Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Psychology of Perfection

{If you’re interested in more context on this post, have a look at
A Question of Status}

In a recent discussion about the relative status in society of jazz and classical musicians, Lindsey Horner made the following very astute observation:

“The other part of the issue is why classical artists (mere interpreters) get far more respect, (not to mention money and fame) than their comparable jazz counterparts. I think some of that is the fault of jazz artists and how we have presented ourselves and our music. I won't name names, but I have heard even some of the great jazz musicians give lackluster and even just plain lousy performances on any given gig. I have never heard, nor can I imagine ever hearing, Alfred Brendel, Izthak Perlman or the Tokyo String Quartet sounding any less than very, very good, ever”

I completely agree with Lindsey’s observation – I too have seen some great jazz players give less than their best at times. I remember seeing Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette give an extraordinarily disappointing performance at the IAJE several years ago. Nobody, with the exception of DeJohnette, seemed interested in even trying to lift the music above the ordinary and it seemed to me like an exercise in coasting on reputation alone without any apparent feeling of need on behalf of the trio to actually live up to those reputations. It was depressing. And I’ve been stung several times by equally hallowed jazz names turning up and ‘phoning it in’, so to speak.

Yet anytime I’ve seen top rank classical performers (Menuhin, Gary Karr, Jorge Bolet, Ivo Pogorelich) they’ve always given first rate performances. Of course it could be that as far as their own standards were concerned, the performances were uneven – I have no way of knowing that - but even if that were so in their own minds, the performances were never shoddy, unconcerned or flippant at all. All the music was approached and played with the utmost seriousness and application, and a clear desire to serve the music and audience as well as possible.

So if it’s true that sometimes top class performers in jazz seem lackluster and uninterested, while their colleagues in classical music never take that approach, can there be an explanation as to why that should be? Are jazz musicians just more congenitally lazy artistically? Are classical musicians congenitally more serious?

Ever since reading Lindsey’s post about this I’ve been thinking about it and while there can never be any definitive answer to a question like that, I think there are elements at play here which are interesting and pertinent to the whole jazz/classical divide in terms of approach. I believe the different environment in which both musics are learned and are played has a very strong influence on differences in approach, one by-product of which is the aforementioned lapses into apathy sometimes seen in jazz performances. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I also believe the nature of the two musics has a part to play – as follows:

Classical music (with the exception of recently written works) is a known quantity. The huge canon of great music written in this tradition is known inside and out, by performers, critics, and the public. If one plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata or a Mozart concerto, or Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’, one is dealing with something that has a performance history and, within certain parameters, an agreed approach to performance. Every note of these pieces is known intimately, sometimes over a period of hundreds of years, by everyone concerned with or interested in classical performance. The scores of these great works are like the scripts of Shakespeare’s plays – they are cultural and artistic totems, the performance of which is seen as being the pinnacle of the art form. Given such an atmosphere of past history and artistic reverence, the reputation and status of the artist can stand or fall, be enhanced or be crushed, by his or her ability to do justice to these works.

If you walk onto the stage (or ‘concert platform’ as they call it in classical music!) and play Brahms’ Piano Concert No. 1 with a good symphony orchestra, the artistic stakes are very high. Nearly everybody in that room – musicians, critics, public – knows every note of this piece. In such a milieu, there is no room for any kind of off-hand approach, any shoddiness or lack of preparation. Technical perfection is usually required at the very least, then on top of that are all the elements of interpretation which play such a big part in the perceived success or failure of a performance of one of these classic pieces. This is why classical musicians will, in learning a piece, or studying it with a teacher, endlessly discuss tiny details at length and in a way that no jazz musician would contemplate. There is a demand in this music for perfection – perfection of technique, of intepretation, or performance.

The fact that perfection – even if it can be agreed what that means – can never be achieved doesn’t alter the demands for it made by audiences and critics alike. The technical perfection of recordings, and the perfection demanded by competitions, has ratcheted up these demands even further in the past forty years or so. This adds a definite nervous edge to classical performances. If there is any failure on the part of the performer to reach the expected technical standard, everything – the silence in the hall, the spotlight on the figure of the soloist, the pre-knowledge of the piece by all in the auditorium - conspires to expose that failure. It’s merciless, and the classical soloist knows it. At the highest levels – the Brendels, Ashkenazys etc. – the pressures and expectations are even higher. A sloppy or ill-prepared performance is not an option for them, unless they want their reputations in the mud.

I’m not suggesting that the reason that such wonderful musicians give such great performances is because of fear, but I do believe that the tradition of playing incredibly well known pieces in public does concentrate the mind a lot. The rules in a classical performance are very clear – the soloist knows them, the critic knows them, and the audience knows them. In such an atmosphere the task of the soloist is clear, the preparation is geared towards that and poor technical and/or attitudinal performances are kept to an absolute minimum.

