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Bobbing, Weaving, Humming and Stomping

Music-making is intensely physical, intensely mental, intensely spiritual, intensely emotional, intensely transporting. I read somewhere, long ago, that playing a keyboard instrument is the most intensely organized nervous activity there is, on the physical level, a matter of the number of neurons involved, or neuronal firing rates or some such thing.

I went to a concert recently at which the pianist's bobbing, weaving, humming, stamping his feet and waving his hands around in the air were on a scale to recall comparable antics by the legendary Glenn Gould, a phenomenon I witnessed personally at a Gould recital here in 1959. Rudolph Serkin, whom I heard live dozens of times, was less extreme, but he too was a great stamper, and sometimes he was pretty vocal.

I call these behaviors "antics" not to demean them or those who do them, but to suggest that I'm divided in my critical mind about them. Are they good, bad, irrelevant, extra-musical, essential or what?

I concede that I usually see them as pretty distracting and sometimes find it easier not to watch. But I also notice that concert reviews never mention them, as though to do so would be breaking a kind of taboo, like commenting on the performer's weight or personal hygiene, things one would obviously never do.

Playing styles change over time. Fifty years ago my piano teacher was death on certain things: hunching the shoulders up, not maintaining more or less upright posture, making weird faces, and above all (god forbid!), humming, groaning, huffing, puffing, snorting, singing, head-shaking, rhythmic nodding, or foot-stamping. Very bad, the lot of it.

The reasons given: bad for the body (makes it harder to play), for the music itself (tension has audible results) and for the audience (drives them to distraction). Lots of younger pianists (antics are not limited to pianists, of course) are models of perfect deportment in this dimension, but it's my impression that antics are on the increase, and I wonder if perhaps that's not so good, in general.

I don't think music is some kind of removed, abstruse, otherworldly mental activity having nothing to do with the physical realities of its making. The other night I heard a strange low, dull noise, not quite in the rhythm of Mozart's score, but apparently coming from somewhere in the concert hall. When I looked up to the stage, there was the pianist's heel thumping down. My guess is he was not at all aware of doing it, and, deeply immersed in what his fingers were doing, he was simply not noticing these foot noises. Nor, I expect, his other antics, like getting his nose down to within three or four inches of his hands, making odd gestures with a free hand and grunting.

As it happens, this person is a terrific player and a fascinating musician, but that's just the point I'm trying to mull over: would I be less prone to ignore all this if the person were a mediocre player and a hum-drum musician?

Returning to Gould, his final recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations is remarkable in many ways, ways that include lots of grunting or humming. But at least in that case, I feel these noises, even if they're strictly speaking extra-musical, do in fact cast useful light on his making of the music. Serkin too, in his famous recording of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, does something very similar. I take it to be a kind of straining to get the music out, an intensely directed energy flow into the exertion (apparently) required, a total absorption in the sound of the instrument, perhaps an ecstatic yearning for transcendance in the score. In those cases, I think these noises are an integral part of making a miracle, so who could complain?

Perhaps there are no answers to any of these questions apart from actual instances?

Madison Music Review, October, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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