In Which I Learn Something in Public (Learning in public is my definition of "performance"
I included a video in my newsletter yesterday & I wanted to take it back the minute I released it. But pressing “send” means that's that. Naturally, I watched the video repeatedly. I listened to my voice grow singsong; I watched my own head bob and wobble - how strange that is! What happened, I wondered? Why did I suddenly get vague about a subject I know so well? I think I’ve figured it out, and, as is often the case, what I thought was lead might be gold. Here’s what happened: I fell into the cultural spell: I believed I was all alone on the camera.
It’s true, I was the only one talking. It’s true the eye was on me. But no solos promises that even if you’re the only one in the room, you're not alone. There are always presences, what the old ones would call Beings - things that do not speak English but which have intrinsic character and will. Things that will play with you, challenge, or yield... I often preach that Bobby Mcferrin may be the only one onstage, but he's up there playing with all kinds of invisible forces - gravity, melody, and sensation, for starters. He’s playing with gods and goddesses we can no longer can think to name. What I love about this video is that I can see, near the end, a precise moment when I felt so solo as to be abandoned. I was trying to explain why the voice is not a machine. I posited that it is something sensuous and mystical, palpable and mysterious. Half this, half that. The voice is creaturely because it animates our bodies; it is divine because it is invisible and unknowable. "I call the voice a divine creature," I said. I’ve said this a bazillion times and it’s always felt alive. But yesterday? The spirit was gone. I said, “Divine Creature” and nothing happened. So I went solo; I bluffed. This happens to us all and the risk is that we conclude we have no talent and should disqualify ourselves. The reality is that we simply felt too alone. I love how this demonstrates that words have spirits and wills of their own. I've delivered my message! Sound has spirit. Ideas have spirit. It’s there or it’s not. When it’s there, revelation is a real possibility. When it’s not, we become more mere - mere charmers, entertainers, head bobbers. When I feel touched by a spirit, I'm not alone. Performance is no longer about proving myself; it's about making contact with something animating, intelligent and ineffable. The voice is an invisible instrument. It can be described only through metaphor. You can’t point to the fret board or a bow. It's just…you. The beauty of voice-as-a-path is that one has to stay nimble - alert to what's here and what’s not. Last week, my voice may well have felt like a divine creature. Yesterday, it felt like…I don’t know…something shy, something thin, something new to me. The trick would have been to stop and say: What I just said is no longer true. I’m about to change my mind. And what I would have said next? Probably nothing, not for a while. There certainly wouldn’t have been much to look at. I might have just waited and wondered and listened, which is, of course, the voice lesson.