The Art of Live Performance

Allow me to paint you a figurative picture, not a real one because I have the artistic ability of a one-flippered penguin.  Anyway, you’re sitting in the absolute worst seat in a concert hall.  You can barely see the performers and your neck is craned to an angle that would make a giraffe uncomfortable.  And yet, you don’t care.  You don’t even notice.  You are so enraptured in the performance that only the music matters.  You can feel the people around you moving their heads or tapping their feet.  Nearly every member in the audience is leaning forward in their chair.  This isn’t game 7 of the World Series, there is no elimination or tension– there is merely the magical ability of a group of performers to grab your attention in a felt covered vice-grip.

Such was the case for your humble author on Friday.  I, along with the rest of MU 228 attended the Ying Quartet’s performance in Packard Hall.  In case the Ying Quartet are not a group you are intimately familiar with, I shall summarize their performance style in a totally non-hyperbolic manner: The Ying Quartet is a group of four musicians, two of which play violin, one plays cello and one plays the viola.  Their sound is amazing– the way that they mesh as an ensemble is truly remarkable, with no instrument being lost in the mix.   But that is to be expected of professional musicians!  What really entranced me, and I assume the rest of the audience for that matter, was the energy with which they played.  You could see them moving with every note.  David Ying, the cellist, moved as if his chair was slightly electrocuted; he never stayed still.  This wasn’t just watching grown men and women squirm in chairs, this was watching four incredibly talented musicians having the time of their lives performing for an audience.  When you watch someone having fun, you have fun.  Joy and happiness are infectious, and it was extremely hard not to smile as I watched four adults honestly loving what they were doing.

During the latter half of the week, we were tasked to read the first two chapters of Philip Auslander’s “Liveness”, which focuses on how the live performance has been transformed and has been turned into a mostly-live-event-that-will-show-up-on-DVD-next- year.  Auslander discusses how nearly every live event has been “mediatized”, that is, when a performance has been “circulated on television, as audio or video recordings, and in other forms based in technologies of reproduction.”  If you attend a sporting event, you have the big screen to show you what is happening.  If you go to a Ke$ha concert, there will be a plethora of screens, lights, microphones and rather absurd costume changes to help replicate her music videos.  Very, very rarely will you attend an event where there are no special effects, amplifiers, big-screens or recording devices present.  The pure live performance has been all but lost.  Now, I am not for a second saying that we should all give up our iPods and return to the glory days of slogging five miles uphill both ways to attend a performance, I am merely commenting on how live performance has changed. I am, however, saying that The Ying Quartet’s performance was so powerful because it was so natural. The music was pure– no mixing witchcraft was present– the musicians were wearing simple concert attire, and you know what? It was amazing to watch.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must now go and inform all of my friends how vinyl is superior in every conceivable manner, and then talk about Woodstock as if I had been there.