Wednesday, 20 January 2010

keep it simple

I went to the London launch of a venerated venue called Catweazle last night. It turned out to be a mostly music open mic night. A few singer/songwriter types went up and then the MC called Irene to the stage. Irene and her Autoharp.

I've long since learned not to laugh at an Autoharp. My friends had a band in LA called The Acres that I loved so much, it put me in danger of becoming a hillbilly.

Irene introduced her song as one that she had heard in a documentary on Hurricane Katrina and wanted to do for Haiti. I have been thinking a lot about the piece I wrote for Hurricane Katrina and how much it still stands now, in this moment of disaster. She began to strum the Autoharp and then sing in a clear and solid voice. The song was simple in structure, each verse asking mercy for someone in this time of trouble.

Irene is not the best singer. She is not the best Autoharp player. The song is not the best song ever written.

Yet still, as she sang, the audience was drawn in more and more and more to the song.

As a performer, or as a promoter, you learn to recognize the stages of engagement of an audience. Everyone knows when an audience is not paying attention. Once they are paying attention, though, there are so many levels of that, it is not to be believed. When on stage, I like to feel the particular quiet that comes from all energy being focused on what I'm doing -- even mine. This feeling is like creating an energy circle of which I am part, while I am also the originator and the, for lack of a better word, actor. In this state, the audience is in full participation in the event, even in their silence. There is a particular sound to it. It sounds different from other levels, sure as the crack of the bat will tell you it's a homerun without looking, because a homerun sounds different from any other type of hit.

When promoting, you hope for this type of moment to occur for those you've chosen to put on stage. As an audience member you hope for it, too. -- for that feeling that no time is passing at all that you are enveloped fully into something enriching. This is why we leave our warm cozy houses, our internet connections, our televisions, our coaches - to be drawn into something real and engaging and present.

Irene and her song created such a state. The song resonated as she let it just come through her. The audience connected with her true experience of the song and let it be theirs. She did nothing fancy. Nothing at all. She was just fully committed and real.

Besides being a beautiful moment, I was once again reminded how important simplicity is. The more I am on stage, the simpler I get. As you progress, you realize that simplicity, in its truest form, requires a degree of mastery not easily attained. Perhaps it is the result of those 10,000 hours. Perhaps it is just being seated in your own soul.

Meryl Streep's performances since Adaptation have appeared absolutely effortless. She glides through these characters like a shape-shifter. As a younger actress, she was all prowess and peacock; the acting was palatable even as you acknowledged its greatness, but now she is light as air, embodying these people completely. She is so simple in her process, she has created huge depths of complexity.

Over the holidays, I happened upon a special with Sting. He went back to his hometown and put together a concert of winter songs in a cathedral with a massive ban: string section, horn section, a harpist, back-up singers. They chose many traditional songs and also created new songs. They showed their rehearsals and the way they all came to respect each other as creatives. Out of this, something so beautiful came.

I'm not the biggest Sting fan, but there was something going on here -- a dedication to the music by so many great players was yielding something unprecedented.

They interviewed a female musician and she said that really, what it was, was that everyone was playing simple. No one was showing off. No one was trying to out-do anyone else. Everyone was just trying to play the songs together. Simple. And simple done properly, is the hardest thing to do.

I love it when a plan comes together. I found this on my friend Elana's FB page just a minute ago. She's an amazing singer. So here is the fitting end to this post:

"It's taken me all my life to learn what not to play." - Dizzy Gillespie

Enough said.

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