When I was in high school, one of my composition teacher’s first challenges for me was to compose a piece for the organ. The organ is a notoriously difficult instrument for non-keyboardists to compose for, and I had little familiarity with organ repertoire. As my composition teacher and I reviewed an early draft of my piece, he said something profound; something that stuck with me and affected how I think about the performance arts.
He told me that the hardest part of the composition process is not generating ideas, or getting ideas down on the page; it is the struggle between the ideas being conveyed and the medium through which they are being conveyed. It is not the struggle between the mind and the blank page, in other words, but it is the struggle between the musical ideas and the instrument that must communicate them.
As I’ve grown older, this philosophy has influenced how I think about art. It has come to qualify how I classify “good” performance art across genres. This art transports the audience member past the world of the artform to the world of the artwork. The audience’s need not focus on any meta realms of criticism or analysis; their entire focus is captured by the performers and the artwork itself.
This past weekend, for example, I attended a performance of “Juliet,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” set in the Great Depression. This performance was an unstaged reading of the play; it featured actors and actresses dressed in normal clothing reading from music stands and thick black binders.
The script was written/adapted by Alix Curnow (SMTD sophomore), Kellie Beck (SMTD sophomore) and Eli Rallo (SMTD junior). I will be scoring this play this coming month as it moves into the Duderstadt Video Studio for a staged, choreographed production in April. Going into the performance, I had read the script three or four times, and I was quite familiar with the changes the playwrights made in adapting the script to the Great Depression era.
Yet despite my familiarity, I was unexpectedly touched by the conclusion of this unstaged reading. Though I was skeptical at the beginning, I had gotten past the limitations of the production by the end. I was touched by the slew of deaths taking place onstage, though the actors and actresses on stage were clearly not dying. I was no longer distracted by the music stands, the lack of costumes, or the stage directions being read out loud. I had learned to observe the production for what it was, not what it could be.
I also find that I can judge “good” artwork as a performer through similar means. These past two years, for example, I have been a member of the University’s Javanese Gamelan Ensemble. The instruments that we play are many years old, and few are in very good condition. On a couple of the instruments, a few keys don’t even resonate, instead producing a rather pitiable “thud” when struck by the mallet.
Though not every instrument produces a pure sound, the effect of the overall ensemble, at least to my ears, is breathtaking. It is like nothing I am used to experiencing, and yet I find it to be incredibly engaging. When we perform, I sometimes enter a state of mind where the quality of the instruments and the sound they produce doesn’t matter. I am experiencing the piece for what it is, not for what it could be.
If this is the defining feature of “good” art, then the best art in my view is that for which audience member is no longer even conscious of the performers. Performance arts, after all, are an inherently hierarchical endeavour; the performers presents something to the audience, while the audience observes and experiences the performance. The performers are the source of the entertainment, the audience the recipients of it.
The best art, then, is that which collapses this boundary. Just as my composition teacher argues that bridging the gap between what is possible and what should be possible is the greatest challenge of the creative process, bridging the boundary between those onstage and those in the audience is the biggest challenge of the performance practice.
Occasionally, I witness performances where this comes true, where I don’t perceive this natural hierarchy between performers and audience members to exist. These are performances where it doesn't matter who is performing, or what they are performing. These are performances where all I perceive is the work itself. I have completely immersed myself in the suspension of disbelief.
I don’t mean to make it seem as though this is a common occurrence. Personally, I can think of perhaps five or ten performances where this is the case. There was a solo piano performance in Paris, a video operain Carnegie Hall. There was a moment of traditional religious music in a rural village in Vietnam, a recording of the New York Philharmonic that I first listened to when I was 16.
These moments are few and far between. I never know when I will next experience them. And to this end, I sometimes fear that they are as much a result of my state of mind as they are the quality of the performance taking place. No matter how good the performers, if I am not ready to receive their performance, I will never truly appreciate it.
But this is perhaps the most magical aspect of the performing arts; their inexplicable ability to draw in a willing audience member for an hour or two and not let go. It is hard to explain and harder to replicate, an ever-elusive experience far out on the temporal horizon. And yet it is what motivates me to attend rehearsal after rehearsal, performance after performance. It is an incredibly powerful force, these performing arts; simple, brief, fragile, and yet moving beyond all else.