebangs with a wine and cheese for starters. I don’t for the life of me remember who the quartet was or why we went, but if what I just looked up is right, the concert was free, which probably explains it. Confession of a researcher – just went back and looked this up and found the picture, too (see left). The address would indeed be 1239 North Dearborn, the woman seems to have had it right, and the church I’m speaking of is on the southwest corner of Dearborn and Division Streets. I’ll probably figure out which one because it’s going to bother me if I don’t. The church, though, seems to be two blocks up on the 1400 block.
I remember the space was lovely, and I sat in the recital space with a cocktail napkin in my hand. One of those – moments – hit me. I don’t know how to describe it any more precisely than that, but I think it’s because the ensemble – the ways the members of the quartet played and even breathed together – of the group was just superb. I got chills down my back. I can count the number of times in my life that has happened, and each of them has bound me tighter to the world of music.
Now we have the scene. I’m sitting next to my (now ex)husband, cocktail napkin in hand, and with chills running down my back because whatever they were played just knocked my socks off. And it wasn’t the piece – notice I couldn’t for the world tell what that was now – it was the way they played. All I could think was, how can they have done this? They are four different people, with four different brains, trained by four different sets of musicians (every musician that reaches professional status has had many teachers, and will frequently count music coaches and conductors as well as other ensemble members among their musical influences). They have different musical pulses and vocabularies. And yet – they are creating one thing. One performance. One understandable, coherent story, without a conductor. This, I knew, happened in the rehearsal space – when professional groups have time to rehearse, as my friend Kareem just reminded me the other day.
I wanted to understand how this happens. I did not know why it was important, I just knew it was and that it is.
Now, almost twenty years later, I have something of a theory. Of course. My theory is that we listen in different ways to the people around us. We listen to their experiences and to their stories. When we like someone, or we feel comfortable with someone, not only do we listen better, but we allow our playing to shape to the sounds we hear coming from that other person. Kareem was telling me that apparently brain wave research shows that even brain waves become more similar in this kind of situation.
Your, very reasonable, question is going to be, so what? You’ve been listening to me, I see. I ask people that all the time, particularly if they are my students. What’s important about this kind of listening? This kind of listening shows a relationship between the values a person has that come from his or her culture and the ways that this person will be willing to communicate with someone from a different culture. We see this with performers all the time. Not all performers are so flexible or understanding, but many are. We see less racism – if a performer can do the job and do it well, what matter his/her religion, or color of his/her skin? (at least while the person is playing)
I’m a Terry Pratchett fan, so of course my go-to book this past year has been his recent book Snuff. Okay, if you’re a Pratchett fan and you want to complain that his dialogue is not what it used to be, I won’t argue with you. Pratchett, though, has this way of talking about what I like to talk about as the “elephants in the room.” Snuff takes on racism – when a group looks too different, acts too differently, thinks too differently – people will treat them as less than human, less than equal. In Snuff it’s goblins that are the discriminated against group – until Lady Sybil (my hero, Commander Vimes – girly sigh-‘s wife) hears a goblin girl playing harp. This girl plays so beautifully that Sybil, who’s a sharp lady and much more honest with herself than most people, recognizes her own biases, and helps change the way society sees goblins. She arranges for the goblin girl, named Tears of a Mushroom, to have a solo harp performance in the Ankh-Morpork – Pratchett’s version of New York City, London, and maybe Paris all rolled up in one – opera house.
In real life these things don’t happen. One concert isn’t enough – but we try this all the time anyhow. What about Daniel Barenboim’s Israeli-Palestinian orchestra work? And any other international effort you care to name that tries to establish cross-cultural ties through music making? At my high school, “Dedicated to the Promotion of World Friendship through the Universal Language of the Arts” is posted on the back of the stage where all the major summer performances take place.
It’s pretentious, I’ll grant you, but this idea of connections that we can make through performance is an ideal many performers work towards.
This doesn’t mean that human behavior doesn’t get in the way. I became an ethnomusicologist somewhere along the way. A few years ago, at the annual conference for the Society of Ethnomusicology, I saw a paper presented about musicians who met and recorded rap online in Europe. They were, variously, from Germany and Iran. Musically they got along great. The Iranian rappers somehow got permission to travel to Germany for a music festival but once they got there all that communication went downhill. Politics got in the way, partly because those Iranian musicians knew they were going to get arrested as soon as they got back home.
The point I’m trying to make is that I tapped into something that lots of us in the arts are aware of, but we mostly don’t talk about. Ethnomusicologists do which, I think, is why I became one. Why is it performers do what they do? This is what I want to know. I’ll leave it to the psychologists and neuroscientists to figure out how.
Part 3 will connect up the dots between Parts 1 and 2. As always, comments are welcome.