Ensemble

I went to see a chamber music concert this evening – short performances by ten chamber groups in two hours. The music ranged from Schumann to Shostakovich, and everything in between. My favorite was the “Violin Sonata in A Major” by Cesar Franck, a perfect study in soulful aching lyricism. Tonight, in the hands of a brilliant violinist and pianist, it somehow managed to be deeply sad and ecstatic all at once, like the very best songs by Tom Waits.

Somewhere during the arrangement for flute, clarinet and piano of Debussy’s “Epigraphes Antiques” I had an epiphany. Each of the musicians on stage was focusing on giving the best individual performance possible – each mind on the stage in its own personal zone, a place that had been achieved through countless hours of practice. And yet each player was clearly keeping an ear open to all the others. You could see the occasional glances from one musician to another, the thoughtful pauses between the music as they all tried to sync to the same emotional wave as it surged and ebbed throughout the piece.

And I realized that this is the same experience I have watching a great performance by a dance ensemble, or great actors on a stage, whether the play is by Mamet or Chekhov. In each case there is a dramatic illusion of tension between two opposing players – in the case of the Debussy it was the byplay between the flute and the clarinet. But in fact, they are all aspects of the same mind – and this is what makes it all wonderful.

A good performer, whether in a ballet, a chamber orchestra or a theatrical farce or tragedy, is usually presenting a well thought out creation of a single brilliant mind. The people you see on the stage are not there to act solely as individuals, but rather to illuminate an inner dialog created in this author’s mind. In Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” Nora and Torvald are not really two people – rather they are artful illusions of two people, perfectly sketched representations of individuals, invented for the purpose of playing out questions that actually arose within the mind of the playwright.

When you see this in a novel, it is all usually tangibly obvious. The reader knows that Darcy, Elizabeth and Collins are merely creations from the single mind of Jane Austen. In fact, Austen reminds us of this fact at every moment in the story – by making her own narrator’s voice the most vivid of all the voices we read.

But in a performance it gets trickier. You can actually see the individual floutist or clarinetist there before you – flesh and blood humans who you know have each spent countless hours to perfect their art. And yet the job of that floutist and that clarinetist is to illuminate the mind of Debussy, to bring you back to the vision of the individual creator.

I think that it is this formal tension – the fact that even in the middle of a knock down, drag out cursing match in the blackest of Mamet plays, or the most devastating psychic wounds inflicted in a play by Conor McPherson, it is still the job of the players to act as an ensemble, to work harmoniously together on the meta-level of illuminating a single author’s story and ideas.

To reveal to us, to the best of their abilities, the creation of an individual mind.

5 Responses to “Ensemble”

  1. Dagmar says:

    But the individual mind your are talking of is the individual mind of the director or the conductor and his or her interpretation of the material, not the vision of the creator.
    It even depends pretty much on the instruments used, when we talk of music. For example most grand pianos used today for concerts are Steinway’s. So we are pretty much used to a Steinway sound and it seems like it has to be like that. But try to use another grand piano, the music sounds different and feels different.
    Or just think of a violin, a Stradivarius, with her special voice can change everything.
    So to me the musicians or the actors try to bring the interpretation of the director or conductor to us and they have so many parameters to play with….

  2. admin says:

    I don’t think a good director or conductor generally sets out to replace or obscure the intent and ideas of the author of the work, but rather to reveal and help illuminate those ideas.

    One way I think about is that the director and performers are charged with displaying a beautiful sculpture. They may arrange it this way and that, place some drapery behind it for dramatic effect, and perhaps use innovative kinds of lighting technology (eg: a Steinway grand).

    But a director mustn’t knock the arms off the scupture to make it fit into the gallery space, nor replace David’s head by a portrait bust of herself.

  3. troy says:

    Interesting thoughts about the ensemble… It’s a romantic view, and I like it, but, like so many romantic views, probably diverges from reality…

    Speaking from experience…

    I used to play guitar/banjo/mandolin in a musical theatre orchestra. I enjoyed it, for the most part, but, it was a job… it was a stepping stone to something else… I also played in a country/western pickup band… Also, fun, but, also a job. What I really wanted to be, way back then, was Eddie Van Halen… I have to say that even though I really wanted to be a guitarist, and a great guitarist, I wanted to be more than a member of an ensemble. I like the romantic view of the many minds working together, but, often, it’s rote repetition with either the complacency of a “job”, or, the aspiriations of being something greater… Say aspiring to being a Yoyo Ma or a an Itzhak Perlman.