Jazz musicians operate under a very different tradition – one of improvisation. In this milieu the music performed is not known, the tasks are much less clearly defined or generally agreed, and the performer has much greater freedom both in deciding the shape of each piece and the shape of the programme in general. The player has to create the music on the spot with his or her colleagues, decide the type of music played, the length of the solos the order of the pieces etc. etc. With the responsibility of coming up with the complete musical goods laying much more heavily on the jazz performer, any tiredness or lack of inspiration will automatically have consequences for the music.

In the case of the classical performer, even if they are tired, there is a clear musical road map laid out for them in the form of the score and the performance history and traditions of the piece – the jazz musician does not have the same assistance in the event of tiredness or lack of inspiration. This is not to say that any lacklustre performance by a great jazz musician is automatically because they feel tired or uninspired – of course laziness on the night, and maybe a lack of care on the night could contribute, but I do think the fact that the jazz musician is responsible for much more of the creation of the music than his or her classical counterpart does play a part.

It’s an interesting conundrum – on the one hand it could be seen that with known repertoire and such a demanding audience, the performance stakes are higher for the classical musician. But on the other hand, with so much more responsibility for the totality of the music laying on the jazz musician, the artistic stakes could arguably be said to be higher for them.

The second thing I think can be taken into consideration when examining the sometimes differing performance outlook of classical and jazz musicians is the environment in which performances of the two musics take place. In general classical musicians play in an atmosphere of quiet and respect. The cynosure of all eyes, they perform in environment where the full focus of everyone in the room is on the performer(s). They usually play in good listening conditions too, with no competition from audience chatter, no sound of cash registers, no doors banging or people getting up and down during the performance. And never a sense of the music being in any way treated as subservient to anything else going on in the room.

Jazz musicians on the other hand – all of them, from the totally unknown to the now incredibly famous, have all at one time or another experienced this feeling of having to battle other elements in order to perform their music. The psychological effect on the performers of this can easily be underestimated in my opinion. If the audience don’t care what you’re doing, if they’re not interested in how you’re performing the music, then why should you care?

A very illuminating example of the effect of this lack of audience interest on a great classical musician, when encountering it for the first time, can be found in a fascinating article about an experiment the great Amercian violinist Joshua Bell took part in recently.

This experiment was fascinating in itself, and I would encourage anyone interested in music to read it. In fact it also relates to another post I’ve done on background music –

The Music Plague

It describes an experiment where Bell anonymously went into a Washington Metro station and did some busking, to see if anyone would pay attention to, or notice the difference between one of the world’s greatest violinists and any other busker or street entertainer. You can read the article


But leaving aside the main thrust of that article and returning to the main thrust of this one, there’s a very revealing quote from Bell about one aspect of his experience of playing outside the hallowed walls of the concert hall, where he is a revered performer, playing revered repertoire. Here’s the passage:

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."

It’s clear that this sudden realization of his own, what we might call musical mortality, came as a real shock to Bell. But this environment he describes where people are ignoring the performer or may even resent their presence is one that will be familiar to jazz musicians of any stripe. Herbie Hancock or Sonny Rollins may never play in environments like that these days, but they did at one time.

And I believe this experience of sometimes awful playing environments does have an effect on the jazz musician, even when their careers may have risen to the point where they don’t have to endure it any more. If you’ve spent a lot of time playing in less than ideal performance environments, it’s hard to see the performance space as being a temple to music, and the act of performance as a being a ceremonial act in that temple – in the way that classical musicians do. If you add to this the more informal milieu of jazz performance, the greater freedom to take many different approaches from night to night, the lack of audience pre-awareness of the material that will be played and the greater responsibility on the performer to provide the bulk of the musical material I think you have conditions in which an occasional sub-par performance will occur. This is less likely occur in the narrower, goal-driven, more tightly focused, tradition-obsessed world of classical music.

Of course there can be variables in all of the scenarios I’ve put forward – John Coltrane was famous for the unremitting intensity with which he played his music night after night without exception, and there are also known examples of great classical musicians occasionally deviating from the performance straight and narrow. But if we look at the differences in performance practice, history, and playing environments of the two musics, I think we can see how even the great jazz musicians would have occasional lapses in their performance standards in a way that would be rare for a great classical musician.

1 comment:

  1. There's a famous/infamous performance by Glenn Gould playing Schumann (I think) with the NY Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein makes a short "disclaimer" speech before the performance in which he says that he does not agree with the tempi and liberties taken by Mr. Gould but that he respects Gould enough as an artist to honor them anyway. In other words, "don't look at me, it wasn't my idea, I'm just the conductor". In a sense, he was saying that the listeners were about to hear more of Gould than they were of Schumann - and they needed to be warned about that. I've often thought that Glenn Gould approached his business more like a jazz musician than any other classical musician I could name.

    A lot of your points are well taken, but I still don't think that the difficult conditions under which we sometimes play lets jazz musicians (or any other musicians) off the hook for sub par performances. To paraphrase the great Louis Stewart, "play every gig as though it was your last and one day, it will be."