On performance OR The Authenticity Spectrum OR Why music is not communication

What makes a performance authentic? Is it important for the performer to connect with the audience? Is that even possible? Is there something more honest about the authentic, jeans and t-shirt -just-playing-my-songs performer compared to the costumes and theatrics of your Gabriels and Bowies?

I’ve seen some performances recently that are apparently far less considered and theatrical. Mannheim, beautifully noisy instrumental rock with a saxophone, Matt Stevens, half improvised, beer fuelled looping guitar nonsense, and the Barts Chamber choir.

Hang on, what are a classical choir doing on that list?

The rock acts, being the composers as well as performers are perhaps closer to the idea of heart-on-sleeve expression. With the composers mostly dead, there is an extra layer of ‘distance’ with the choir. I saw them sing a mixture of secular and sacred music, unaccompanied in a church. A different style of music, but similarly devoid of theatre. Just the music, none of your nonsense.

I could compare these to my own performances. My songs are narrative, lyrically I don’t claim to be expressing my own feelings and there is perhaps a bit of an arch, knowing attitude to them. It’s just comic-book stories, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much.

The same criticism could be levelled at more theatrical acts. David Bowie and Peter Gabriel’s performances with Genesis spring to mind. All those costumes and characters disguise the true performer. It’s all artifice, and therefore less honest, less real, less true.

The problem with that analysis of course is that it’s nonsense.

The classical performance would have seemed a little stagey to anyone not used to the conventions. You clap for the performers coming out – okay we get that. But then you wait and clap again for the conductor? And you don’t clap in between movements of the longer works? Why?

But those audience conventions are no weirder than what you get at rock concerts. Clapping and cheering after solos? Dancing, swaying, doing what the lead singer tells you? Any performance has a level of artifice. The simple notion of having a separation between musicians and audience, or of having music as a separate art form in it’s own right that you stand and listen to is artificial.

And those rock performers who were apparently heart-on-sleeve ‘authentic’ performers do all sorts of stagey things. Mannheim had a song where the front line walked down into the audience – it was great, but clearly preplanned. Matt does all sorts of movements that have nothing to do with creating the sound and are all to do with creating a visual excitement – including downing a pint of beer at the end of his performance. Get him talking and he’ll happily tell you about the thought processes behind what he’s doing. Stewart Lee and Derek Bailey will be mentioned.

So what about my own stuff? Should I worry that the narrative songs might get in the way of the audience engaging with the music?

I don’t think so. For a start, I’m making this kind of music because I love it. It moves me and given the success of other narrative musical endeavours I can safely assume that there’s a section of the music-loving population who also like this kind of thing. Otherwise how have all those musicals, bands like Coheed and Cambria or albums like Operation Mindcrime been a success?

A useful tool might be the ‘authenticity spectrum’. Imagine a spectrum that ranges from ‘heart-on-sleeve-and-totally-spontaneous’ at one end to ‘contrived-theatrical-and-not-about-the-performer-in-a-directly-personal-sense’ (There may by a more succinct way of expressing that). Different acts might exist at different points on that spectrum, but always this will be a choice. Authentic or not, it’s all artifice.

Because music is not communication, it is evocation. You might like to feel as if you are connected directly to the performer. You might prefer connecting with the protagonist of a story told through song or you might like music that exists in the abstract, the composer long dead, the words a standard religious text that has been set to music a thousand times. Either way, the job of the musician is not to take their emotion and communicate it to you. Their job is to take the music and use it to evoke an emotion in you.

In which case, surely there’s nothing more dishonest than the musician in his jeans and t-shirt claiming to be communicating authentic emotion? No artifice, no theatre? Yeah right. Live performance is all theatre.