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Interpretation: the Performer's Art

I spent the majority of this past week in Las Vegas, working as a model for Levi’s at Magic, a large fashion industry trade show. I did it mainly because it paid very well but there were two other reasons that justified this particular use of my time: 1) I wanted to experience the glamour of modeling in a big fashion event and 2) I’d never been to Vegas and seeing the city for the first time through the eyes of a working model was too poetic to resist. It might surprise you that I’ve lived in California for over a decade now and had never been to Sin City. It’s not that I haven’t had the opportunity: I had this romantic notion that my first trip to Vegas should be as an entertainer rather than a spectator, much like my first trip to Paris had to be with a lover rather than by myself. Vegas bills itself as the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’ and Paris was built for lovers.

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Playing the role of a model in Vegas certainly has its perks: I was always greeted with smiles and courtesy, I never had to wait for a table at the fancy restaurants or stand in line to get into the clubs, and the trade show was within stumbling distance of my hotel room, which was equipped with every imaginable amenity. But already on the first day, I became keenly aware that despite the sheen of fool’s gold, Vegas can quickly turn dreams into acid. I was simply a vehicle for the jeans that I was demonstrating, easily replaced by any number of other women. Certainly, there are ways in which models can improve the look of a garment, but in the end, the garment is the focus and the designer is the star.
 
This shift away from the interpreter and towards the creative team behind the scenes is also occurring in opera and ballet, and many other performance arts. Composers are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, as the proliferation of self-publishing and recording tools has changed the game. Much as blogging and citizen reporting are enabling individuals with no training in journalism to reach the masses, youtube, itunes and composition software are equipping creatives with the ability to create complex music without ever learning to play a single instrument.
 
Like the blogosphere, I suspect that in time, quality will cut through quantity in music as well as writing and the true test of a work will be its longevity. But in the meantime, why should a person devote years of his/her life mastering the art of interpretation rather than focusing on composing, or designing? Why work on skills when the sheer amount and frequency of output is what seems to dictate success?
 
Sometime during my third day in Vegas, I began to notice the acidity in the air: the meanness created by an empire built on losses. In Vegas, you can see, do, taste anything that you can imagine but everything has a cost: the better the quality, the higher the price tag. And the proximity to unaffordable luxury leads to bitterness. I have seen the same cruel disappointment envelop young creatives when the seemingly straight and narrow road to success proves to be deceptively curvy and bumpy. Upon my return from Vegas, I was desperate for a long and focused singing practice session and a workout.
 
I also re-read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting to remind myself of how complex and elegant the craft can be and how conscientious training can help the actor generate a more powerful experience for the audience. The same is undoubtedly true for my chosen craft: classically-trained singing. A great performance of a play or opera or other composition gives the audience a therapeutic emotional cleanse in addition to intellectual and sensory stimulation. Aristotle observed that a well-executed play allows the audience to expend pent-up emotions and that catharsis is a rewarding experience.
 
Several studies of the effect of music on the mind have shown that the brain regions involved in rewarding experiences such as eating, sex and taking pleasure-enhancing drugs are active when we are moved by a piece of music. And recently, in a PLosOne paper, Heather Chapin and co-authors from a university in Florida demonstrated that when a Chopin’s Etude in E Major was performed by an undergraduate piano major on a digital piano, the emotion and reward centers in listeners’ brains responded. When the same piece was played on the digital piano but using a computerized version that was technically accurate but lacked the expressive quality of the human performance, these areas were much less involved. One might argue that this is the first scientific study to demonstrate what audiences have known since the first cave man beat on a drum: the way in which a piece is performed matters just as much, if not more, than the piece itself. The performance matters, and the only way to give a great performance is to rehearse and train. The performance itself might not last forever, but as long as composers compose and designers design, the interpreter will have an important role to play.

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There's still hope for sopranos: thanks to evolution

This week I’ve been having a lot of fun with the music that I’m working on because my voice teacher is out of town and I took her absence as an opportunity to remind myself why I continue to work on improving my vocal chops every day rather than simply maintaining my current level of performance. With sincere apologies to my neighbors, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying practicing the stratospherically-high runs in the famous Queen of the Night aria (Der Holle Rache - you can find it here, starting 40 secs into the video) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Sometimes I just need to let it rip.

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I’ve also been dusting off the Chansons Madecasses or Madagascar Songs by Maurice Ravel, in preparation for a concert that I’m giving on July 15th (details and a sample of one of the songs can be found here). These are fabulous, sensual and politically-charged pieces for voice, piano, cello and flute and I love them dearly. These chansons couldn’t be more different from Der Holle Rache in terms of the words, dramatic context, feel, style, tonality and texture and yet, when I’m singing them right, I get goosebumps. And not just when I’m singing them, but also when I hear someone else performing them.

Having that experience made me wonder, as I often do, why we get the ‘chills’ from specific musical passages. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-born (we’re practically neighbors! as my mother would say) neuroscientist in Washington state has studied and written about this phenomenon for decades, with an influential paper published in 1995 showing that, contrary to our intuition, we get the chills when we listen to ‘sad’ music, rather than music that makes us feel happy. A solo line, often in the soprano register (lucky for me), emerging from a denser musical texture most often caused his subjects to experience chills. He also found that women are more likely than men to get goosebumps when listening to music.

He has since gone on to suggest that the experience of chills evoked by music is related to the distress that we feel when we are separated from someone we love and that this response has perhaps evolved to encourage mothers to respond to their crying babies. It’s easy to imagine many of the most memorable musical passages as separation calls: Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s I will always love you, the guitar solo in The Eagles’ Hotel California, the vocalise by Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. The solo instrument, on a simple melodic line, emerging from a thicket of other sounds.

Blood and Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University used neuroimaging to explore the parts of the brain that are activated during the experience of the chills evoked by music (you can find a copy here). They report that the same brain regions involved in other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex such as the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain, are also involved in this experience. But what’s most interesting to me about their studies is the fact that exactly which musical passage evokes the experience is very much tied to the individual: just because I like it, or find it moving, doesn’t mean that you will. Of course, that observation is self-evident to most of us, and the staggering diversity of music available to us demonstrates that musical taste is deeply personal. By the same token, I’ve watched mothers pick out their own baby’s cry from a cacophony of sounds with remarkable ease.

As I return to my vocal practice this week, I’m going to keep both Panksepp’s and Blood and Zatorre’s findings in mind. And at my next audition, I’m not going to worry about the fact that at least a hundred other sopranos are vying for the part. I’ll remember that, just like a baby’s cry, each of our voices is unique and there’s no telling which of our voices will wake the latent maternal instinct deep in the heart of the men and women on the audition panel. There might be a lot of sopranos out there, but we also might be favored by evolution to give our audiences the chills. And that’s a goal worthy of all the practice hours it demands.
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