Monday, July 04, 2011

What is a classical musician supposed to look like?

'Earlier this week, I was sitting on the terrace of a cafĂ©, slowly drinking a cup of the black coffee I needed and enjoying the sun. The older man at the table next to me was alone too and started to chat with me. After a few minutes, he asked me what is my job. I thus answered I am a pianist and he instantly expressed his surprise saying, I quote, “I thought you work in a bank or insurance company, something like that. You don’t look like a pianist at all“. I didn’t take offense, even if I admit I hated him for a few seconds and thought that a guy working in one of these fields would certainly not be sitting on a terrace in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Anyway, it was not the first time someone told me this and I started a great thinking session about what is a musician supposed to look like and who I am.'
That quote comes from the blog of French pianist Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont and the photo is of that remarkable musician Scott Ross. Which takes us down the long and winding path of should a pianist look like a pianist? Should musicians wear tuxedos? Should "silly" concert conventions be dropped? And should classical music break free of the concert hall?

As you will see from those links, all are subjects that have been explored here. But the more I explore the more I think that the questions are actually irrelevant. Great music can be made with and without tuxedos, and it can be performed in or out of concert halls. The essential and elusive connection to the audience does not depend on physical appearance or location. It depends on transmission being established within what Benjamin Britten called the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener. We need to understand more about how transmission and lineage works in classical music, because it may hold the key to reaching new, as well as retaining existing, audiences. And at this point let's kill the myth that lineage is the enemy of innovation by reminding ourselves that important innovators such as John Cage and Pierre Boulez have acknowledged lineages back to key figures such as Eric Satie and Olivier Messiaen.

The exact working of transmission and lineage in classical music remains a mystery to me. But those rare transforming moments depend not on what the musician is wearing or where he is playing, but rather on the establishment of a mystical link from the performer forward to his audience and back to the composer. The key question is not "what is a musician supposed to look like" but "from where does this teaching come and who transmitted it". Classical music can learn a lot from other knowledge traditions, as this quote from Lama Jampa Thaye (Dr David Stott) shows.
It is important that we begin first with some study of the history of this spiritual tradition, because one of the most characteristic features of Tibetan Buddhism is its stress on the notion of lineage. This means the sequence of transmission of the teachings from one generation of practicioners to the next. For these teachings to be spiritually efficacious, for them to have the capacity to transform us, they must not have degenerated into mere words or slogans. They must be endowed with the power to awaken insight into the true nature of mind, as they were first given by Buddha. Only the unbroken transmission from teacher to disciple can guarantee this continuation of power, because only those who have mastered the teachings are able to transmit them. That is why in order for us to have confidence that a tradition and a teaching can work, particularly for us as modern Westerners, we need first of all to ask, 'From where does this teaching come, and who transmitted it?'
* More on classical music and transmission in The sound of no hands clapping.

Quote is from Way of Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Jampa Thaye. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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