(written July, 1997)
From time to time I am asked to describe my pianistic style. Naturally, this is a difficult question to answer even in a particularly lucid frame of mind, but by necessity, over the years, one develops an "official" answer to questions of this sort.
Any artist, however, has additionally an unofficial, private "take" on what constitutes their style. Recently it occurred to me that one element of my pianism is what you might call an element of "vulnerability."
At the conservatory, they teach performers how to play with strength and confidence. Frequent references are made to "playing to the person in the back row (of the auditorium)," and so forth. Perhaps, though, there is something missing in the pianists who graduate from these conservatories and accept this philosophy of performance without question. Perhaps this "something missing" is a sense of vulnerability.
The wonder of classical music is how it reflects the full range of human emotions and experience. Most people (and therefore most audience members) at base suffer from a lack of confidence. We all have our moments of weakness, of vulnerability, just below our surface facade of feigned assuredness. So occasionally I do infuse (subconsciously) the performance of a musical phrase with a little fragility, a little weakness, a little vulnerability. I feel listeners respond to this, that it is one way the music may be connecting to them on a deeper level, below the surface, recognizing this undeniable element of our human make-up.
"Vulnerability," of course, is something particularly human. A synthesizer is incapable of performing in this manner. Every sound they produce is black and white, unambiguous. Only a human can create music that is not sharply defined, that is in hazy greys; only a human can create what I call a "fractured" sound in music, music far-removed from the smooth virtuoso confidence taught in the conservatory, yet music that perhaps resonates more deeply, a more human music.
Ultimately, our feelings of vulnerability stem from our fear of death. Outwardly, most of us banter and jest, make light conversation and appear reasonably confident. Every now and then, though, we sense our mortality, and this gives us pause. I strongly believe composers have evoked these precise feelings on occasion in their music, and therefore it would be a great mistake as a performer to suppress these sensations in interpreting these special moments -- rather they should be cultivated.
How do I cultivate this garden as a pianist? I doubt there is much of a recipe for creating a sound of vulnerability, and it's best not to be too self-conscious about it. Perhaps my development of a highly nuanced dynamic range is helpful to me here -- I employ a greater variation in dynamics withiin a phrase than is customary. I also am capable now of more rhythmic subtleties within a beat. So this may more easily enable me to depart from a more stratified, black and white presentation. In terms of articulation, I only use the ultra-smooth legato of the conservatory virtuoso at key moments, to highlight a phrase or part of a phrase, and not as a basic, all-purpose general sound texture. Rests and silences are also important. Most musicians are afraid of letting the music "die," but they would by letting go of these inhibitions be able to add a new dimension to their music-making.
Before we get too enchanted with all this, I feel compelled to note that one wouldn't want to over-emphasize this element of vulnerability. Most of the time great composers have strong ideas they communicate directly and powerfully, and it would be inappropriate to approach such passages with ambiguity or a sense of fragility, as that would diffuse the focus and direction of the music. Indeed, presenting a composer's ideas with the utmost clarity is the primary goal of my performance interpretations. Nevertheless, there are these occasional moments where we need frailty, where we need to deconstruct, where we need to suggest a little vulnerability.
Of course, all this talk of death and mortality -- this is not part of the "official" answer. No one wants to hear about this in the open air, they just want to "small-talk"!
Comment from Jason Brown
I delighted in reading your essays. I hope more are posted in the future. The essay on Vulnerability was particularly touching to me.
It is a new vista for me that vulnerability is an asset to the performer. Now it is clear that these vulnerabilities can be channeled into something which contributes to the music.
I have heard many pianists who had limitations yet found such a unique voice within those limitations but it never translated into a cherishing and embracement of my own limitations. Limitations are ubiquitous and an expression of our humanity. Many of the negative comments that music critics make about a performance or performer are the very things that make such a musical offering assume life.-- Jason Brown
Comment from Ann Regan
... I stumbled onto some of the essays you have written, and was interested in the one on "vulnerability." As a singer, of course the first thought that entered my mind was "what can someone who has the luxury of a ten-foot block of wood and steel between him and the audience know about 'vulnerablility'?" I did appreciate your addressing the subject though, because I do think it is that sense of vulnerability that can make a performance especially poignant.
Although you suggest techniques such as rhythmic and dynamic nuances, articulation, and use of rests and silence, etc. as venues for creating a sense of vulnerability, I am glad that you also speak of there being no real recipe for achieving this, and that one had best not be too self-conscious about it. Perhaps because I am an amateur musician, (ie weak in the technique area) I find a studied approach to what properly must spring directly from the heart in order to be honest, frustrating.
I wrote the following after hearing a performance given by a famous pianist; for me it was frustrating because it felt so contrived and affected, a kind of micro-management of nuance for lack of a better description.
The Concert Pianist and The WasherwomanRound spheres of silver sound