Thursday, January 18, 2007

Voigt in Translation

Capsule review: Hearing Salome in live performance is so different from watching it on video or listening to recordings; this was my first live Salome (which is so weird, because I've seen many videos, my brain remembers these as Salome events even though they're not the same at all). The NSO played with a lugubrious sound, playing with nonchalance and with a curious emphasis on juxtaposing the breathtaking (a gossamer viola tremelo) with the vulgar (a flatulant rising bassoon figure) with unique effects. Also really "heard" for the first time are the beautiful contributions of the harp and celeste -- neither of which I ever noticed in any recording. Must revisit.

DV took a while to warm up to my ears (it took until after the Dance). The sound mixture is still something that I think I'll have to acquire a taste for (listening to her is like the world suddenly cranked up the treble and obliterated the bass equalizer settings), but I can definitely see what the hoopla is about. Everyone was fine, though they put the less principal singers way back in the choir rows, which is weird, since the distance from those singers to the podium is one half the distance from the podium to the first row of the lower balcony in the center. Hence not so audible.

Alan Held was pretty amazing. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a good look at him in action since I was sitting side balcony on the side he was assigned. Why they assigned virtually all of the soloists on this side I will never know, but I got uninterrupted view of DB (who wore a gorgeous, clingy red dress with very flattering ruching and a plunging neckline showing off a sparkly diamond (I'm guessing) necklace).

Leonard Slatkin was amazingly genial and humorous in the Q&A afterwards. The suspicion I had of DV's charm and wonderful personality was given further evidence. However she did mention one thing that got me thinking.

Someone had asked the singers to comment on any famous predecessors in their respective roles that had influenced him. Jane Henschel, the Herodias, related a story about sharing the role with Leonie Rysanek at La Scala (hearty agreement from the other singers). DV then mentioned that she tried to stay away from listening to recordings of other sopranos singing her repertoire, and she mentioned a lot about how human beings are mimics, etc.

This reminded me of a book I was reading a couple weeks ago, Animals in Translation.
The book covers a fair bit of general information about cognition, including certain quirks of the how the human brain works (and interestingly, the author talks about humans having a three-tiered brain, one encompassing the other; at base, we have a reptilian brain which controls very basic functions like breathing, body regulation, etc.; then a mammalian brain, which would include other functions specific to mammals, such as temperature regulation; and finally, the primate brain -- incidentally, it would then follow that we would most likely share more things in common with reptiles than with birds or fish). One of the bigger quirks is something called inattentional blindness. So far as I understand it, the human brain is primed to "expect" certain things as part of a process. Anything not related to this is screened out from consciousness. It's like our conscious thought is acting like CEO of a company (I know, really tired analogy) and any information that reaches the CEO has to be pre-screened by a bunch of different underlings before finally making it there. The classic study involved a bunch of people asked to watch a basketball game. They were told they were going to have to answer questions about scoring or some such, hence putting their focus on the game. Afterwards, all of them were asked if they saw anything unusual -- the unusual incident being a woman dressed in a full gorilla suit walking into the foreground, batting her chest, and then walking out. Very few people mentioned anything. There are further studies that the author of Animals in Translation (Temple Grandin) mentions that suggest that although the consciousness might not have "seen" things, the body certainly did.

This, then, begs the question of just how much of human perceptual limitations are because of this inattentional blindness and how much of it is because we actually can't hear/smell/taste/feel something? Grandin's main theme is comparing brain functions of so-called normal humans (who exhibit a certain level of frontal lobe activity) with austistic humans (who exhibit lower levels and/or different kinds of frontal lobe activity) and then with mammals (who, having smaller frontal lobes, have much lower frontal lobe activity), drawing on her own experience as an autistic woman to tie it all together. It's not a clear-cut theme, and she doesn't pretend it is (it's a really subtle and interesting read -- recommended), but it does make one wonder about certain things about human brains placing limits that the body itself doesn't have.

How does this relate to DV's comment? Well, assuming that the brain is sticky and we are mimics -- unless we isolate ourselves into crazy iron lungs and never encounter anybody, there's no such thing as a "pure" me or a "pure" you. It's the same question of trying to hear a piece with "ears of the 18th century." It just can't be done. Things that you have heard cannot be unheard. One of my favorite analogies for irreversible thermodynamic processes applies here: "It's like baking bread. You can't exactly undo it." Speaking of, I just baked a transcendent-smelling loaf of whole wheat. mmmmm can't wait for tomorrow to taste it!

Wait, where was I? Oh yeah -- so then if it is impossible to keep oneself "pure?" What does trying to avoid listening to recordings or other singers of your repertoire really accomplish? Note, this is only partly rhetorical.

Obviously, from a mechanistic standpoint, one must find how one's own voice works and develop that. I would think that such stylistic self-knowledge would be somewhat self-evident. I think that once there is an established sense of being, one can "safely" listen to many different interpretations -- the more the better. I could never imagine a chef saying he would never again eat anything he didn't cook for fear it would screw up his cooking. Or that mathematicians/scientists would not bother learning about anything someone else was studying.

I mean, I get the Foucaldian implications of ascribing to a certain thought-pattern and thereby accepting its limitations as well as its benefits. But since that's going to be the case regardless of what you decide to do, the least one should do is expand the choices? I dunno. Perhaps an understanding of this listening-phobia will come to me later.

But for now, have some kawaii! Renji sez: Relax!

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