Tuesday, March 27, 2018

[Emotionally] Leading and Audience

Months ago, in a MoMo class at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, I saw a performance of a harpsichordist who was presenting a work in progress. The piece was a very flashy ciaccona by some unheard-of 17th century composer/performer and it was played very well for us that afternoon. Most of us were impressed not only by the performance, but by the fact that there had been such a development in that player's technical abilities in such a short time. The performance, like any, did have a few moments of insecurity but they did not detract from our reception of the work overall.

The most interesting part of the lesson was the discussion that followed it. A listener in the room asked the performer how he understood the piece emotionally. After a detailed description of what he felt and following another run-through of the work, the audience's comments became almost exclusively focused on whether they themselves interpreted the performance along the same emotional lines. In effect, following the description of what the performer saw, the audience adjusted their interpretation of the work by making judgements on whether they did or did not feel what was described to them before the work was performed again.

Let's look at an interesting parallel. Wikipedia writes, "in common law systems that rely on testimony by witnesses, a leading question or suggestive interrogation is a question that suggests the particular answer or contains the information the examiner is looking to have confirmed.[1]" The use of leading questions are often restricted, as they tend to allow the examiner to influence the evidence presented. Frequently, leading questions lead to binary answers. For example, question: "You were at the restaurant last night, weren't you?" The answer is either 'yes' or 'no'. 

While I absolutely encourage performers to make the exercise of analysing a work on an emotional level, I wonder whether we should share our findings with our audiences for fear that we 'cheapen' their experience. Think about it: in the moments before a performance you want to do your best to focus the attention of the listener as well as prepare them for the emotional experience you wish them to have. If you were to give away what they should feel, would they not spend the performance comparing their experience with their expectations?

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