Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Great, Rapt, Unwashed

Roy nails another one -
this time the Libertarian fear of rubbing shoulders with jerks like me who just go to the movies to have a - yech - communal experience. I don't really like to go to the movies alone - I will if I must - but it's not because I get creeped by all those other bodies, their sweat, their popcorn, their twitches, their perceived need to clump together. I want a friend I can hash the movie out with afterward, someone to share the (potentially) ovewhelming experience that a movie - still the cheapest form of grand entertainment - can give us.
At least movies can be recorded and be sampled in a technically acceptable way, even by libertarian shut-ins. Mark Morris, the choreographer, has urged all of us to get off our asses and give recorded music and whatever else we use as learning tools a well-deserved rest, because it is live performance that is the essence of the audience experience - One Time Only, Never to be Repeated!!! This is especially true of dance performance (go see more than one performance of the same thing in a company season and you'll see what I mean), but it holds as well for symphonies, chamber groups, theater, opera, recitalists, rockers (without synching). You do not look or listen the same way, knowing that what you sense in that space, that time, will never be repeated. Don't kid yourself that it can ever be the same again - those artists are flesh and blood, just like you, and you try to be perfect, inspired, twice in a row. Good can be wonderful, and some nights may just change your life.

I'm going to copy Morris's remarks here - they are from the Midwest Arts Conference in Cleveland in 1998, and I saved them:

Flash Flashback, 8-25: I Love You, I Love You, I Love You
Fact and Mystery
By Mark Morris

Copyright 1998 Mark Morris

(Editor's Note: The following remarks, originally delivered to the Midwest Arts Conference in Cleveland in September 1998, were first and exclusively published by the Dance Insider, with permission from the Mark Morris Dance Group, in December 1998.)

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. This isn't something I usually do. It may actually be the first time I've spoken with prepared remarks since high school. Usually in public, I communicate in a more ambiguous, open-ended and, I hope, musical fashion. But I wanted to talk to you today about the fragile and important thing that we do, all of us in this room. That important, difficult, primitive, dangerous, and non-profit thing.

I'm speaking of the fact and the mystery of live performance.

Fact and mystery are the twin aspects of live performance which have fascinated and consumed me since I was little, standing amazed on the street as the bass drum of a parade passed by. The startling physical fact of the whomp of the drum hitting me in my stomach, in my head, was a surprise, a revelation. It was loud. But more than just loud, it was present, next to me.

And it felt like I was being told something important, something essential, which I didn't quite understand.

It was the same thing that Janet Baker was telling me as she sang one night many years later at Carnegie Hall. Standing in recital, singing song after song in ravishing voice, in languages I didn't understand, I knew her only essential message could be translated as: I love you, I love you, I love you.

The fact and mystery of live performance.

As a child I would go on Sundays to compline, the last evening service before bed, at St. Mark's Episcopal in Seattle, the "music church." This was the first time I heard counter-tenors, the first time I heard plain chant, the first time I sat in the dark alone listening to music. Sitting in the dark alone -- with others. That was the crucial thing: with others; crowded, jammed up beside one another, and yet utterly private. Alone with my own thoughts and feelings, and the music we all shared in the air.

And I recognized an inherent contradiction in that live performance: others felt alone, too. There was a commonality in feeling alone; Bach felt alone. But we were all alone together. And I became more myself, and I felt less alone.

It's a lot of work to put on a show. Everyone here knows that. And it's a lot of work to go to a show: plans, baby-sitters, driving, parking. Sometimes it rains. And, of course, it costs money.

It's taking more and more work to go to a show. Because it's easier and easier to stay at home.

The electronic pull which keeps us isolated in our apartments and houses becomes greater almost every day. Why work only to get stuck in a show you may not like when there are 82 channels at home? Why chance a messy run-in with a friend or colleague who you could easily and discreetly e-mail? Why see a performer who you know couldn't possibly measure up to the agreed-upon-by-experts, best-ever, historical recordings you've amassed in your CD collection?

Because we need to. Because of biology. Because we are beings who crave touch. Because we are human animals who need that specific danger inherent in the fact and the mystery of live performance: the danger of truth.

Video is a lie. The compact disc is a lie. The Internet is a lie. Television is a lie. I love them all. All are the past masquerading as the present. All are dead, electronically feigning life. They fool us into thinking that they are contemporaneous with our lives, that they are entertaining us and connecting us, right now, all together.

But they're not. Electronic media separate us, isolate us, make us live in the past. Strip the electronic gloss from your Trinitron and you realize you're staring at the equivalent of crumbling parchment.

Live performance is uncomfortable. Whether sitting on a hard bench or the plushest, velvet-covered cushion, being in the presence of a performing human is somewhat uncomfortable.

It is focused confrontation, not easy co-existence. You can't talk, have a snack, go to the bathroom, or perform any of the myriad acts which make television such a soothing, regressive experience. Immobilized, trapped in the darkness, oppressed by the messiness of possibility, there is unease created by the implicit realization that anything can happen. And it takes work.

But that work pays off. The effort of engagement admits you to worlds of experience which are unique, corporeal and true. Difficult but essential, in corporeality is truth. Music live is radically different from music recorded.

And the difference is this: Live music is music. A recording is a simulacrum, an aide memoire, maybe a guide or learning tool. But music is in the flesh and in the moment, and it joins together those who hear it in a way that's both ancient and inexplicable.

Individuals listening together and feeling less alone. All art aspires to the condition of music. And all art is the same, or at least all great art. I get the same thrill from a Handel oratorio or a dance by Merce Cunningham. Both show me the world, or, more precisely, the manifold worlds within me and in which I live. Both of these artists are, as Allen Ginsberg once said, "angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

I work in live theater. I try to do that, too. I was in the fifth or sixth grade in Seattle when I saw the Koleda Folk Ensemble. It was the first time I had seen people singing and dancing at the same time, and I wanted to be part of it. It was welcoming, everybody was invited, and I actually felt like I could do it.

Later, I joined the group and it changed my life. It set me on the path which has brought me here, speaking to you.

And I'm here because I want to tell you how important it is what you do, what we do. It's hard. Conditions are worsening. Live performance is being pushed farther and farther to the fringes of our national culture. At least I get applause; running a theater these days is a pretty thankless job.

But it's necessary, and it's vital that you know how necessary.

Each night that you open your theaters is a miracle. Each night that the lights are turned on, the tickets sold, the programs printed, is a miracle. It is a miracle each night that your community is invited to gather in your buildings and hear music or see theater or dance. And I am deeply thankful for the miracle that I and other artists are given the opportunity to perform and attempt to say what Janet Baker told me that night long ago at Carnegie Hall: I love you, I love you, I love you. Thank you.


And so I thank you, too.

1 comment:

blue girl said...

Hi grisha: I never thought of it like that before. Thanks for that.

My son was invited to "Pretty Girl from School's" dance recital on Saturday. Jazz Dance.

He really wants to go -- which gives me some idea of how he might just feel about her. (I asked if I could go -- and I got a look like, "are you crazy??!)

I can't wait to hear what he thinks of it!

He's been to very few things like this -- specifically because, well -- your post explains it pretty well.

Shame on me.