From tears to ecstasy, some aspects of musical performance

by Bill Benzon

Music has been extraordinarily important to me. I’ve listened to and been moved by a lot of it, of all kinds, polka, jazz, classical, rock, and who knows what else. And I’ve performed in various settings – dive bars, concert halls, the streets of New York, weddings, even a funeral or two. And, as I am a thinker, I’ve tried to understand how it works. To that end I published a book some years ago, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture.

This article is adapted from the opening chapter. These are some of the things I set out to understand. Did I succeed? Of course not, but who knows? I’d like to think that I’ve asked some fruitful questions.

Tears for Johnny

On May 21, 1992 Bette Midler was a guest on the “Tonight Show.” She had been on many times before; the show had, in fact, been important in launching her career, as it had been for many performers. But this appearance was special: the next-to-last show for Johnny Carson, the show’s longtime host and star. He had decided to retire from television and the shows that week in May were planned and publicized as a farewell to Johnny.

Carson, himself a skilled drummer, liked swing-era jazz and popular music. The band he maintained for “Tonight” was a fine swing band. Midler was at home in that repertoire and was able to cajole Carson into singing a duet with her on a song she knew to be one of his favorites, Jimmy van Heusen’s fine ballad “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Carson was certainly more proficient as a drummer than as a vocalist, but his difficulties on this performance were more emotional than technical. The strain on his face was that of a man holding back tears.

The duet starts at roughly 7:16.

Then Midler sang “One for My Baby (And One for the Road)” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. It was one of his beloved saloon songs, moody ballads testifying to the inevitability of deep personal loss. Framed as a 3 a.m. bar-closing soliloquy, it was perfect for this occasion.

Now it was Midler’s turn to veil her emotions. Her face glowed, eyes full-open and brimming. Her voice too sounded of tears. As I watched and listened from Troy, New York, my throat was thick with tenderness, and perhaps I let out a sigh. Midler’s music had reached me. Millions were watching that show and many, perhaps almost all of them, were moved as I was, some more, some less, but all of us moved. How? How does music touch us so?

Rahssan Works the Crowd

Sadness and tenderness are certainly not the only emotions elicited by musical performance. Joy and exaltation demand our attention as well. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was the most reliably joyful performer I have ever seen. I first saw him at the Morgan State Jazz Festival in 1969. It was outdoors, and at night. Bright searchlights beamed onto the stage. As Rahsaan walked onto the stage the light splintered from his black vinyl jump suit and from the complex textures created by the mantle of musical instruments Rahsaan wore like liturgical vestments. He began by rapping to the audience as he walked onto the stage, “They can keep us off the radio, but they can’t keep us outa’ the air!” He then took his band into the first number, “Volunteered Slavery,” a raunchy blues proclaiming that “If you want to know what it is to be free/ you gotta’ spend all day in bed with me.” Rahsaan did not have much of a singing voice, but he delivered the lyrics with force and vigor. He then took up his tenor saxophone and began to conjure a solo up out of the ground.

Rahsaan was a skilled and muscular saxophonist able to perform in a variety of styles from 30’s swing to 60’s freak-out. On this occasion he played straight-ahead all-out blues that achived lift-off. Rahsaan was playing a multiphonic riff on three horns at once and then simplified it to playing just the tenor sax, while his side men were riffing away. Rahsaan settled on one note and held it as the riffing grew louder. The drum figures became more complex, the piano riffing more insistant and, above all, Vernon Martin let loose a mighty thunder on the bass. As the thunder crested Rashaan began playing the concluding riff from the Beatles’ tune “Hey Jude” on his tenor sax. The musical thickness cleared away, Dick Griffen switched his trombone riff, and the audience let out a gasp. We rose to our feet with some standing on their seats. People were clapping in time to the music and swaying back and forth, together. Rahsaan had us and we were pleased to have him.

Who orchestrated this activity? Obviously Rahsaan and his musicians orchestrated their performance. How did they do it? Part of the answer is traditional and banal: they practiced. Through that practice they’ve developed routines, signals, and an intuitive sense among each of them of how each of the others shapes, moves and reacts to musical flow. For all its rhetoric of spontaneity, jazz is a highly rehearsed music. The sequence of events in “Volunteered Slavery” might have been fully scripted before Rahsaan first played it with the group, though I doubt it. On the other hand, it may simply have happened that way in performance or rehearsal and worked so well that they made it their standard performance. The routine may reflect a self-organizing process typical of such musical collaboration. In either case, the performance rests on hours upon hours of rehearsal and practice by these musicians, individually and as a group.

Whatever happened among the musicians accounts for only part of the event’s orchestration, the part that happened on stage. Who organized the audience so that they knew when to gasp and rise to their feet? No one. That’s the most interesting component of this orchestration. It just happened.

