Monday, July 14, 2014

Second Monday Music: Movement in musical performance

More than meets the eye

By André Duvall

2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the release by Virgin Records of Roy Orbison’s final album, Mystery Girl, which went public a few months after his death in December of 1988. He was first signed in Memphis, Tennessee by Sun Records, just a few minutes from where I live. Orbison’s voice is markedly different from most voices I have heard, lending a haunting and warm quality to his music. Elvis once said that Orbison’s voice was one of the most beautiful voices that he had ever heard. Others have described his voice as sounding otherworldly, operatic, and powerful.
    Orbison’s trademark appearance included dark sunglasses and black clothes, and his physical demeanor was subdued. He made very little motion beyond what was necessary for him to play his guitar and sing, and eschewed dancing or travelling back and forth across the stage. Orbison on stage was a stark contrast to many of his contemporaries in rock and roll music, who typically cultivated a more aggressive physical persona.
    Yet, Orbison’s audiences were no less enthusiastic in responding to his performances as they were for their more mobile idols. In 1963, Orbison accompanied the Beatles on a tour of the United Kingdom. The four musicians, known for their energetic movements on stage, stood in awe as Orbison performed fourteen encores standing still in front of raving fans. Orbison’s beautiful voice and appealing songwriting (often more complex in formal structure than typical songs in popular genres) were strong enough to stand on their own and sustain audience appeal.
    Those who knew Orbison personally have described him as being a very kind, unassuming man. Perhaps his physical movements were all the more appropriate because they fit his personality. Forcing himself to do otherwise, in an attempt to fit in to what everyone else in rock and roll seemed to be doing, might have hindered the quality of his music. His innate musicality was what mattered, and his physical demeanor was simply a byproduct of what made him feel comfortable and relaxed while performing. It was not, as some have said, a weakness, but a strength: a person fully expressing him or herself through music in a very personal and beautiful way.

Classical pianists exhibit many different degrees of bodily motion in performance. Certain motions made by pianists can aid in sound production, phrasing, and the avoidance of unnecessary tension or strain. In her instructional video on the cultivation of a healthy physical approach to piano practice and technique, Freeing the Caged Bird, pianist Barbara Lister-Sink (a professor at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) discusses legendary 20th century pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s motions and physical positions at the keyboard as seen in famous video clips of his performances. In Lister-Sink’s estimation, Rubinstein’s physical traits model the ideal employment of body motion (with only enough tension as is necessary), and capitalize on the strength of the torso and the natural falling weight of the arms to support the activity occurring in the hands and fingers. Watching Rubinstein’s videos, we see many grandiose arm gestures, and a very upright posture. However, Rubinstein’s body as a whole remains fairly still, and the physical movements clearly coincide with the demands of the music rather than simply for bravura display.
    Vladimir Horowitz, another of the great early 20th century Romantic pianists, likewise remained relatively still in most videos we have of his performances, even in fiery passagework. Horowitz’s playing is full of musicality even as his countenance remained placid and relatively unchanged.

Certain performers sometimes choose to add extra motion for purposes of showmanship, such as swooning of the head and large motions of the arm. Written evidence suggests the virtuoso pianist-composer Franz Liszt purposely cultivated this type of stage personality. No doubt a segment of an audience will delight in seeing this, I suppose because somehow this extra physical component adds to the musical experience they are hearing. It seems just as many others in the audience may find this practice very distracting, feeling that the performance becomes more about theatrics than the music itself. In fact, many works of music do not require any extra theatrics when brought to life with artistry.
    Some pianists who make many extra motions beyond what directly helps them play the piece are doing it not for purposes of showmanship, but simply because it is their personal playing style (much as Orbison’s style was physically restrained). They would otherwise feel restrained if they did not make some of those motions (i.e., not making the extra motions would psychologically affect their interpretation of the music). Sometimes these motions can actually distract from the music, either because it is physically “over the top,” or because it is unhealthy. In those cases, it is probably not in the performer’s best interest to make those motions. However, so long as these motions are not unhealthy ones (e.g., causing unnecessary strain that could eventually lead to conditions such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome) or overly distracting, many pianists who make extra motions that are not for showmanship are probably doing what is best for their own personality and efforts to express the music.
    A musician’s physical motions (or lack of motions) alone should not be criteria for critical judgment for an audience. Just as a wide variety of human personalities makes the world a colorful and interesting place, with introversion and extroversion serving equally important roles, the myriad of performance styles among musicians reflect the diverse artistic offerings that we as listeners are privileged to enjoy. Those listeners who are quick to dismiss a performing musician solely because they don’t like their physical mannerisms should first consider the actual music being produced before making a judgment call. It’s possible there is more for the ear than meets the eye!

Copyright © 2014 by André Duvall

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  1. Moristotle & Co. has a music column...What did popular singer Roy Orbison and classical pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz have in common? There's more than meets the eye.

  2. You bring up a subject I've been scratching my head over for many years. It started when a former voice teacher told me firmly that theatrics are a distraction from good technique. He cited as an example Elizabeth Farr, our professor of harpsichord. Ever since then I've kept score at concerts.
    Actors: Yo Yo Ma, Glen Gould, Leonard Bernstein.
    Non-actors: Wilhelm Kempf, the Tacacs Quartet, most conductors I've worked with.
    On the whole, I haven't noticed any harm done by acting out. And in fact there is a close connection between dance and music, to the point that some conductors have made the musicians dance to a phrase to get the feel of it.
    I'm a non-actor, I think. Truthfully, in performance I'm too busy to notice what my body is doing.
    What are you? And do you have any YouTubes to recommend? I'll try to contribute a few - starting with Gould and Ma.

  3. I enjoyed the article greatly, especially the Roy Orbison part. I love his singing and have some records or tapes.