Journeys of Self Discovery (Part 5) – The Best Performances are the Most Reflective Mirrors

Over the last four posts, I’ve assumed that audiences for classical and jazz performances are dwindling and older patrons are not being replaced with younger ones.

In the previous post, I mentioned a few ways classical music performers could communicate more effectively and host more appealing and more engaging performances.  They included impromptu speaking, performing unspecified programs, and making some democratic decisions.

It’s understandable why some people would dislike these suggestions.  Their reasons relate to the Christopher Small quote I used in the previous post:

….Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by social beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships.  These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.”

The performance is the focal point where all these relationships finally interact at their most complex level.  A successful performance is one where performers mirror and reflect all these relationships back onto the audience and onto the social construction in which it is occurring.

Performances are, in this sense, rituals of acknowledgement. Performances that don’t acknowledge these relationships will fail.

Acknowledging Relationships in the Concert Hall

For example, classical music concerts celebrate (among many other things) form, rules, formality, and structure.  Deviations from structure are frowned upon.  It doesn’t matter what the rules are, as long as the performers and audiences are abiding by them (maybe that’s a slight exaggeration).  If everybody adheres to the structure, the performance will be successful.

A pianist who flubs a note will be criticized for his/her inability to adhere to (or live up to) the rules written in the score.  Audience members who cough, whisper, or unwrap candy will be scorned because they don’t follow proper concert etiquette.  Concert venues will be criticized because they can’t keep the room at a steady 23.5 degrees Celsius, as stated in paragraph 25b in the performance contract.  The architect will be criticized because you can’t quite hear the bassoon from the back row.

The most admired classical music performers, promoters, organizations, etc. are the ones who embody these kinds of structured, formal relationships.  Those who celebrate this paradigm will dislike and distrust any chaotic element brought into a performance.  Democratic decisions, impromptu speaking, and unspecified programs would be distasteful, awkward, and unacceptable.

Under these circumstances, performers are best to mirror all these complex relationships as best as they can.  A successful performance depends on it.

Acknowledging Relationships in the Jazz Club

What about jazz music?

Jazz concerts are just as complicated in the relationships they celebrate and acknowledge.

For example, jazz performers celebrate improvisation, spontaneity, being “in the moment,” and the individual voice.  Attempts to formalize certain elements of a jazz performance will be met with varying degrees of resistance.  Solo order, set lists, rehearsals, dress attire, tune arrangements, spoken introductions, ensemble placement, chord changes, bowing, and lighting are (with varying degrees) ignored, left to chance, or decided on “in the moment.”

A jazz musician who can’t play All of Me in the moment may be thrown off stage.  A jazz musician who only plays Charlie Parker transcriptions is odd.  A club owner who gets anxious and upset one-minute past the scheduled downbeat may be considered harsh and unreasonable.  A concert promoter who demands set lists months in advance will be difficult to work with.

I say “with varying degrees” because the jazz aesthetic is fairly loose.  Some jazz ensembles will take dress attire very seriously and still be considered a jazz band.  Jazz music is very accommodating, and can handle a broad range of individuals, eccentricities, and broad definitions of the term.

Still, the best jazz performers are the most reflective mirrors, whether they are celebrating a Miles aesthetic, a Gershwin aesthetic, a Wynton Marsalis aesthetic, or a Sun Ra aesthetic.

Foggy Mirrors Need Polishing

A friend once told me of his experience attending a classical music concert.  It was a solo piano performance.  He didn’t understand why the pianist left the stage after every piece.  The performer also didn’t speak to or acknowledge the audience.  He just played his program and took bows.

My friend felt awkward through the entire concert and didn’t enjoy himself.  What’s going on here?

Maybe these kinds of concert formalities are becoming less reflective.  Though, maybe my friend was the only one who felt awkward.  Then again, what if he was the only one in the audience?

A reflective mirror in one context may be foggy in another. Likewise, a reflective mirror, over time, needs polishing. It’s difficult to know the extent a performer and mirror needs polishing, if at all.  In fact, you could argue that it’s my friend who needs polishing.

Nevertheless, these posts were written on the assumption that audiences for classical and jazz performances are dwindling, and older patrons are not being replaced with younger ones.  It’s safe to say then, that the classical and jazz paradigms need polishing. This is exactly the conversation that needs to be had.

Of course, my observations aren’t limited to classical music performances.  I’m interested in all kinds of performances, whether it’s a performance of classical music, jazz music, Sunday mass at church, Sunday football, or a ritualistic gathering. There are similarities in all these things; we can learn from them.

When I was fifteen, I remember being asked, after attending Sunday mass, what the priest’s homily was about.  He talked for 20 minutes.  I didn’t retain one word of it.  His speaking was too bland and boring.  This priest was a poor reflection of the relationships I celebrated and expected to have acknowledged….when I was fifteen.

Though, I remember my grandmother was asked the same question, and she couldn’t recall either.  It occurred to me that most people aren’t paying attention to what the priests are preaching during the homily. The quiet, reflective environment gives this illusion that everybody is focused on the speaker.  So then what’s going on here?  Why do we let this happen?

Attending church is about more than hearing a priest speak.  There may be foggy aspects of the ritual, but there could still be aspects that are highly reflective.  Otherwise, people wouldn’t attend church.  These rituals are mirroring many complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and often-conflicting relationships.

But regardless, if audience members in church (or in the concert hall) are entering journeys of discovery and are actually bored out of their skulls, then there has been a breakdown in some of the relationships that make up this ritual.  It’s in need of polishing.

(…and a dusting)

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