Music and the Body

Let us step away from the performance as a whole and consider how musicians cross the threshold from an ordinary state of mind into performance mode. Roy Eldridge, swing trumpet star of the thirties and forties, made some remarks about what happened when he played his first solo of a show. In an interview with Whitney Balliett (American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz) he talked about playing New York City’s Paramount Theatre with Gene Krupa’s big band: “When the stage stopped and we started to play, I’d fall to pieces. The first three or four bars of my first solo, I’d shake like a leaf, and you could hear it. Then this light would surround me, and it would seem as if there wasn’t any band there, and I’d go right through and be all right. It was something I never understood.” What do we make of this light that had nothing to do with stage lighting but was clearly something created in the “inner eye” of Eldridge’s brain? Is it a cousin to the light reported in near-death experiences? And what does he mean by going through the light—where does he get this sense of movement? It is as though there are different mental spaces and Eldridge is moving from one to another, with the transition marked by motor and visual symptoms.

Vladimir Horowitz, the classical pianist, told Helen Epstein (Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians) a different story : “The moment that I feel that cutaway—the moment I am in uniform—it’s like a horse before the races. You start to perspire. You feel already in you some electricity to do something.” Horowitz, like Eldridge, is talking about a tangible physical state with definite sensations (electricity) and symptoms (perspiring). Something is going on in his brain and his blood to prepare him for performance. The fact that this transition is triggered by donning a “uniform” suggests that Horowitz has become conditioned to that uniform the way Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to bells and lights.

The jazz pianist Earl Hines also compared himself to a racehorse – likewise talking to Baliett – but his horse is wearing blinders: “I’m like a race horse. I’ve been taught by the old masters—put everything out of your mind except what you have to do. I’ve been through every sort of disturbance before I go on the stand, but I never get so upset that it makes the audience uneasy. . . . I always use the assistance of the Man Upstairs before I go on. I ask for that and it gives me courage and strength and personality. It causes me to blank everything else out, and the mood comes right down on me no matter how I feel.” Hines invokes a higher power in a manner reminiscent of the principal celebrants of a possession ritual calling upon their divinity to descend and possess them. Is this higher power an inner animal in disguise?

We can glimpse the musical animal at full roar in remarks reported by Peter Guralnick (Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley): “It was the energy, the energy that surrounded the stage, and the charisma that he [conveyed]—I don’t think that I’ve ever felt that in any entertainer since. I mean, yes, other entertainers have a charisma, but Elvis exuded a maleness about him, a proudness that you only see in an animal. On the stage he’d have this look, you know prowling back and forth, pacing like a tiger, and you look and you say, ‘My God, is this the person that I —?’ It was difficult to attach who he was to this person onstage. It was incredible.” What Elvis undergoes is not a transition but a transformation. Hines and Horowitz thought of themselves as race horses; Elvis is a tiger.

Perhaps this is mere metaphor, and fairly standard metaphor at that. We have animals within and the legacies we’ve inherited from the beasts of the fields include the hunt and the mating dance. Still, do musicians become different beings when they perform?

Let’s consider the things from the audience’s point of view. Here are some informal remarks the late David Hays made about performances by the New York City Ballet, an intimate aesthetic partner, of course, to music: “At a typical performance of the City Ballet, a large part of the audience are naive. They are not familiar with the pieces being danced; many have never seen them before (the intake of breath that can be heard when the curtain rises on an effective stage set is evidence enough). They are not much expert in the art; the accounts that are published in newspapers and magazines are generally superficial, often in my judgment missing the essence of the work altogether. Audiences give ovations for performances that seem to me mediocre. Yet the difference in the crowd between entrance and exit is almost tangible. Watching the ballet [and listening to the music] has changed their mood in a favorable way.” The performance as a whole moves the audience from one state of mind to another, more favorable state.

The performers move from one state of mind to another when they perform and members of the audience are transformed by the performance they witness. There is nothing mysterious about these phenomena, at least in the sense that they are common and familiar. But we don’t know how they work, any more than we understand the more mysterious varieties of musical experience.

Leonard Bernstein Beyond Himself

Leonard Bernstein had one of the most diverse and spectacular musical careers in recent American history. As a conductor, composer, pianist, writer, and public intellectual, he was beloved and hated; he was controversial; and always, he was impassioned. One of his passions was teaching. He was well known for his efforts to bring classical music to children and made a series of highly acclaimed television programs about music. He also spent a great deal of time with students at Tanglewood, a retreat in the Berkshire mountains dedicated to training promising musicians and to presenting concerts of classical music. On one occasion he was talking to conducting students about how he had to learn to bring himself under control. He told Helen Epstein of ego loss:

I don’t know whether any of you have experienced that but it’s what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you’ve studied him so intently, that it’s as though you’ve written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.

