Wednesday, May 11, 2011

expressivity--why some performances of Mozart are brilliant

Recently there was an interesting comment on the Studio Art Quilt Association forum--not a major discussion but a post by a beginning quilt maker trying to find her way to become an artist. She put forward a couple of interesting questions--does a quilt by an experienced quilt maker deserve to have a greater value than one made by a beginner? How does one even determine value? Is art good or bad based on its own merits? I had some gut feelings but how to answer them. I tried to wrap my mind around these questions.

Certainly I wouldn't hire a plumber or car mechanic who was "just practicing". I want my lawyer to know what he or she is doing. I could go on. Do you want to fly on an airplane with a pilot who is just practicing?

But maybe art is different. Now as a step-mom I have sat through many school band performances enjoying them because I love the participants but... You must know that feeling.  Probably just like me, you made your parents sit through similar performances. There is justice here. Of course there have been local productions that have touched me--I am still remember a version of The Story of Anne Frank in our local town hall. A young friend of mine was Meep. Though a few lines were mis-spoken, clearly there was an emotion conveyed that reached the audience.  And I do love to see the quilts made by friends. The ones made by my other grandmother. The quilts that I see proudly displayed at various quilt guilds.  But I love them for the effort and the raw emotion and not for their "art". Isn't there a difference between the local theater and a Broadway production? Isn't there a reason we go to museums to see the Monets and O'Keefes? Think of the details of a Jackson Pollock--so many more layers than the many imitators.

As I ponder the question as to what the difference is,  I catch a great interview by Robin Young on Here and Now. Don't you love how much information is on NPR? In this interview she was discussing the concept of expressivity with Daniel Levitin.  What a wonderful word that is, isn't it? Apparently he was the author of a best selling book Your Brain on Music though I had not heard of him or his book. Shame on me. It was  a great discussion based on such wonderful research. The question was why are some performances of Mozart brilliant and others just ho-hum. After all they are all based on playing the same notes in the same order for the same amount of time. Or are they?

Using an electronic keyboard, the same piece was played just as it was written and also by an experienced pianist. The difference was astounding. The first one sounded like student work. Very boring and methodical.  In the second one, it turned out the pianist--I forget who it was--made very slight changes--often by only a few thousandths of a second in terms of the length of the notes and the spacing between them. This was the human touch which made it art. A third time the computer exaggerated these differences by 50%. Oh that was too much.  I was glad to learn that the majority of listeners agreed on that. You can hear some of the variations of music and the discussion HERE.

Isn't that fascinating confirmation of the importance of the human touch? Style and emotion. But isn't it more than just the human touch? Isn't there a sureness to the great works that communicates to us? So many slight differences.  Knowing when to tweak the music. Isn't it the same with quilts. Those careful selections of fabric and color. The little changes to the design. That point of view of the artist.  Isn't that we love some quilts because they are made by those we love and we love other quilts because they are expressive?

And doesn't this answer some of the questions of the beginning quilt maker on the SAQA forum? OK--my two cents. Did you hear that interview? What do you think about expressivity? And do you have a favorite performer of Mozart?

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