From the category archives:

Performance

“I think of all the different music that I have done and will continue
to do almost as photographs of my evolution, and just like
photographs, in some I may look great and in some I may not. What
matters to me is that I risk, I trust, I strive, and let things unfold
as they may.”

Azam Ali

I’ve been thinking about eggs, and the way we form ideas and release them into the wild.

My first thought was that ideas are like eggs in a nest, little orbs of potential that we fuss over and tend to and keep warm, until they are ready to hatch and emerge into the world.

But I don’t think that’s quite right. It doesn’t seem to reflect the experience that artists and innovative thinkers have when sharing their new ideas with the world. It’s too detached.

robin's egg

From the Inside (image by brungrrl on Flickr)

What if we aren’t outside watching over our ideas? What if we are inside? Not just inside the nest, but inside the egg?

Maybe our relationship to the ideas we develop is not one of parental vigilance but symbiosis?

We nourish our ideas, and our ideas nourish us. We grow through the exchange.

It might make more sense if we think of ideas not as something that we have or collect, but as something we are. An idea is something we become, at least during those initial stages of growth, before it takes on a life fully its own.

In other words, hatching ideas isn’t a process of anxious observation as our ideas enter the world: it is we who must emerge each time.

The Nature of Our Shell

What does this mean for our creative process?

The shell could be the walls of our studio, or the anonymity of a blogging pseudonym. It could be the comfortable praise of a long-time mentor, or the fears that keep us from expressing our thoughts. It could be the rounded womb of habit, or the way a well-used tool feels in our hand.

The opacity of a shell provides a kind of veil or disguise — there’s no need to be presentable while still forming. And its hardness provides protection from the elements, elements that might damage and inhibit growth before the life within becomes viable.

But the strength of the shell is illusory. Eggs are fragile. They need to be incubated and tended. And they are temporary.

The protection of a shell allows growth, to a point, and then it starts limiting development and warping growth.

Imperfect Debuts

At some stage in every career — in every project, even — there comes a time to emerge, to tap our way through the shell, and enter the world. And that can be a real mess.

We don’t know how the shell will crack, or how long it will take. We peck and peek, hoping we can leap out fully-formed and strutting like a big, beautiful peacock that has always been that way, or a poised and sedate swan, gliding without effort.

We want to instantly be and appear our best, not a wet stumbling mess, with bits of shell matted in our feathers, wondering how many times we’ll need to fall before we fly.

For perfectionists, it’s that much worse, because this moment is about the possibility of letting a whole lot of imperfection happen — in full view.

Good Morning World

A Wee Punk (image by vladeb on Flickr)

You have to trust that eventually, you’ll be remembered for flying, not the missteps and bad hair days you had along the way.

By leaving the shell, you lose its opacity and protection, but it’s impossible to walk, or fall, or fly or grow while you’re stuck inside it.

Whatever the project, big or small: make the first crack, then the next, until you can stumble out, take a spill, and then stand on your two new feet for the first time. Muscles will follow, then growth, then flight.

And it all starts with a tentative little crack.

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The Right Storm of Attention

by Matt Blair on March 12, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’”

Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

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Who are you inviting to the table?

by Matt Blair on February 18, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Readers and listeners enjoy my books,
But poet Whozis thinks I’m pretty crude.
I don’t much care. I’d rather have my food
Appeal to hungry feasters than to cooks.”

Martial
(translated by Rolfe Humphries)

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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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