I always know when such a thing has happened because it takes me so long to come back. It takes four or five minutes to know what city I’m in, who the orchestra is, who are the people making all that noise behind me, who am I? It’s a very great experience and it doesn’t happen often enough. Ideally it should happen every time, but it happens about as often in conducting as in any other department where you lose ego. Schopenhauer said that music was the only art in which this could happen and that art was the only area of life in which it could happen. Schopenhauer was wrong. It can happen in religious ecstasy or meditation. It can happen in orgasm when you are with someone you love.

What are we to make of this statements I do not mean to cast doubt on it: I am willing to assume that Bernstein is reporting his experience as accurately as he can, and many people have reported similar experiences in various contexts. But the statements are a little strange. What does it mean to experience Mozart as though you were Mozart himself?

And just what is a self if Bernstein can lose track of his? The well-known phenomenon of sleep walking shows that we can undertake fairly elaborate physical activities without conscious awareness or subsequent recollection. We have done something, our brain and body have executed a series of actions, but these actions are not accessible to our self, whatever that is. Similarly, dreaming demonstrates that we can undertake elaborate, if chaotic, symbolic activity without conscious intervention of this self, though we sometimes remember our dreams. The phenomenon of multiple personalities shows that one brain can be home to multiple selves. By continuing on in this way we might reach the conclusion that what is so strange is not Bernstein’s loss of self, but the very existence of such a thing. Whatever this self is, it is fragile and it slips away from attempts to define it. Music allows us, for the duration, to radically reconceive and reconstruct our relationship with the world.

From my life

I have been touched by similar experiences myself. That, above all, is why I find these various accounts to be credible. While my experiences were not quite like Sullivan’s or Bernstein’s or Karen’s, my experiences give me confidence that the experiences they talk about are real.

One of my touchstone experiences took place during my senior year in high school, when I marched the left-guide position in my rank in the marching band. It was my responsibility to help the right guide keep track of the other musicians in the rank, to see that they were in the proper position during maneuvers. During a street parade we were playing some march—I forget which—and had to execute a right turn. As we made the turn I was watching the others in the rank and I paid no attention to music. When we had finished then maneuver I realized, with some minor shock, that I had been playing my part all the while. I was were I should have been in the music, but I had obviously not been consciously thinking about my playing. It seems that the music somehow “played itself” and that “my” attention wasn’t necessary.

There was nothing particularly dramatic or even delightful about this event. It’s noteworthy simply because my mind and body obviously continued to execute the music without any intervention from “me.” How could that have happened? I didn’t know then, nor do I know now, but this one incident told me that we could execute fairly complicated actions without attending to them—a skill we depend on when driving an automobile and conversing at the same time.

The ecstasy Bernstein talked about is not simply my marching experience writ large, but there is a kinship. A bit later in my life, during my senior year in college, I had an experience that speaks to Bernstein’s assertion that it sometimes feels as though he has recreated the work of the composer whom he is conducting. This incident, however, did not involve music but involved the poetry of John Keats. It was late at night and I was working on a paper about his little poem “To—[Fanny Brawne]” and was typing a sentence in which I asserted “…he died.” As I typed exactly those words, suddenly vague ideas and feelings began to stir. I started leafing through my book of Keats’ poetry and found one of his letters to Fanny Brawne. I typed a passage from the letter into my manuscript and experienced the typing as though I were writing the letter myself. I then found my way to his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” As I read the second stanza my gaze seemed to be ahead of my comprehension and the comprehension seemed to flow from me into the text. While I read silently, I nonetheless read with rhythm. I felt an absolute and complete understanding of those words, as though I had written them myself, as though I had become, for a moment, John Keats.

“Becoming” John Keats for the seconds and minutes it takes to type a paragraph from a letter and a stanza from a poem is not, of course, the same thing as “becoming” Mahler for the hour or more it takes to perform one of his symphonies, and, even as my brain was enacting the role of Keats, I was also aware of who I was and what was happening to me. This experience is not the same as what Bernstein described. But it gives me confidence in his description. If that can happen to me while reading Keats, then surely that other can happen to a Leonard Bernstein at the top of his craft.

In the end though, Leonard Bernstein is perhaps beside the point, Elvis as well, and the others. They are cultural icons and, as such, we tend to think of them as beyond us. But are they, really? What of our own experience? In what we do we diminish ourselves by revering them? How can we more fully recover the magic of music for all of us?

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Over the years I’ve maintained an informal file of anecdotes about musical performance.You can download the most recent version of this document, Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance.