Musical lives caught between melos and drama

Last night the goddess of my life, Artemis, and I went to a club to hear Detroit’s consummate pianist and composer Michael Malis (Jazz Studies, Michigan ’11).

During the break Michael stopped by to chat with us, and at some point he made a reference to the “great drama” that often characterizes the lives of musicians. As the next set started, Artemis and I reflected on this phenomenon, which both of us have witnessed first hand. Why are musical personalities so melodramatic? What does melos have to do with drama in their lives?

Although one may argue that artists in general develop dramatic personalities, few painters, directors, sculptors, or novelists exhibit the burning, self-consuming passions of musicians. What is it that feeds this drama: the competitive profession? the never-ending training? the Orphic disposition? music itself? We could think of only one artistic parallel – the Thespian passions: actors of any age and competence tend to be in a tautological? redundant? sense dramatic in most of what they experience and do, thinking that the rest of us ought to play along. Thus the opera singer Floria Tosca, who lives for her art (“Vissi d’ arte”),

mistakes the death of her lover, painter Mario, for acting (“Ecco un artista!) since to her all life is melodrama.

This combined consideration of musicians and actors reminded us that they both operate under an inescapable challenge: they always play before an audience, which has its own standards and expectations. Might this challenge drive them to psychological/behavioral extremes? Are such extremes part of what Foucault would call the artist function?

But then how about college teachers? They too perform on a daily basis before audiences that also pay to hear them and have high expectations and unpredictable reactions. Yet faculty may be infamous for being weird, but drama is not that common in their lives. Why not? Perhaps because, even though they perform in every class they teach and every talk they give, they do not conceptualize their work in performative terms and therefore do not suffer from stage fright. The more sensitive among them may become anxious seeking to reach their high pedagogical goals, but still they they aspire to  convey knowledge and wisdom rather than act in public.  I must remember to discuss this with my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, who is both pianist and teacher.

My goddess and I were about to explore why instructors offer classes but they never give (master) classes but at that point another of Michael’s terrific piano solos brought our attention back to the stage and music playing.

December 14, 2014

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