Chasing the Transcendent

Patti Smith on Singing at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Ceremony

Smith’s essay in the New Yorker spoke to a thing that I’ve known for a very long time. I’ve been a singer most of my life. I was the music director for a UU church. I sang in a very large semi-pro symphony orchestra.  I sang many, many solos for contests and won a lot of prizes. I sang in a Celtic folk band, in a 60s revival pop band. I helped facilitate many folk nights, caroling parties and etc. I’ve stood up before audiences so many times that I can’t even begin to count them. Many of those I did a capella– nothing but me and my voice before the world. Smith says:

and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them.

Occasionally as a musician (or as a live theater performer of any kind) one gets a perfect moment. They never come in the solitude of a practice room. Only with the participation of an audience can we suspend our disbelief and enter that transcendent performance where everything is beautiful. That moment exists beyond our understanding, and we create it with the audience. In those moments, we become vessels of the transcendent. It is a highly addictive drug.

Musicians, especially singers, often look like the most egotistical people one could imagine. Indeed, many times we are. I think that even in those cases when it appears that we sincerely think that we are “the shit”, as the kids say now, it’s all armor. And here, listening to Patti Smith, both in her essay and singing at the ceremony, perhaps one gets a glimpse of what that ego is, and why we need its armor. It is armor against the world, against the music, even. The music demands perfection, and yet it demands even more than that. It demands ours whole heart, even as it fills us to the breaking point. Sometimes we break, right there in front of you. Sometimes even a lifetime of practicing and performing doesn’t save us from the music, the pain, the beautiful horror of it all. All the contents of our heart and soul spill out. And that, my friends, is real music. No perfection required.

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