How much is too much?
December 11, 2003 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Emotional rescues. An article by Susam Tomes questions how much distance is required by a performer in order to communicate emotion effectively. Does the on-stage show of emotion by some musicians distract from their performance? Compare and contrast: cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pré with the immobile, stone-visaged Jascha Heifetz. [via Arts & Letters Daily]
posted by cbrody (12 comments total)
IF this writer's experience is representative of most classical musicians' (and I wonder if it really is) it completely validates my lifelong impatience with an art form that seems to value technique over emotion to such an extent, and that (to my mind) seems to rely so heavily on the composition over the performance for its emotive power. Shutting yourself off from the emotion just so you can get through a piece without mistakes? Ugh. In the writer's examples, there seems to be a complete disconnect, even to the musician's ear after the fact, between the feeling of the player and the audible result.

Some of the best moments in rock and roll music involve emotion stepping squarely on technique, and mushing it into the floor. See Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, for example.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:59 AM on December 11, 2003

It's been a while since I've studied such things, but I remember Henry James' writing on the subject. Something about how it's necessary for an artist to remain detached from the object of his study in order to portray it accurately.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:01 PM on December 11, 2003

But, as Daniel Barenboim once said, "Your task is to convey the emotion, not to experience it."

Barenboim got it right. I was at a piano competition last summer, where virtually every contestant "threw a Gookie" (as Harpo Marx used to call his trademark facial contortion), or otherwise emoted like Roger Ruskin Spears playing electric shirt collar on "Intro the Outro." It didn't used to be like this. Only a few years ago, none of the contestants made faces, or even broke a sweat. Frankly, I do not care for these orgasmic facial contortions (unless the player is REALLY attractive), and don't believe for one second that facial expression adds anything to the "feeling" of the music. If you have to have an expression on your face, SMILE. Look at the musicians on Lawrence Welk. Those people smiled like maniacs while they played (do people still use the word "griffin?"). If you don't smile, an expression of slightly distracted introspection is all that is called for.
Classical musicians, of course, are coming to all this late in the game. Rock stars are the worst of all offenders. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan smiled like Lawrence Welk, and played the greatest music of their careers. Only a few years later, it was considered necessary for all rocksters to appear as if singing and playing their instruments were causing them the most intense spiritual, if not physical, agony. Poor, stupid Janis Joplin is painful to watch. Of course, they got all this from the R&B and soul world, which stole it (like everything else) from African-American gospel music -- where the singers are supposed to be literally overcome with spiritual exaltation from God, and not just carried away by compositional sensitivity of Franz Liszt. James Brown swiped his whole end-of-concert collapse and resurrection bit from preachers and ministers of the Gospel. It's really not cool to be too emotive in Hip Hop or R&B these days. In fact, classical music may be the last place this type of face-making still hangs on. Someday, we may be treated to the spectacle of sweaty, exhausted Yo-Yo Ma collapsing onstage, being led off by his attendants with a regal robe around his shoulders, and then suddenly reviving, and running back on for a rousing reprise of a Bach cello suite.
posted by Faze at 12:23 PM on December 11, 2003

MrMoonPie, when I first saw your post, I thought you were referring to the thoughts of HARRY James, and I rushed to click through, wondering what the great (and impassive-visaged) trumpeter had to say on the subject. Imagine my disappointment...
posted by Faze at 1:21 PM on December 11, 2003

For an afternoon of reading on this from a theatrical perspectice - consider German playwright/theorist Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt - or Alienation effect (it's German for 'an impression of strangeness). He inspired his actors to divorce themselves (and the audience) of the notion of inhabiting their characters emotionally. Busting the fourth wall and eliminating artifice in order to more fully engage and illustrate the story on a social/intellectual level. (more at Wikipedia). One modern acting theory class I took proposed that you can blend this with Stanislavski (The Method) based technique to create a performance that is engaging emotionally on a level of experiencing the catharsis of the character and at the same time engaging from a technique standpoint because you are wowed at the sheer virtuosity of the performer. You get to have your cake and cry it out too!
posted by ao4047 at 2:47 PM on December 11, 2003

As a perfomer myself I'm fascinated by this apparent disconnect. I think it is impossible to evoke a certain emotion in your audience if you are yourself overwhelmed by it. In other words, what Faze said.

Stupidsexyflanders, if you are consumed by emotion yourself, you will inevitably fail to communicate effectively. Classical music well may be the most extreme example, for example requiring a perfectly composed singer to sing the heartrending "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" from Bach's St Matthew Passion.

It's partially about feigning the emotion I suppose, and partially about getting the audience to experience vicariously what you would be experiencing yourself, if only you were on the other side of the spotlights.
posted by cbrody at 3:13 PM on December 11, 2003

IF this writer's experience is representative of most classical musicians' (and I wonder if it really is)

It's fairly representative of mine. I've been a classical horn player for 20 years. Unless I'm in the "flow" state (as described by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi), where peak performance is effortless and--unfortunately--which is rare for me, I am constantly making conscious decisions about how much I'm going to "associate into" the emotion of the music, to borrow a term from NLP. Losing your composure and flailing around while playing the horn is deadly--you might as well not show up to work. But no one enjoys listening to someone who sounds more like a "horn operator" than a musician. And somehow I have to strike a balance. I generally choose a slight degree of dissociation from the emotion; not enough to feel as if I'm "feigning" it, but enough to maintain conscious control over the technicalities of my instrument.

