Any classical musician will tell you: they’ve been trained to believe that mistakes are a very, very bad thing. Most classical musicians have had drilled into them the goal of perfection – that the best performance was one that adheres the most strictly to the score, that doesn’t deviate in any way from what’s written on the page. The performer must get 100% of the notes right in order to get an A+; anything less is an F.
Sounds scary, right? How can any musician actually enjoy this?
On the other hand, the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi celebrates imperfection and asymmetry as key elements in art. It shows that a human being is behind the creation, not a computer program.
As a composer, much of what I do is created in rehearsal, and it’s through the performer’s own interpretations of my music that I feel that the music is given life.
I rarely put in tempo markings, dynamics, articulations. I discover them.
When I first moved to Seattle, I took Indian vocal lessons and was introduced to the Indian raga. I was inspired by this fluid and poetic, yet highly structured approach to improvisation. Since then, I’ve embedded my own “ragas” into my scores, in which the performer is required to be part of the process, as opposed to the end-result. It creates more spontaneous performances; and it excites me to think that there might not be just one interpretation of my music.
My general rule is, make it your own, but be true to the spirit. While I grant the performer a lot of leeway, there are times when I do feel that the performer has veered too far from what I intuitively believe to be the intention – the mysterious intersection between my artistic self and the piece I’m trying to create.
But there are times when, even if the performer tries to change, they just keep going back to the way they were doing it. This is what I call the beautiful mistake. It’s my own version of wabi-sabi. It might not be what’s written or directed, but it’s who the performer is. It’s how they were meant to perform the role.
This way of working extends to other elements too, like production design. With my latest project Magda G, I’ve been working with artist Tori Ellison on a paper dress, to be worn by countertenor José Luis Muñoz who plays the lead. Instead of giving Tori explicit parameters, I’ve given her poetic ones: fragility, filo dough, Nazi, paper, danger. It’s been great to see how she’s developed this and made it her own, while staying true to the spirit.
I’ll be rehearsing Magda next Tuesday (October 16) at the Project Room @ 8 pm, before we perform it at Barca Lounge on Friday, October 19. It’ll be an open rehearsal, so come by! The thing about beautiful mistakes is that they can’t be planned, so I can’t guarantee anything. But a good, if imperfect, time shall be had by all.
Update: we just learned that Magda G (the screenplay) was shortlisted at the 2012 Gotham Screen International Film Festival!
Photo: José Luis Muñoz as Magda. Courtesy of Tim Aguero.