Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Music and Ego

Perhaps it is an outdated idea, but I have always considered playing a concert much more about sharing the music at hand than about "me" playing the music. When I go to a concert, I go to hear the music. The person playing or the people playing are responsible for allow the music to sound the best that it can sound. When I play a concert, my aim is to play the music as well as I can, and to communicate its emotional content or what I believe is its emotional content to the audience. I try to play in tune, in rhythm, and with a good sound so that the music can be alive for everyone in the room to share. Greatness is not the object, but pleasure is. When I'm playing with a group, I do my best to blend with my ensemble-mates, as well as to play in tune, in time, and with a good sound. It isn't "about" me when I'm playing. It's about the music and about the community that it creates.

It isn't even "about" the composer. I know, from personal experience, that being a composer means that you take responsibility for putting pitches, rhythms, and sometimes words together in ways that make music. Once those elements are in play, the music no longer belongs to the composer (unless there are pitches, articulations, and notation issues that need to be fixed after a performance). At best it becomes a vehicle for expression for the people playing, and is "about" the relationship between the pitches, rhythms, sounds, and the musicians. If I happen to have the good fortune of writing something that people enjoy playing and that people enjoy hearing, I have done something successful. If I can do it more than once, I'm extremely fortunate.

I don't believe that a piece of music is a vehicle for the ego of the person or people playing, but I have observed everything to the contrary during my musical life. Perhaps I first noticed it at Juilliard in the 1970s, but I'm sure that it has been around much longer than that. Musical ego, distasteful as it was to me at the time, was generally accepted as a good thing. Its omnipresence led me into a revolt against Western thought. I believed that musical expression was the major aim of music making, and that technique was what made it possible. I still believe it. I also still believe that the ego gets in the way of musical growth. Worrying about what people think can inhibit creativity and expression, especially when people, for whatever reason, don't communicate truthfully about music.

We all have musical ego to some degree. If I play something badly, I feel ashamed. If I play a concert and nobody shows up (it has happened), I feel hurt and insulted. If people don't acknowledge my existence in my musical community, I feel hurt (it does happen).

Ergo ego.


Quodlibet said...

Hi Elaine,

I agree with your sentiments.

A few weeks ago, I attended a solo recital of Bach's lute music. At every turn of phrase, or fugal entry, or cadence, the performer grimaced, ogled the audience, even groaned slightly. It was so distracting that I had to listen with my eyes shut to be able to concentrate on the music, which was otherwise well played. This past Sunday, I attended a fabulous concert by the Jupiter String Quartet with pianist David Westfall (Music Series at South Church, New Britain, CT). Throughout the fine program (Haydn, Janacek, Franck), I was struck by how the music always was in the forefront and the performers, though energetic and fully engaged, never put themSELVES forward as "performers." They were of the music, and part of the music, and making the music, but THEY were not the music. There were no superfluous gestures, no grimaces, nothing to say "Watch ME!" What I heard was the composer's music, beautifully and honestly played.


David Wolfson said...

On the other hand...

The sight of musicians enjoying themselves playing can be a major asset to the music. A certain amount of showmanship can draw an audience into the musician's performance, and thus into the music itself.

There's a thin, fuzzy, line between that and the sort of attention-seeking that distracts from a performance, but I think it's important to draw a distinction.

Elaine Fine said...

I have been very impressed by the Jupiter Quartet for the very same reason, Sarah. You do have a point, David, but when the music demands showman-(or showwoman) ship, the "show" does become an essential part of a performance (as in a lot of virtuoso violin music), but a performance can still be "about" the music and not about the showman or showwoman. (I like the way "showwoman looks with the "owwo" in the middle).

Rich said...

"Perhaps it is an outdated idea, but I have always considered playing a concert much more about sharing the music at hand than about "me" playing the music."

Not outdated, just delusional. Music is an expression of the ego. "Sharing" is euphemistic. Playing music is saying, "Hey, listen to this sound I'm making! It's interesting and important!" Pretty egotistical by almost any standard.

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps you will be lucky enough to have musical experiences that help you think of music in other ways, Rich.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with what you have said Elaine. To respond to the comment that music is an expression of the ego, I would rephrase and say [performance] is an expression of the ego. This is certainly not a bad thing.. we all have an ego and people like a good "show." However, music is an expression of the soul and the soul has no sense of self. Sharing music with others is very intimate- improvising with fellow musicians is selfless and profound. True, heartfelt music has no self... it is the show that is an expression of the ego.

Anonymous said...

Some of the comments you have received here are quite bizarre -- the last one by "anonymous" and the one by "Rich". Hard to believe someone would troll the gentle soul you seem to be.

I appreciate your article, about the subtleties of pride which infuse musicians of all stripes. Music is given us by the creator of the universe. If we are so fortunate to be blessed with the gift of expressing it, we will have to beat down all manifestations of pride and 'ego'. We are nothing more than a vehicle. To develop a swelled head is to insult our creator.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Elaine! Music is about sharing and caring, good vibes! For some people, however, music can quickly turn their minds egotistical, which they must be cognoscente of at all times so as to avoid.