Monday, May 03, 2010

Danger belongs in music

Yesterday I had my first experience with the cultural juggernaut that is Cirque du Soleil.

Daphne and Thandie were both born in May, and in a sense, this outing was an opportunity to celebrate both birthdays at once. It was something we could all enjoy together, at least theoretically. Of course, I'm not sure it was the sort of thing I would've sought out if left to my own devices. But if nothing else, I was extremely gratified (and moved) to see the look of wonder my kid had on her face for three straight hours.

I won't make any argument from the weirdness on display -- though once again I do see a mingling of the so-called "avant-garde" and the so-called "mainstream" in this production. Nor will I expound on the delight I experienced at the consistently bawdy undertone to the whole thing. Except to say "Bravo!" (After awhile I lost count of the fart jokes, and the sex jokes.)

But the show did get me thinking about the notion of "safety" in art.

As I watched two demon figures do their ridiculously insane routine on the gigantic rotating gerbil wheels, who knows how many feet up in the air, I thought: "There is absolutely no room for error here." Everything had to go exactly as planned, or someone would be killed -- and rather spectacularly, too.

Of course, that demand for precision, executed at a very high level, is where the tension -- and the pleasure -- comes in for the audience.

At the same time, very little about the production had the feel of improvisatory openness. Even the clown routines (in which physical safety was not an issue, per se) felt like they were highly scripted, so as to ensure accurate syncing with the sound design. At one point a member of the high wire troupe seemed to slip and nearly lose his footing -- a move that only made his second attempt at the same routine appear even more triumphant. Turned out this was planned too, because the exact same thing happens on the DVD.

All of which is well and good, and entirely appropriate for the sort of production that Cirque du Soleil is. My point is just this: the experience of art is enhanced by the threat of danger. For the musician, that danger may come in the form of a complex passage that must be executed just so, or a section that has been left open to interpretation, or improvisation.

For the circus performer, the danger is more literal, and more physical, but not more real.


mrG said...

In my experience, every well-composed piece of music has moments of terror, and every expertly arranged piece ensures there is at least one such moment for every member of the band, from the hot-shot feature solist down to the 3rd Eb horn, it may not be the same spot, but there's somewhere where each and every one of them will fear to tread.

godoggo said...

This reminded me of a couple of quotes from Sunday's NY Times Book Review, on a new Artie Shaw biography:

A musician he identified only as “a well-known clarinet player” once asked if he was ever afraid he’d miss that fiendish altissimo high C that ended his showpiece “Concerto for Clarinet,” always the climax of his live sets. “I said, ‘Put your hand on the table.’ He did, and I said, ‘Raise your index finger.’ He did. I said, ‘Were you afraid you’d miss?’ ‘Well, no,’ he said, and then, ‘You mean, it’s like that?’ ‘If it isn’t,’ I said, ‘don’t mess with it.’ ”


Only once, he claimed, did he ever pick up a clarinet again. Sometime around 1959, he “tried to play the Mozart concerto. I played a couple bars — but then that’s all. It was so hard to get one note the way I wanted to hear it.”