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Motion and Emotion

One of the more impressive classical music-focussed blogs that I follow is On An Overgrown Path. A recent entry about Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in the Chora Church in Istanbul has, in addition to some gorgeous pictures, a link to a video of oud player Rahim AlHaj on YouTube.

At the end he says the song is “how to express your enjoy.” I’ll say! The groove is gentle but also pervasive and irresistible, and the episodes are just long and intricate enough that the bass note that’s planted to start the refrain is perfectly satisfying every time. The pleasure is there to be seen as well as heard. A musicians job (one way to look at it, anyways) is to induce sympathetic motion and emotion in their listeners, so in addition to playing they model with their own movement and facial expressions. With AlHaj it’s a particular nod of the head, a lean into a phrase, eyebrows raised for a certain searching note.

AlHaj was part of a wonderful, inspiring evening of music I heard a few years ago at Duke. Also performing that evening was a fado singer from Portugal named José Manuel Osório. Osório seemed dangerously frail as he mounted the stage—quite a contrast to AlHaj, who was comfortable and buoyant, just as he appears on the video. But fado is supremely passionate music, and whenever Osório sang he was transformed. I remember one especially dramatic ending, when he swept his arms wide and kicked the floor, pushing his chair back. The music stopped and suddenly he was frail and slumped. It was a lesson in commitment, from a man who went to jail and then into exile because of his opposition to Portuguese dictator António Salazar.

Thinking about how AlHaj moves as he plays reminds me of a film clip I spent hours and hours annotating when I was teaching jazz history. It’s Louis Armstrong playing “Dinah,” from 1933, and no matter how many times I played it, it was (and is) always a pleasure to play it again. [The clip I originally posted has been pulled, so I’ve replaced it with another—who knows how long it will stay up.]

I don’t know of anything that more fully conveys the miracle that was Louis Armstrong. In addition to all the things you’ll hear on any Armstrong recording—the swing, the rhythmic bravado, the sense of pacing and drama, the brilliant high notes and acrobatic breaks—there’s the exuberance and guileless confidence of the man on stage. There’s real generosity, too. He effortlessly dominates this ensemble, as he did most every group he played with, but when it’s time to share the spotlight he doesn’t just step aside—he directs his enthusiasm at the band so everybody knows that he digs what the other guys are doing, too. As with AlHaj, his musical thinking comes through in his body language. I particularly love the wide-eyed swing of his head that goes with his first break (about 1:02 in the video), his way of saying “this is it, guys—check it out!”.

Since I seem to be digging through YouTube doing some kind of free association thing with musicians’ body language, here’s another one—the 8th of the 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (“Practice”), based on his recording of the third movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata (Op. 31 number 2). Some years ago I was using this movement in a music appreciation class, hoping to address, among other things, the cliche that classical music is uniformly effete and cerebral. The last movement of the “Tempest” is a great example of how rhythmically intense and physically compelling Beethoven’s music can be. [This one is gone, too—no suprise there, I guess. I’ve replaced it (for the moment) with a video montage someone did on Gould’s recording of the third movement of the “Tempest.”]

I was disappointed by the representation in 32 Short Films, though. As a performer, Gould was possessed by what he played, and since this segment depicts him immersed in the music he seems far too reserved and contemplative. I would expect him to register more clearly the way the music hammers away at the downbeats, and also to register the moments of crisis and transition—the wonderful hemiola Beethoven uses to break the momentum of the main theme (1:22 in the film clip) and the Bb that tingles against the dominant pedal at the end of the exposition (1:54).

The fundamental problem, I think, is that the actor can’t hear and react to the music like a musician—in this clip, at least, he just doesn’t look like he’s inhabiting the piece. It’s the right idea to make piano-playing motions at 1:15, when the theme, marked forte, shifts to the bass register, but the motions themselves don’t look true to me. Gould’s musical ideals leaned heavily towards the pure and cerebral, something that’s always struck me as oddly puritanical coming from a man who played with such rhythmic vitality. This may be the filmmaker’s justification for making Gould so contemplative when he listens. In the 6th Short (Hamburg), which is also based on an incisive Beethoven movement but rings much truer than “Practice”, it’s the maid who is (literally and figuratively) moved by the music.

I was starting to get the idea that there was nothing that couldn’t be found on YouTube, but amongst the numerous clips of Gould I haven’t found anything that has the feel of the 3rd movement of the “Tempest.” The closest might be parts of the Cello Sonata, Op. 69 or the Variations, Op. 34. Eventually someone might come up with a clip of Beethoven himself playing the “Tempest”—that’s what I’m waiting for.