    Recent experience… Heather and I were in New York a few weeks ago. Saw a couple of shows, and happened to be walking by a bunch of theatres when the cast were getting off work… There were a couple of instances where there were cast members fleeing through the side door, makeup off, jeans on, before the bulk of the audience had left the theatre… Really made it appear to be a job. I realize, this is Broadway and not Symphony, Ballet, or Opera… But… It had all the appearances and trappings of a job…

    Same story for the Corps de Ballet… It’s a rote job… Not every corps member has aspirations to be a soloist or an “Etoile”. For some, it is a job… I’ve probably danced in 3,000 Nutcracker performances in my life, and, every one of them, was just trying to make it to the point where I could take off my makeup and hit the road… Because, I wanted to be a Baryshnikof, Nuryev, or Najinsky… Maybe even a Fred Astaire… :) This was simply a way to pay the bills while I strived to achieve the pinnacle that just happened to be important, for whatever reason, at that time in my life.

    So, my curiousity, is how many members, in a large ensemble, are simply playing the notes, as directed, and how many are truly trying to shine. I really like to think that they are all trying to shine, but, like so many other repetitive occupations… I have to wonder how long it takes for complacency to set in…

    Funny, now I play guitar with my son, who is getting better every day and hungry to learn, and I’m too fat to dance… So… I grow grapes.. I’m hoping that every one of those grapes out in the yard are striving to paint the picture of the perfect bottle of wine that they will all enevitably participate in creating… Complacency is not a desired trait in my vineyard… But, I’m a bit of a romantic… (don’t tell anyone)

  4. admin says:

    Yes, that makes sense – context is everything. What I saw last night was not a performance by paid professionals, but rather an end-of-semester show by a group of highly talented and dedicated college and graduate students at NYU’s Steinhardt school. They were not following some career-limiting choice, but rather were engaged in perfecting their expression of the music itself, for the love of it.

    For example, one truly phenomenal pianist at last night’s concert (in the Cesar Franck piece) is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in our department of computer science. I am quite sure that for her this performance was an act of pure love – playing a duet with a good violinist expresses her joy in interpreting great music as well as possible.

    In my own career I have worked hard to maintain that same “student mind” – always working on what I find to be fun and inspirational, rather than looking at what I am doing as some sort of stepping stone to something else. I know that others may not have an option to do that, and I realize that I am fortunate. The sense of discovery and excitement – the same feeling I had about this stuff as a grad student and in high school, and probably in some form when I was six years old – never loses its power.

    It was good to see those students expressing that same thrill. I hope many of them hold on to it.

  5. Dagmar says:

    Troy’s observation is pretty good I think. And with classic composers it is not much different, they did contract work and they wanted to be successful, so they even did what was modern at there time.
    So it is hard to guess, where there love was.

    One of my friends actually is a composer, he is running a sound studio today, but he once was a pop-star and toured with his band around the world, playing in front of thousands of people (yes I am talking about football stadions:-)). At one time his manager told him, to be really successful you need to change your style in exactly this direction. He and his band decided not to go for it….

    Or look at the Bee Gees (one may think of their music whatever one want:-)) they became successful as they started up to use this special kind of singing/voice of one of the brothers That was actually the idea of their manager.

    Another example that is kind of funny. Kurt Tucholsky a German writer, wrote “Castle Gripsholm. A Summer Story”. Today you will find plays and even a film, telling his summer story, but if you take the print version in your hands, you will find the letters from his publisher pressing him into this upfront. Kurt Tucholsky was a genius with words, they may have been his love as much as he once wrote he would betray every woman with his type writer and “Castle Gripsholm. A Summer Story” is a wonderful story, it still shows a political and social dimension and his words are still weapons, even when he has been pressed into this work by his publisher. But what do the actors in the according play do? Do they try to show us Tucholsky’s vision? They try to show us the vision of the theatre manager (my guess). The actors may or may not love what they do, they may have their next career step in mind or not…

    There has been and is mostly a director or manager behind the art, who asks for something, a new opera, a new musical, or for example a new book, or who simply decided there is target-group for it and it makes money.
    Now the things are changing, thanks to the internet, my space and you-tube.

    But you are right Ken, all I am talking about is doing art for money or to put in a nice way, as a profession.
    And please forgive me my not so romantic view on this, maybe it comes with being a manager of a media company in former times, with only one major target, making money with content that artists, writers and composers produce.

    Your concert was something completely different. I hope what you saw and heard was the love and passion those young artists had for the music they played. You listened to their interpretation anyway, they did that according to the ideas (simple or not so simple notes) of the composers, if they did that according to vision of the composer we will never know, because we can’t ask. :-)

    And I believe, like you Ken, that reaching the point in ones career where you can allow yourself to do the things you love is a big exception and I am grateful for that.

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