‘Cause now and then she’ll get to worrying
because you haven’t spoken for so long
Though you may not have done anything
will that be a consolation when she’s gone?”
– Billy Joel (Tell Her About It)
Whenever I go to hear live music of any genre, I’m always fascinated to see how the artist’s dialogue with the audience (or lack thereof) enhances or detracts from the performance. I just saw Patty Griffith at the Fillmore in San Francisco – what a great example of how genuine and understated onstage talk goes so far towards creating a fulfilling live music experience. She was so easy and captivating onstage in both word and music – and how the crowd loved her for it!
In cabaret, they call the spoken material in between songs “patter” – it’s expected and conventional. Done well, good patter will provide a frame for the songs sung and enrich the listening experience – there’s good reason it’s conventionalized. But as with anything that becomes de rigueur it can run the risk of becoming academic or overly theatrical, losing that spark of spontaneity and personality that make verbal communication in performance so fun and illuminating.
In rock as well as jazz there isn’t such an expectation that the artist will communicate extramusically with the crowd. There are many well-known musicians in jazz who don’t speak at all during a concert. For a time, I believed this to be the purest way of communicating music to an audience: after all, doesn’t the music, especially music with lyrics, speak for itself? But if I’m honest, many of these performances leave me yearning for some personal insight with the artist, apart from what he or she plays. Especially if they play it well. Why this song? When’s the first time they heard or played it?Is there something that comes to mind about the material that I might like to know? This is the opportunity to give us a live liner note. ( And I know I’m not alone when I say I can’t remember the last time I read liner notes to a physical CD.) It’s live and in the moment where the opportunity to provide some information has to be seized by the artist.
In classical music, you’ll be given a program with history and further explication of the music you’re about to hear. There are frequently lectures prior to the performance which enrich the listeners in what’s to come. Sometimes I wish this approach were less formal in the classical world, but nonetheless the need for other information and enrichment for the listeners is recognized and met in some way. Most listeners are coming from a long day of non-musical work. They could use a refresher on Mahler, or some reference for a 10 minute long lyrically dense tune, or a hint of what the portuguese in a beautiful bossa tune actually means.
There’s a reason Leonard Bernstein was so beloved – he was able to bring music alive for children and adults in both words and practice. The effect of these elements together made his influence incalculably great. Through his talent people not only heard great music but came to understand and celebrate it more because of his insight and ability to communicate in words what he also could produce in music.
I’ll confess, in a rock show one of my favorite things is the off the cuff philosophizing while a guitar gets tuned. I frequently think if I could just tune a guitar under my less insightful blather it might be lent an element of profundity (probably best for me not to play the guitar in this case.) The classic front man exclamations from rock guys: “We love you St. Louis!” and the “How y’all feeling tonight?!” are all ways of recognizing that we as listeners and music makers are here now, this moment is special and that audience and band recognize one another. It’s essential stuff. There is the rare talent who’s ‘show’ is actually rebuffing or ignoring their audience – if you’ve got the right personality for it, it can work and the crowd digs it. Most of us artists might do better to side with respecting, even loving, the people who have come to hear us and telling them so.
Ultimately this is all about seizing the moment — ‘leaving it all on the court’ as they say. Giving an audience what they need to experience your music fully, not as it would be on a CD but even more personally — with your reflections on what the music means to you on that particular day, a little about how it made its way into your life. Music is not a product of glossy shrink wrapped perfection – I think it’s moving further away from that model. It’s an evolving thing, a living thing. In a live performance you bring yourself to the music as an artist, but also bring others to it – however they’ve come to you. On a rainy Tuesday night, at a jazz brunch, whatever. For me it’s what separates just great music from a great live experience of that music.
I’d like to think that as musicians, we aren’t performing for posterity, but for the people in front of us.