Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Constraints & the Amateur

When I e-penned on Saturday morning about the joys of fragmented musical experiences, I hadn't noticed Terry Teachout's Wall Street Journal article about the problem of reviewing amateur productions. The question there concerns how a critic must adjust his/her standards in dealing with such productions; this is just another side of the point that interests me - namely, that we can receive tremendous satisfaction from a performance even when professional standards are nowhere to be found. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but most important, I think, is that we intuitively take into account the human element and adjust according to what we know about the humans involved. This is more or less the same thing I've said all along about the Joyce Hatto story; people listened to "her recordings' with different ears than they might to other recordings because of the perfectly natural tendency to hear her in the context of her dramatic biography. A lot of people seem to think there's something inherently wrong with that. I think it's just normal.

In the case of appreciating amateur performances, this also intersects with another favorite topic of mine - the important role played by constraints in the creative process. Not only does an understanding of the constraints faced by a non-professional performance make us more forgiving, it actually changes the way we think about what we're seeing/hearing. And it should, because we're human, they're human, etc. One of my favorite movies is one that I made (!) a few years ago. It's a 45-minute version of The Wizard of Oz starring my daughter and about 10 of her cousins. We shot it over three days, and although some creative prep work went into fashioning costumes and scouting out locations, there was almost no rehearsing. We basically shot it line by line; we'd feed the kids (mostly ages 4-12) lines and then roll film.

Although I was screenwriter, director, and cameraman, there's little question that my most important role was editor. I've never counted, but I'd guess the final product is the result of something like 300-400 takes stitched together in a process that was both laborious and wonderfully challenging creatively. Talk about constraints. Now, I can't say for sure how unbiased eyes would view this film (not sure if I'll ever post it online, mainly because the innocent deserve protection), but biased eyes love it and have watched it over and over. I find the final product quite satisfying, and it's significantly because I'm astonished at what we were able to achieve within such tight constraints. No, it's not a Hollywood quality movie, but no one would ever watch it with those sorts of expectations.

In fact, I think viewers understand that those constraints (only three days, no boom mics, chainsaws roaring in the distance, tired kids, etc.) are part of the language of the movie. This is one of the crucial things about how constraints work in art. I recently encountered two fun examples of this, first in stumbling upon a PBS mini-feature on the photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. He's made a career out of a sort of trick photography that creates amazing images using nothing more than a Polaroid and skillfully set-up shots (warning, use of clothes is not one of his tricks). The images are often extraordinary, but it's quite important to Minkkinen that no digital or even darkroom manipulation enter into the equation. And we as viewers look at the results differently knowing the constraints he set for himself.

On a lighter side, Fred Himebaugh recently wrote about the constraints written into the rules of writing barbershop harmony. I really like what he says here:
"We roll our eyes at the rules because personal expression is a Myth that dominates our modern understanding of art. Then we reconsider, reminding ourselves that constraints often stimulate creativity: think Rachmaninoff's Vespers. The truth is that art struggles in environments that are too permissive, but also, in environments that are too restrictive. There's a region of magical twilight where just enough resistance leads to just the right kind of struggle that results in a satisfying work of art. That finding that region is difficult is only one more way that Art Is Hard."
That stimulating of creativity is what I find most interesting about constraints, but I think awareness of constraints also has much more to do with our perception of artworks/performances than is often assumed. The rigorous academic study of an art can make us think that unless all the ideal factors we've come to care about are taken care of, an artistic experience will not satisfy. [UPDATE (the next day): I think I accidentally deleted a transition sentence here, something along the lines of "However, we naturally forgive imperfections in a performance when we know there are constraints that explain them." The transition to the ideas of these last two paragraphs still needs work. Hopefully, I'll flesh that out soon.]
Here's one way of thinking about that; is it possible for Beethoven's genius to shine through in a hackneyed, uninformed playing of the first movement of the Moonlight sonata? (To the student who recently performed that, I don't mean you! That was sensitive, beautifully shaded playing.) This has to do with what I think of as the 90/10 problem. Most of us understand that achieving that final 10% of rightness takes something like 90% of the effort. (i.e. getting the Moonlight notes right is just the start; the artistry lies beyond that.) As a result, we also start to assume that the success of a performance is determined by that last 10%.
I'm not sure that it is; I've enjoyed far too many non-professional performances, and at a really deep and meaningful level. Of course, that has to do with adjusted expectations. I just put on a professional recording of a Mozart piano concerto and was completely distracted by some surprisingly out-of-tune wind playing that would probably have bothered me much less hearing a local orchestra live. I have nothing but the fondest of memories of a high school production of Carousel that I helped out with as a grad student, even though the performance standards would have been inconceivable on Broadway. But my point is not just that I can enjoy both; it's that the message/meaning of the artwork can be just as powerful in these different contexts. At least, I think I think that, but I'm going to end here for now. Soon I'll post about this, which has had me thinking about some of the same issues.


Tina Boyer said...

I read that Teachout article. I think critics always adopt different standards for amateur performance, and I think this is the correct approach. This practice goes at least as far back as Virgil Thomson.

However, I am not sure that this explains the critical reaction to Joyce Hatto. When the former Boston critic--was Richard Dyer his name?--praised Hatto to the skies, was he doing so because of her personal circumstances (at least as those personal circumstances were then represented publicly)? I don't think so. I think he genuinely believed that he had discovered a great, long-forgotten pianist. Her personal circumstances, such as they were, were not part of his equation.

At least that is my personal belief.

What a wonderful treasure you have: your own, family version of "The Wizard Of Oz"!



Thanks for the comment, Amy. I agree that the Hatto situation is quite different than reviews of amateur performances; but, I think there's an interesting connecting thread. Dyer didn't believe that Hatto was an amateur, but he did believe that the recordings he heard were all produced by an unknown elderly pianist suffering from cancer who had conquered almost the entire repertoire. The bias here is on a much more subtle level than when Teachout reviews dinner theater, so yes, Dyer did believe he was hearing great piano playing, and he probably was. The point is that part of what made the listening exciting and meaningful for him was the backstory.

The best example of this in the Hatto saga are Bryce Morrison's quite different takes on the same Rachmaninoff 3rd recording; he didn't like it when it was Bronfman's, but he praised it a decade later when he heard it as Hatto's. Now there are all sorts of possible explanations for his change of tune that wouldn't have to do with her biography, but it seems likely that his conception of Hatto played into how he listened - which I think is pretty normal and understandable.

It may be that the Hatto backstory just worked as a sort of switch that made listeners more likely to pay attention than when these recordings had been attributed to pianists who weren't famous. (Obviously, the Bronfman recording is an exception, because he's quite famous.) There are so many thousands of recordings out there, maybe it helps to have a story flip the switch that says, "pay special attention to this."

In such a case, it's not so much that Hatto's story made unprofessional playing sound professional (nobody has suggested that any of the playing isn't of a high professional standard); it just made people listen in a more engaged way.