Thursday, December 11, 2014

the phoniness of public performance

said performer at said debut
Chocolate and coffee and bananas: the musician’s pre-performance tonic. Bananas to calm, coffee to caffeinate, and chocolates to cheer. The performer spikes her blood sugar in hopes that on stage, everything will go as planned, that every note falls into place, that her mind works with heightened reflex and execution. That’s all she can think about -- the brilliance, perfection, virtuosity, precision, power of the performance. And chocolate, coffee, and bananas are her answer -- the chemical keys to the confidence accrued in the weeks preceding. For if she botches this performance, even in the tiniest way, she will never again be at peace -- this is her one chance to prove herself -- her debut -- her precious opportunity to shine. But along comes Glenn Gould in her First Year Seminar, declaring that "the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Ah, what to make of this? Why all the pageantry, the formality, the worry? Art, after all, is the sum of many parts -- yet audiences may, in a fleeting flash, a single instance, judge it to be true or failed. The message for artists? To persist between points, build from, and crescendo throughout a lifetime.

case in point: Luka Sulic
Indeed, it seems that the arts have never been more commercialized, even in the vacuum-sealed world of classical music. Performers rely on “shallow, externalized, public manifestations” to tempt audiences. Appearances, in particular, have become the focus of public performance: pianist Yuja Wang and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, female superstars of the classical stage, are frequently criticized for their thigh- and shoulder-baring (respectively) performance garb. Mutter provides artistic justification for her strapless dresses: not even a shoulder rest may interrupt the physical connection between player and instrument. Still, critics fixate on the aesthetic -- or rather, suggestive -- consequences of her wardrobe choices. Gould’s own James Dean-esque looks are, undeniably, responsible for at least a tiny portion of his success, as is his eccentric personality; both are characteristics independent from the music he produces. Such attention to appearances has necessitated a curtain in the audition room: auditors acknowledge appearances to be distracting and influential during orchestra-member-recruiting. But everyone knows it -- physical beauty is a key ingredient to performer success, and has always been. Liszt, Brahms, the 2Cellos -- throughout history, so many virtuosi have looked as lovely as they played. Human eyes cannot help themselves.

Yuja Wang
These days, not only does it take a striking physique to succeed as a classical musician: it takes a tremendous track record. Performer biographies, sandwiched in concert programs, affirm that artistry is measured in accumulation of laurels. Usually, they begin with a statement of the performer’s sought-after status, supported by quotations from music critics; then comes a catalogue of the prestigious festivals, tours, and competitions either participated in or pioneered by the performer. Educational details and a list of pedagogues round off a properly constructed performer biography. While these accomplishments do reflect a career’s worth of “internal combustions… in the hearts of men," nowhere in the biography do performers take text to describe these milestones’ artistic significance; rather, they highlight the performer’s social and material significance. Examples from my hometown: young music-makers fixate on plumping their performer bios with prestige, which often brings with it the creation of the finest art, but more often the propagation of pompous puffery and Ivy League-admittance. Airbrushed portrait? Check. Sleek website with repertoire list? Check. Thus, the current “system” requires that the successful artist be equal parts public relations representative and aesthetic researcher. As a result, only a few artists rise to renown, and are played on radios -- most classical radio stations rotate a set cast of recording artists (see Classical KDFC's website). So many more artists are mismanaged, and ultimately defeated by more superficial “public manifestations” such as appearance and prestige.

Social critic Walter Benjamin goes so far as to declare that cultivating these supplemental traits of a performer may cost a performance’s effectiveness. In his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin discusses the diminishing of the “aura” given off by a unique piece of art: “The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity." Extending this phenomenon to include live performance of classical music, perhaps too much fussing over vain details of appearance and personality does indeed “shrivel” the authenticity that such performances ought to give off. Because “the reflected image has become separable, transportable… [b]efore the public," screen actors are extra-conscious, and this self-consciousness may pervade their performance; similarly, when the performer is conscious of his or her audience’s allotment of attentions, he or she will also allot appropriate amounts of attention to different aspects of the performance.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
Many more are the artists that fall short of Glenn Gould’s criteria than there are that fulfill them. Perhaps this is because the public-pleasers possess greater, even if temporal, fame. Let the examples of those who pursue "quiet, gradual, lifelong constructions of a state of wonder and serenity” light the way, set the pattern for performers to come, for their bodies of work are far from just aesthetically relevant. Glenn Gould himself, practicer of his own preaching, strove toward true artistry by retiring from the public stage. He cloistered himself and devoted his energies to crafting flawless recordings and writing, leaving his fans with endless material to study and with which to spin Gouldmania (the body of literature, films, and other works inspired by Glenn Gould). One cannot but help to wonder if his recordings, compared with his public-pleasing contemporaries’ versions, ignite any more "fire in the hearts of men"? While Gould limited the quantity of appreciation (from packed concert halls to one person at a time), he honed the quality of the few interactions he had. More valuable to the artist, really, is the experience of playing for just one whose heart is susceptible to that internal combustion, rather than playing for a hall full of misunderstanding “Instagrammers”: people who flaunt their concert attendance, and leave the hall unmoved.

Who sees you? Johannes does
By Gould’s definition, composers are far truer artists than performers of their works. Composers, who seldom appear on stage, constantly and quietly create the foodstuff of performance, distilling prolifically works art from experience. Performers, too, amass repertoire and recordings into an impressive, bountiful body of work. But these artistic kernels are replications, enabled by the fruits of “The Mechanical Age of Reproduction,” and therefore are without the aura of the original. True, they have new auras of their own, earned whilst awakening the latent composition. (This is why some musicians prefer jazz, which simultaneously straddles both performance and composition.) Both composers and performers take ownership over a body of work, and are equally valuable to the consumer. However, the former variety of artist may be called more original than the latter.

If, then, most classical musicians today fall short of true artistry, what may they do to inch toward more meaningful careers? Modern-day instantly-gratifying arts showcases do not support Gould’s standard, and may be best characterized as commercialized. The typical trajectory of an artist -- such as David Helfgott’s in the film Shine -- yields more destabilization and discord than it does beauty and harmony. The current system may be modified to best allow for “the internal combustion [art] ignites in the hearts of men” in several ways: end the exclusivity of great art, support education that maximizes appreciation, and alternate under the spotlight big-name divas with relative unknowns. Or else watch the traditional arts be doomed by their mummery, by formality and affectivity. Modern musicians ought to re-cast the materialistic mold set before them, which breaks the spirit more often than not; and bravely pursue their art, even if they never reach celebrity and are confined to little studios as teachers; for their contributions are truly meaningful when measured.

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