|More Than a Feeling
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
16 September 2006
Supposing you took a complete stranger to western
music to hear his first symphony orchestra, and on the way you
told him a little of what to expect. Suppose you explained the
role of the conductor, and said: "The conductor is there
to explain to the audience what is going on in the orchestra.
The musicians seldom look at him, and could happily perform
without him. But it has been found that the audience likes to
be shown the rhythm, and to have certain key moments underlined
for them, especially if they are unfamiliar with the work.
"So, for instance, if there is an interesting
entry for the oboes, the conductor will point them out to the
audience just in time for us to watch the oboists as they play.
And, most importantly, the conductor indicates to us what we
should be feeling. If he looks cross, we too should start feeling
cross. If he seems transported with delight, we should permit
ourselves to be delighted. He is the prompter of our emotional
response, and a sophisticated audience will make sure not to
respond emotionally until he has given the signal."
How long would it take for our hypothetical
stranger to realise that he had been misled? It depends, no
doubt, on the conductor, but generally speaking, by the end
of the evening, he looks a complete mess, an emotional wreck,
while the members of the orchestra never seem to follow the
conductor's emotional lead. They don't all shut their eyes when
he does, or turn up their noses to sniff the air. So it might
be fair to assume (experiencing all this for the first time)
that the players are not expected to feel emotion.
Unless of course they are soloists, storming
the keyboard or scraping away under the spotlight. They certainly
display emotions, although not necessarily the emotions we expect.
I watched Alfred Brendel playing Mozart's Duport Variations
in Hamburg. When he began it was as if the piano, open before
him, was an enormous open tin of suppurating pilchards, and
he could scarcely bear to sit anywhere near it. But in the course
of the evening, the fish-carrion smell seemed to wear off and,
after keeping the instrument at arm's length, he ended up with
his nose very near the keys.
It makes little difference to the experience,
as long as you understand what the conventions are - that what
looks like anger in one musician may be a purely musical anger,
while another player, with a similar facial expression, has
just heard a cellphone. Susan Tomes, in a little essay called
"Keeping the Emotions out of Music", quotes Daniel
Barenboim's advice to a masterclass: "Your task is to convey
the emotion, not to experience it!" And she tells a story
of Andre Previn, conducting a romantic symphony just after the
death of a close friend.
"Feeling distraught, he resolved to dedicate
the performance to his friend's memory. Throughout the piece
he felt convinced that a sense of tragic power had elevated
the whole performance. However, when he watched the video of
the concert afterwards, he was horrified to find that far from
raising the level of performance, his misery had got in the
way. The way he directed the orchestra seemed haphazard and
melodramatic, and his facial expressions distracting. His emotional
identification with the music had actually prevented him from
Such questions of the psychology of performance,
as regards both the performer and the listener, have been of
interest to Tomes in her books Beyond the Notes (Boydell, 2004)
and A Musician's Alphabet (Faber, 2006). Tomes is a pianist
specialising in the chamber repertoire, and the first book is
largely about her experiences with two groups, Domus and the
Florestan Trio. In "The Domus Diary" she asks such
questions as: "How can it be that one feels a musical rapport
with someone to whom one has little to say? Or how can it be
that I feel musically distant from someone with whom I've just
shared an intimate exchange of confidences about our private
lives?" She answers: "There must be something about
one's musical being that is not paralleled by one's social being."
In concert, Tomes tells us, "it can be
quite hard to make contact with certain people, other than a
kind of 'pantomime contact' which is almost done as though projecting
what they imagine the audience wants to see. Actually I hate
it when I glance across the platform and see someone give me
an 'emotional look' of the kind that I never see on their face
in ordinary life."
This reminds me of uneasy experiences at chamber
music concerts, where some member of the group seems to spend
too much time "signalling" - and it is hard for the
inexperienced audience member to guess whether something is
going wrong, or whether this is just an exhortation to raise
the performance to a higher plane, or whether - as I now realise
- there isn't an element of play-acting, and bad acting at that.
So that what we may be experiencing is simultaneously great
playing and ham acting.
"I have always had a great admiration,"
writes Charles Rosen in his Piano Notes (Free Press, 2002),
"for an artist who appears to do nothing while achieving
everything." He has been talking about things that pianists
do which are not strictly necessary for the performance, although
they might help the player psychologically in some way, or be
persuasive for an audience.
Tomes, at the end of her essay on keeping the
emotions out of music, comes to a similar point. "In every
field of music," she says, "fans have a special love
for those performers who give us the music as the primary experience,
and themselves as the secondary experience. Audiences sense
where the performer's priorities lie, and for whose sake they
are in the business of performance." But the word "fans"
in this sentence is used in a special sense, meaning something
more like "connoisseurs". I would add that this distinction
between giving the music and giving of the self is easier to
maintain with players and with conductors than it is with singers.
We expect a solo soprano to give of herself, and would feel
thoroughly let down if she didn't.