I played Mahler #2 under Bernstein once, and did not find him distracting in the least. I saw him from the back any number of times, and had the same complaint that the author did--it seemed he was "grandstanding" for the audience. But from the front, it was an entirely different matter...he actually had enormous sensitivity and, believe it or not, a profound economy of gesture, which served to underline and intensify the emotions he wanted us to convey. It was as if he was doing a ballet on the podium just for us, the orchestra. Perhaps I was just young and overawed at the time--of so many MeFi members, maybe someone else has more experience with him? If so, I'd be very interested in hearing about it.
posted by Tholian at 6:44 PM on December 11, 2003

This issue was never discussed directly in all my years of opera training, and it's certainly not a subject that my fellow principals (in the major British opera houses) bring up in chats over a cup of tea. How much one "feels" the emotions of the song or aria one is singing is a slightly touchy subject.

Two schools of training come to mind off the top of my head. I was taught "craft" by some older singers; that the communication comes from the angle of the body or the way one holds a prop. And for some younger teachers, it was most important that I really "tell" the aria or song to the audience or to the fellow actors on stage; that if I put all my will into the purpose of communicating the "message" then the expression will follow organically from that. Both these schools can lead to hammy acting yet also to extremely poignant, impactful and gut-truthful stage moments.

It's a different world for purely instrumental music, although the issues have something in common with the above. For example, too much emphasis on communicating the message can result in the so-called message being laboriously spelled out, and too much concentration on the craft of it can lead to very mannered playing.

A few times in my performing life I have spent some minutes in a kind of altered state; I felt detached and yet calmly involved, as if I were channeling something, without effort or interference. It's no coincidence that many members of the audience reported being deeply moved or even "transported" on these occasions. The most powerful connection between people needs a kind of "letting go", something spiritual.
posted by suleikacasilda at 7:00 PM on December 11, 2003

Reminds me of Keith Jarrett. He's always doing that moaning/skatting thing along with his playing. Soooo annoying. I've never seen him play before, but I suspect he probably sways around like a madman at the same time.

Of course, whatever he does, it seems to work pretty well musically.
posted by boltman at 7:35 PM on December 11, 2003

Something that the Guarneri Quartet members mention in the fascinating book "The Art of Quartet Playing" is the occasional feeling that a fifth member is present at times during their performances. They mean Beethoven, the composer with whom they are most closely associated. I don't see this as presumption on their part, simply that the music of four people playing together as individuals is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

Tholian, I'm deeply envious of you, and agree that Bernstein (as with all great conductors) was "putting on a dance" for the orchestra, as much as for the audience. I'd guess that some of von Karajan's antics were more calculated to impress than they were to communicate, but who can complain when he produced the results he did? Conducting in my mind is closer to pure (abstract) dance than most people realise: both are communication of musical thought, through movement alone. And a conductor needs to communicate with the audience both in front and behind.

I do find Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pré somewhat disturbing to watch, yet wonderful to listen to, so it's not that I think they are/were feigning emotion. It's just... perhaps slightly embarrassing -- the audience are the ones who should judge what level of emotion a performance elicits. In all but the most accomplished performers such antics beg the question of whether the audience is feeling what they're feeling because of the artist's "performance" or because of the performance.

The difference between classical music and other forms, and I don't really think it's a great one, is the relatively new (20th century) idea that the perfomer should solely be a conduit for the composer's intentions. In jazz and pop, the composer and performer are often one and the same; the obvious conclusion is that the music itself is the conduit between the composer, the performer and the audience, and that none should get in the way of another.

Easier said than done though!
posted by cbrody at 7:36 PM on December 11, 2003

As a performer, I find that the music already has all the emotion that is needed. I don't need to feel as if I generated the emotions that are being expressed, I'm merely being a good listener and empathising with it as it unfolds.
Chopin seems to bring out the worst in these kinds of emotional excesses... the shoulders go up, the face contorts and the head swings from side to side. Awful. The emotion is already there... it just needs a clear channel. Of course, without empathy all we have is an empty technical display.
posted by BobsterLobster at 3:50 AM on December 12, 2003

I don't think it's possible to draw a hard line on where and how much a performer should emote, or how much they should or should not feel whilst performing.

To debate 'standards' of emotion and emotive performance is all well and good, but there's plenty of styles out there that cater to both schools of thought (as well as inbetween).

Trust me, there's enough actors and musicians and artists of every performance ilk out there to satisfy your own personal needs as an audience member. No need to go roping in the ones you feel are going too far with facial contortions and whatnot.

Speaking as an actor/performer/singer myself, I tend to discard critiques that start out, Theatre should be ..., Singers should never ... - it's restrictive and unimaginative to think that you ever could define what makes a performance 'good' by such a blanket subjective standard as the one being argued in this thread.
posted by wells at 6:50 AM on December 12, 2003

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