Thursday, August 06, 2015

What is a performance?

In January 2013 when raising the problem of metadata quality, I queried Is classical music asking the right questions? Since then the situation has worsened, and classical music has become a community of busy fools who run around asking irrelevant questions about the sex lives of celebrities and whether the Berlin Philharmonic's new conductor has enough media appeal, while ignoring questions crucial to the art form's future. One of these crucial questions is What is a performance? Classical music is not about discrete objects such as celebrities, audiences, and streaming services. It is about a performance, something so intangible, so interconnected and so precious as to be almost indescribable. However, in my view the following passage comes very close to capturing the essential nature of a performance:
A master of Balinese dance once expressed the idea that a performer must consciously see himself as a channel between the world within and the world without. If the ego gets in the way, this channeling is reduced. He described a ball of energy that is created between performers and their audiences. The performers consciously manipulate and expand this energy force using the attention that is given to them by the audience which the control. By being a pure channel and through their skill of relating to the audience, the energy is moved back and forth.
That teaching is very relevant to recent Overgrown Path posts about music as vibrating energy and the chains of transmission that allow energy to flow between performer and audience. But it is of even greater importance, because it speaks to the biggest challenge currently facing classical music - the challenge of how to increase engagement with both new and existing audiences. Viewing a performance as a ball of energy that is passed backward and forward between performer and audience takes us beyond the fashionable dualist thinking that music is an aggregation of discrete objects that can be marketed and consumed in the same way as cornflakes. Instead it opens our eyes to the impermanent, dynamic, seamless, two way nature of a performance. Once we see this, the error of current strategies to increase audience engagement become only too apparent: because these strategies almost without exception cause - in fact encourage - a detrimental narrowing of energy channels.

Classical music has become an ego driven celebrity culture, and, as described in the teaching, egos get in the way of essential energy flows. But the implications of this teaching are far wider: the vital element in any performance is a two way energy flow, yet the shift from live to recorded classical music as the primary method of consumption reduces the flow to one way, thereby removing the feedback loop from listener to musician that is crucial to audience engagement. Current technology trends exacerbate the problem: network bandwidth is a digital age measure of the width of an energy channel, and the move to bandwidth-friendly compressed file formats squeezes energy out of streamed and downloaded music. Even in live performances these vital energy channels are being narrowed by 'innovations' borrowed from the entertainment industry such as disco lighting, tweeting in concerts, and other special effects.

The Balinese dance master defines a performance as an energy flow. The importance of energy is encapsulated in the iconic equation E = mc2, where energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. I propose a derivative of this equation - audience engagement equals accessibility multiplied by energy flow squared. This equation highlights the error of putting accessibility ahead of everything else. Accessibility is an important element in audience engagement, but I suggest that the overlooked component of energy flow is more important by many orders of magnitude. This preeminence of energy has many ramifications. Young audiences have grown up in a high energy environment - rock music is a high energy art form, and headphones - which are now the dominant way of listening to music - are highly efficient energy transducers. To engage with new audiences classical music needs to rejuvenate its energy flows. But we should also remember that like music, audiences are impermanent and constantly changing, so - here I risk arguing against myself - classical music needs to selectively experiment with new technologies to shape these energy flows to meet the changing expectations of listeners.

Living Presence by the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski provides the quote which this post revolves around. My views on the importance of energy channels will doubtless be dismissed by many as more New Age nonsense; however I would refer these naysayers to Benjamin Britten's teachings. Two years ago the classical music industry devoted much energy to milking the commercial opportunity presented by the Britten centenary. But almost no attention was paid to his wise teaching about the 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener. This triangle is a symbolic representation of optimised energy flows, and I suggest it is no coincidence that Britten visited Bali in 1955.. His exposure to the culture of Bali found expression in works such as the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, and it is not too far-fetched to propose that Balinese teachings also influenced Britten's exposition of the energy flow between composer, performer and listener in his 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech. The Canadian born composer Colin McPhee lived in Bali from 1932 to 1935 and studied the Balinese performing arts including dance. In 1940 Britten and McPhee recorded the latter composer's transcription of Balinese ceremonial music for two pianos in New York. More on this forgotten composer, whose Tabuh-Tabuhan was a precursor to the minimalist movement, in 'Colin McPhee - East collides with West'.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header photo via Classic FM. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Parts of this post first appeared in a 2012 post 'Goodbye to Berlin'.

1 comment:

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

I've always liked the following quote from Hilary Hahn because it's the best example I've ever seen of a performer talking about that channel of energy going from the audience to the performer.:

>>The problem is that acoustic performers rely on the audience's attention and focus and can tell when the audience isn't mentally present. Your listening is part of our interpretive process. If you're not really listening, we're not getting the feedback of energy from the hall, and then we might as well be practicing for a bunch of people peering in the window. It's just not as interesting when the cycle of interpretation is broken.<<

Down the line I suspect the neuroscience will give some empirical underpinning to this, but right now there's just this anecdotal stuff that can so easily be dismissed as "new age" maundering.