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Monday, September 12, 2011

On Meeting the Authentic Musician

One of the many dimensions of a concert is that you meet the musician as a person – or at least pretending that that is the case seems to me to be one of the many pillars of musicking in our society. For many listeners, including myself, imagining that they know the musician, that they understand him, is an important aspect of listening to someone. Of course, the beauty of his music, the power of his lyrics, his incredible technical skills, the fact that he produces more decibels than a Boeing take-off, his outrageous outfit and the fact that you like him because he organizes an event where you can show off muscles, wealth and good taste are also incredible important, but still, being touched by another person (“the other”, as some philosophers would maybe claim, but I am but a humble ethnomusicologist) through music is for many an important reason to listen to music at all (I will substantiate this claim at some point in the future, for now just believe me).
Now there is a lot of trickiness behind hat idea, once you start thinking about it. Let me stick to singers. One is that they often sing other people’s songs, or songs they wrote in other periods of their own life. So can you expect that a singer means every word the moment he sings? In a direct way, no, otherwise a varied concert would require a superhuman emotional flexibility from the part of the singer (some people would maybe say that that is the case and that therefore music is Art; I disagree). Singers mostly don’t sing their proper feelings out.
But surely they sing about feelings they know from deep inside – empathy specialists, you would say? You start arguing a little bit within yourself and in a few minutes or so you build up a kind of humanistic argument around musicking; like: an excellent musician has thoroughly lived through the human emotions a song expresses and it is precisely for that reason (“precisely” – another word philosophers like to use a lot; sorry) that he knows how to touch you; and: the connoisseur of music does not so much recognize the excellent way emotions are sung out in songs, but more the ability of the singer to express a-personal emotions in song – a subtle difference but an important one in aesthetics, I think.
I am not going any further in this direction here because I am only mildly interested in aesthetics – hence the clumsiness of the last paragraph, by the way. The question why or when some music “is” beautiful is too abstract for me, as is talk about “the excellent musician”. What interests me is how, against the background of all kinds of ideas about what music “really” is, people actually behave. So let me tell you about two experiences I had at the Take Root Festival in Groningen last Saturday which both made me think about this idea of meeting the authentic musician in his music.
The first one was a concert of The Tallest Man on Earth, a great singer-songwriter and an excellent communicator who is able to connect to a big audience (through a microphone – yes) and still give everybody the feeling that they are in an intimate concert. It was nice to see how he did that. I am not going to expand on it, but one of the tricks was to pick a person in the audience and talk personal with him (or in this case: her) in between the songs. This communication went so far as that The Tallest Man on Earth at some point explained to her that his songs were all rather sad and about unrequited or unhappy loves, but that in reality he was happily married for a long time now. He muttered something afterwards but it seemed to me he was somehow surprised himself to have maneuvered himself in this rather funny corner of a musical performance so he let go of it altogether.
But I, as an audience member who until then silently had bought in to the background idea of meeting the person through his music was suddenly put off balance. If this guy singing songs about lost loves was happily married at the same time, why was I wasting my time listening to him? I could just as well have gone to look at a theatre play! Heaven forbid!
The second experience was at the same festival. I listened to Josh T. Pearson, a guy singing terrible tragic and very long songs. I quite liked it (the amplification was too loud, though). At some point he started talking to the audience and within minutes was telling musicians jokes – very funny, but in a way I could not really cope with the contrast between songs and talk in between – which made it a memorable experience (oh, the joy of meta-level experience!).
Of course, this says a lot about me. About who I am as a listener. About what I am looking for when I put on music. Yes, I am actually one of those people who is interested in the guy, and who likes music that expresses (or seems to express, or expresses to express) the guy. And the reverse: I like musicians who are not trying to express an idea, but who are expressing themselves. How you hear that, how you know, what it is – I don’t know; and once I will start thinking about it, I will end up in a mess. And it is not the only thing I am interested in; it may be genre-dependent, because when I listen to classical music I am actually nót interested in the musician at all.
Puzzling. Very puzzling.

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