Maxime's Conducting,Essay,The Milan Lectures What is the purpose of performance?

What is the purpose of performance?

Milan, Duomo

The Milan Lectures, part 1
David Whitwell

What is the Purpose of Performance?

This is a very important decision for which every conductor must make a choice in preparing a performance: Am I going to give an aesthetic performance or an entertainment performance?

What do we mean by the word Aesthetic? Aesthetic was a subject created by Aristotle some 3,000 years ago. He also created, at the same time, a new branch of philosophy called Aesthetics. Aristotle was writing a book intended for young playwrights. The subject of this book was the most important kind of stage play of his time, Tragedy. He also wrote a book on how to write entertainment stage works, but that book is lost. The book on Tragedy which has survived is called Posey, a word which was derived from the word poetry, because in Aristotle’s time all stage works were given in poetry.

In this book Aristotle discusses all the elements which make up a Tragedy. What sort of characters and their development should the playwright represent? In this case Aristotle thought only the highest noble persons should be represented on the stage. It was not appropriate to have just ordinary people, the people on the street, represented on the stage. He also talked about Time. Should the length of the story represent several weeks or just a brief story comparable to the actual amount of time it would take to occur on the stage?

Well, after he finished the book, having written about all the components which make up a Tragedy on the stage, he realized there was one topic he forgot and that was what does all this mean to the observer, the member of the audience? Aristotle had observed that in a Tragedy by a great writer, such as Sophocles or Euripides, you could see in the faces of the audience members that they were very involved in their reaction to the story and that the feelings and experience of the story seemed to “get inside” them somehow. Actually, this topic had been discussed even earlier by Socrates. Socrates gave the beautiful analogy of a magnet. If in one hand you have a magnet and in the other hand a piece of metal which is not magnetized and you touch the piece of metal to the magnet, it also becomes magnetized. And then you can add another piece of metal and it too becomes magnetized, etc. Socrates wrote that this is what happens when the story on the stage reaches the audience member. The experience becomes part of the audience member’s experience and not just something he watches on the stage.

On the other hand, Aristotle notes that this does not happen with entertainment music. Even 3,000 years ago there could be seen on stage entertainment productions with great events – great battles, shipwrecks, etc. Aristotle found that in these popular stage works, while the audience was involved in watching, it all seemed to “bounce off” and leave no permanent impression on the audience member.

Everyone can understand this distinction in the case of going with friends to see a movie. In some cases you are so moved by the story on the screen that when it ends you just wish they would leave the lights turned off for a while, giving you time to return to your normal senses. And when you walk out of the cinema with your friends no one says a word – you are still filled with the experience you had and this can stay with you for some time. On the other hand, you can go to the cinema with friends and during the picture you are fully engaged, you laugh, you cry, but when the picture ends you and your friends exit and immediately are talking about friends, school, and business, etc. The experience may have been strong, but it did not stay with you – it bounced off.

So the conductor has this choice regarding what they are going to present to the audience. This philosophical question is very old, it has been discussed for 2,000 years. Some questions have arisen, for example, does the conductor really have a choice? Yes they do. When a member of your town reads in the newspaper that there is going to be a concert next week, the reader decides to go or not to go primarily on the basis of wanting to hear a concert. They do not go with any preconceptions about literature. In the concert the conductor has the choice of giving the listener either an aesthetic experience or an entertainment experience.

Another question is, “Is there some kind of middle ground? Can a performance be partly entertainment and partly aesthetic?” The answer, on the basis of long experience, is “No.” When the audience member leaves after the concert they will feel either they have been moved and uplifted by the experience or that they have been entertained. Regarding this question, the nature of an encore is very important. You can have an entire concert of serious music, but when you have an encore with some kind of silly happy music it works like a kind of electronic eraser, it overcomes the earlier part of the experience and the listener leaves feeling they were entertained. In one famous example of this, a conductor scheduled after a performance of the Verdi Requiem, one of the most deeply moving compositions ever written, for the Tenor to come out and for an encore to start singing Cowboy Songs. You can imagine how this changed the entire experience for the listener.

Another issue raised concerning this choice is the setting of the concert. If your town band is going to perform at the half-time of a soccer game, then whatever you perform will likely be received by the listener as entertainment, because that is why they came to this event. In this regard I recall one time going to a university concert and the conductor came out wearing a clown’s suit. And so, in this case, before you had heard even one note of music, you knew this was going to be an entertainment event. I might also mention this is why we have the tradition for aesthetic concerts of turning out the lights, because of all our senses the eyes are the most important and if the lights are on the audience will be looking around the hall and will be distracted by what they see. But if the lights are off the influence of the eye is then limited and allows the sense of hearing to come forward allowing the audience to better concentrate on the music.

Finally, in spite of everything there will be differences in the experiences among the individual audience members. As Socrates pointed out in his analogy of the magnet, in a performance of, let us say, sad music, the experience leaves the stage and is heard by each individual and then sifted through their own personal history with sadness. The person sitting next to them will have had a different history with sadness and so will have a somewhat different reaction to the music. So in an audience of 500 people there will be 500 slightly different reactions to the music, but the general emotion of sadness will be shared by all – no one will begin laughing.

Well, what does all of this mean today for the conductor of a civic band? The first thing which comes to my mind is the question, does the member of the town really need more entertainment? If they have a television set they probably have hundreds of channels to choose from and most of them are entertainment. They have the opportunity go see live events, soccer games, tennis matches, etc., all of which are also sources of entertainment. Does the town really need more entertainment? Should it be the job of the conductor of a town band to provide more entertainment for the town? And if this is true, how can a band compete with commercial entertainment and the vast sources of money it has at its disposal? In my view, then, the town band has the opportunity to provide a different experience for the citizen of the town, an experience which is uplifting and consists of a deeper kind of emotion.

This reminds me of an occasion when the famous composer George Fredrick Handel, the composer of probably the most frequently performed piece of music today throughout the world, \worktitle{The Messiah}, at the conclusion of the very first performance of this great oratorio. A member of the audience, who must have been a noble since Handel called him Sir, approached Handel and thanked him for the great entertainment. Handel responded, “My Lord, I should be very sorry if I only entertained the audience. My hope was to make them better!”

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