Every performance is an experiment, or so said Joyce Wilkinson, a wonderful professor I encountered at OISE a number of years ago. Performance is a kind of proposition (and you can take that both ways). When you think about that, you recognize that the discourse of art is not the clear language of safety equipment. Everything before you is hypothetical, as in a series of thoughts that depend on a hypothesis. “If this, then that”.
And yet many of the premises of our experiments are unexamined by and large. There are assumptions that can be challenged because they are not automatic, oh no.
Two recent hypothetical encounters –that is, performance situations – remind me of this with wonderful clarity.
Instance #1 was written up a couple of days ago, namely Electric Messiah. At the time I remarked about the ambiguities of their performance vis a vis the distinction between performer and audience, in their replication of a flash mob. We’ve seen this on youtube, where a bunch of people are suddenly in the midst of something resembling a crowd, but in fact the spontaneity we see is scripted. And so, while people walked about the space, singing snatches from the Hallelujah Chorus –muttering or whispering or even barking “Hallelujah” at people around them—it was not what it resembled. In a perfect world people would express their joy spontaneously, would suddenly shout hallelujah or hosanna or WOW GOD YOU’re COOL, because of course they might also say “wow God you piss me off” or “why are you allowing kids to get cancer, allowing the bombs to fall from the sky…etc” Who knows what a real spontaneous display of spirit might look like. But I guess I resent the imitation of something spontaneous when it’s actually fake. Does it break my heart or am i confronted with a kind of mirror that makes me suddenly more agnostic, less willing to make the kinds of professions of faith i wish i were capable of making. No offense to Soundstreams, but i think it’s a kind of critique if a performance makes someone (ME!) more agnostic and less capable of being spiritual.
Or maybe it’s the Drake that hits me that way, the manifest equity and clever investment weighing down the west end of the city..? I find myself gagging on the fakeness in this part of town, so maybe i shouldn’t hold it against Soundstreams.
As I stood there in the Electric Messiah space, with these people circling around playing spontaneous I was sorely tempted to bark back, to do a real spontaneous unrehearsed hallelujah in their faces, to throw a handelian monkey-wrench into their pseudo-authentic performance. Am I mad or insane to think that a flashmob resembles something madly real and beautiful? It’s a fantasy that people really step forward out of their banal lives and begin to sing.
But it happens, as instance #2 might illustrate, although actually it’s there in #1, in my response. The artificial segregation between audience and performer is at least part of it. We are conditioned to be silent between movements even though this is counter-intuitive and lately a tendency being resisted and countervailed (for instance, at the Toronto Symphony lately).
We learn to be quiet. Before we were conditioned to be such sleep-walkers, such docile sheep, humans were more in touch with their impulses. They would cry out during performance, as Dr Johnson famously reported, although we’re now better trained to stifle our voices.
Tonight I was playing the piano at a Christmas Party, a fun occasion. At one point a young child approached the piano. Although his dad would have stopped him I encouraged him to come play, and play he did.
We get trapped by our sophistication. No one wants to show that they aren’t competent. But before we discover and internalize all those criteria for conformity, before we are taught to be paralyzed in fear, we are more likely to emulate this charming young fellow.
There’s an ideal response described by Nietzsche at one point in The Birth of Tragedy when he talks about the chorus as a kind of extension of the crowd. I think that the Maenads are the ideal in a sense, and not one that most performers would care to invoke, given the way that one ended up. If we think of some of these impulses as continua, as polarities, one extreme might be enlightenment (Apollonian) , the other, embracing our animalistic nature (Dionysian). The lad is a gentler form of the anarchy lying in wait. This is an element in art that rarely rears its head in the realm of high art: and that’s too bad. As I alluded previously in writing about Tap: EX, rock music has at times been a channel for something genuine via the human id.
And excuse the pun, it remains largely untapped. Where is the nasty fearful dark side of opera? Nobody seems to want to go there.
At least not yet.