Performance and Participation

Submitted Sun Apr 6 22:12:47 2008 under tags "performance,participation,burning man,piano,art"

I have just scanned an article by Marc Couroux about the "piano" piece Evryali by Iannis Xenakis, a composition deliberately meant to be impossible to actually play. You can also see the composition drawn out on graph paper (is it the original by Xenakis?) and presumably nearly played.

I say "presumably" because I can't imagine that I could read that music and know what it should sound like. I also say I "scanned" the article because it delved deeply into sort of a theory of performance and composition that, well, wasn't that interesting to me.

I used to have discussions about this kind of thing with Hallie. She asked me once what my favorite movies and TV shows were. I mentioned "Stargate SG-1" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". (Horrors!) Her statement was that the acting was horrible, and she rattled off some virtuoso actors and actresses' names.

After thinking about it briefly, I had to admit that the cast on Buffy were not exactly Shakespearean, but I didn't think I really cared. The show was always entertaining to me, and the stories (in my opinion) actually dealt with the relationships between the characters, and ditto SG-1. (I won't bore you here with that.)

I think there's a tendency for performers and other craftspeople to lose sight of the product of the craft. I'm a programmer; I write code almost every day, and it's my hobby as well as my occupation. I think I know what beautiful code looks like, and I hold in high regard programmers that I consider to be skilled, adept practitioners of the art.

In the end, though, what good is art if it cannot be experienced or enjoyed in some way? If I write a 3D viewer program that has excellent data hiding, efficient but readable algorithms, and good modularity, but it reads only obsolete 3D model formats, is it "good"?

I would assert not. I don't have a degree in art. What is "art", though? Hallie had studied art, sculpture, music, and improvisation. During an argument I asked her, "what is art?" and she said, "touche." I was sort of taken aback, because I really was hoping to hear a definition! In my mind, "art" is a form of communication. It's a way of expressing a feeling or a thought or some kind of product in a way that adds to another person's experiences.

In that way, Evryali would only be art in the weakest sense - my experience of it yields disinterest and distaste. And in some sense any art that rejects the audience or even the performer reminds us of the value of collaboration and cooperation. I may think that the code for a program is ugly, but if it works and solves a problem or provides a service, isn't that its fundamental purpose? I would assert that it is.

It is for this reason (among many others) that I love Burning Man. It is thoroughly participatory. Most of the art there is meant to be sat upon, climbed on, poked, played with, or even burnt to the ground.

Today at 3-ish I plan to join some friends playing guitar. None of us are expert at playing guitar, keeping time, or singing, except Mary, who I would say is pretty darned good. I consider the basic value of the thing to be very high, because we are all participating, sharing, and growing just by being there whether we are good or bad.

What I think this all comes down to is that the sharing of ideas and the mixing of our experiences seems very important to me. Sitting in an ivory tower and pondering, "what is the essence of the relationship between composer and performer?" misses the whole point of (in this case) creating music, performing it, and experiencing it. I would much rather play something on my guitar and have another person bang on a pan to keep time enthusiastically; the thing we make together feeds both of us.

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