Alone in public

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“Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there […] and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that he was saying farewell. Another outburst of applause and yet another; one more acknowledgment from the master, and Brahms and his Vienna had parted forever.” – Florence May

Ion is a “rhapsode”, a performer described in Plato’s eponymous dialogue, who believes that “if he has done his job well, he will find himself weeping when reciting sorrowful lines, and expects to see his audience weep along with him”. I remember seeing the conductor Zubin Mehta weeping openly in the orchestra pit at the end of Die Walküre, the nearly-6-hour long opera, the final “Wotan’s Farewell” scene, where the god strips his daughter of her divinity and lays her in an enchanted sleep.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, in an interview with the Philharmonia Orchestra, said that his job was not that of a chef, but rather of a waiter: it was his job to get you your music “hot, and on time”. However much this may sound like dry Finnish humor, here was another Ion, moved to his core by an undeniable music. I remember the video below circulating the ranks of the LA Philharmonic, where EPS openly weeps during the 2nd movement of Sibelius’s 2nd symphony, the tears streaming down his eyes in the emotional apex of the movement. 

How’s this for vulnerable: alone, unarmed in a raised clearing, all the light on you, an unseen mass of creatures in the dark. In a concert hall, that’s the normal spotlight. In nature, that’s when you get eaten. For performers of any kind, the understandable fear of being in front of an audience – whether in a concert hall or during an open mic – is a primal cue from our ancestors to fight, fly or freeze. The adrenaline coursing through our system is our body preparing itself for an event which will likely not end well.

Performers develop an arsenal of ‘weapons’ in order to prepare for this battle. Some are tangible and physical – like tuxedo tails and bright lights and our very instruments themselves. In “Music, a Subversive History”, Ted Gioa speaks of the origins of many orchestral instruments as implements of hunting and warfare (bows of violins and stringed instruments themselves as bows and arrows, trumpets and drums as military signaling devices, flutes the bones of hunted animals – their spirits enshrined in the marrow).

Other devices in our arsenal are more subtle, but possibly more powerful: specifically, the concept of the ‘fourth wall’ – the idea that the performer is ‘alone in public’ for the audience to see, a device conceived by actors for the voyeurism of a Victorian audience. Performers could dissociate from the fact that the audience was ever there at all – and could thereby provide a powerful lens into the intimate, universal human experience.

And yet, this breeds an air of dispassionate ‘professionalism’ to music making: is it worth playing for an audience if we don’t know how they’re moved? Is art-making selfish if the performer weeps, their back turned to the unseen mass, hoping that they have moved their audience?

I wonder if the wonder of human experience is rooted in the experience of being moved, and, rendered ecstatic by some craft of a creator – the earnest hope that we remember the resonance of that ecstasy. We point at the stars and say, ‘wow, isn’t that amazing?’ We crave a person to share this with: some person to tug on the sleeve and say – ‘are you seeing this? Are you seeing how amazing life is?’ We might find that wonder in a painting of Cezanne or in the night sky or in the 2nd movement of the 2nd Sibelius symphony. Wow.

To me, making music in concert halls is sacred – but the stage is not the only sacred place. In my experience, the fourth wall places me in a place of having to prove myself. I forget that I am safe to cry, to show and share, through my work and craft, that I am moved by what I do. It matters to me that you are, too.

And yet, most high level performers, especially those trained in conservatories, are told not to show their palette of ecstasy, but rather to armor themselves in a craft which takes away from their search for artistry. We are instructed towards a dispassionate course of perfection by someone else’s standard, the lowest common denominator of unoffensive playing which allows us to pass rounds of auditions behind screens. We’re afraid that we’ll get eaten alive if we show “the committee” what moves us.

We’re afraid not only that we’ll be dismissed for telling ‘our truth’, but that we’re wrong to feel so much conviction. The fourth wall has rendered us mechanical cogs dressed in tuxedos, not artists brave enough to weep in public.

When we make a business of art, we commodify what we place on stage, while forgetting that the work of art is the labor of tears, and the gift of sharing our most authentic selves as a nearly-sacrificial offering to our kindred audience.

What would it be like if we didn’t perform for thousands on stages, but for an intentional dozen, seated in a circle – where all of us can see each other? What if we asked our audience for permission to play for them – to share with them what we have discovered in our music? What if a search for engagement and resonance took a form of mutuality and respect, and not the dehumanization of ‘scale’?

Eat me alive. I’ll let you see my tears.