Frozen Fingers, Fumbled Phrases

by Matt Blair on January 31, 2009

in Performance

During the inaugural last week, four musicians played a new arrangement of “Simple Gifts” — or so we thought. Later in the week, we learned that what most of us heard as we listened on the National Mall or television or radio was a recording the same musicians had made two days earlier.

To the critics, professional and armchair alike, I must ask: Have you ever tried to produce a warm and rich tone on a cello in sub-freezing weather? This was not an average ‘lip-syncing scandal’ — I haven’t heard anyone claim that these musicians were incapable of delivering such a performance in better circumstances.

Above the rumbles of criticism, it seems the real issue is what we expect from performers under such conditions. If they had played the music live, with considerable physical difficulty, would we have applauded their pain, regardless of the beauty of the music? Or would the obvious difficulty of the task have distracted from that historic moment? Would watching their struggle have made us more inspired? Or more uncomfortable?

Is it the responsibility of the musicians to demonstrate their virtuosic skills despite the conditions, or is it to create an appropriate musical experience for their audience? This is not an academic distinction. If it is the first, their choice was inexcusable. If the second, it was absolutely correct — especially since they were not the headliners. I learn towards the second: you use the tools at hand to create the desired effect. The ends justify the means.

And then there is the example of Chief Justice John Roberts, who decided to play the expert by administering the oath of office from memory. And he flubbed it.

Had he read the oath from paper, it is unlikely anyone would have had any further comment. No one would have thought of him as a faker, or somehow incompetent for relying on the original text. But by choosing to walk the wire without a net, the focus shifts from the performance above to the graceless fall and thud. And we wonder: why didn’t he have it written down, just in case? Did he fear an index card might freeze?

It seems amusing that while even a middling teenage pianist can memorize the hundreds of notes required to re-produce a Chopin mazurka or a Scarlatti sonata, the head of the US Supreme Court struggled to utter a thirty-five-word oath in its proper order. But maybe it wasn’t a question of memory. Steven Pinker offered an alternative explanation: Justice Roberts may have been trying to quietly correct the split infinitive in the original oath. America’s founders probably wouldn’t have anticipated such puritanical thinking — grammatical or otherwise — from a 21st-century Chief Justice. So much for strict constructionism.

What is canned is reliable. What is live, is uncertain. And maybe this is what upsets us most about canned performances: That we in the audience have made ourselves open and vulnerable to the possibility of the moment, that we are taking a chance, knowing full well that while we hope to be overwhelmed, we could be underwhelmed and unaffected. While hoping to be delighted, and maybe even transported, we are taking the risk of being disappointed and let down.

When the performance is canned, the performer is not taking the same risk we are taking. The performer is not sharing in our vulnerability, but rather taking advantage of our credulity, opting out of risk, and, under false pretenses, exceeding our expectations. When successfully duped, we feel euphoria. Having discovered we’ve been duped, we feel cheated.

How do we as performers decide which risks to take? Do we recreate tricky sections that might not go well? Do we feign confidence even as we can’t remember what comes next? What are the consequences if no one notices the difference? And what if they do?

And how does our internal knowledge of any undisclosed ‘assistance’ in a performance change our perception of our own work? Are we compromising our goals, or just finding a better way to achieve them?

If we are too averse to risk, we may miss an opportunity for true accomplishment. To face a challenge, and prevail is a reward for audience and performer alike. But taking a silly risk, and making a spectacle of yourself, is pitiable. Audiences respect audacity, but may feel disrespected by bumbling.

I don’t think there is a definitive way to evaluate the risks and rewards, no quick ethical calculations or aesthetic formulas. The questions above outline some of the variables. Different situations call for different solutions.

Choose your risks carefully. Use any tools or techniques at hand. And remember: though risk adds vibrancy, having your lines in your pocket isn’t a bad idea.

A final thought, from Walt Whitman:

“All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments…”

A performance triggers what is already within the audience. The music does not consist of sound waves traveling through the air and arriving in ears of each hearer. The music is the effect those waves create between the ears, whether their source is a violin string or the rim of a clarinet — or the cone of a speaker.

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