Friday, April 21, 2006

Vanessa-Mae and the Nature of Questions

Introduction: Point of Contention
Vanessa-Mae was on BBC recently in an informal interview, and was asked whether it was her "looks" that led to bad reviews by music critics. To this she responded that that might be her own excuse, but that she thought that critics just couldn't "think outside the box" and were threatened by "something which they couldn't put words to" - in particular, her cross-genre playing.

But I Digress: The Personality Inherent in the Art
The problem with music is that it's so personal. This is unlike, say, an architectural design which is made together with the client and thus the end product complete with Roman pillars and a Japanese garden is not necessarily a reflection of the architect. With music, especially classical music, it is such that it shouldn't be geared to an audience's particular wants but instead is an independent statement of one's beliefs. That's the real reason why you can be an eloquent speaker at ease, but still have musical stage fright - it's a more personal thing at stake. You don't just read the script - you have to believe it. The emotional interpretation of playing is the most obvious thing, but there are other more mental things like choices of vibrato, tempo, rubato which also lead to comments ranging from playing too safe (literally and metaphorically), to outrageously bastardizing a tradition as yet unscarred. That's the risk every artiste makes when they go on stage - and it's completely warranted if it's a paying audience.

A Balance of Power; But What Was the Question?
Music critics have their own personal reasons for being negative towards Vanessa-Mae, but perhaps there are a few reasons beyond the usual comments on her actual playing. First is the question about whether she really does put her own individuality there or if she's playing to a target audience's go-buttons - the integrity of the interaction between performer and audience. Classical music has generally kept its interpretations, it's view on how it's music is played - much like the Church which will not alter doctrine no matter how many people are keen on change. Vanessa-Mae is like the rogue priestess of music who has shifted that balance of power to an audience which serious musicians - and perhaps even the critics and academics - think should be more educated by them rather than pandered to.

How Musical is a Concert?
The next issue goes back to the BBC interviewer's question about "looks" - something which he didn't address in detail. No one has a problem with crossing genres - just as no one has problems with Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor, Nigel Kennedy, and Joshua Bell - and the last two have even ventured into music's technological side. It's not about looking good on stage - as Anne-Sophie Mutter and once again Joshua Bell would indicate. It's about Vanessa-Mae's short skirts that borrow from rock and pop, and which the classical world has a hard time accepting. In one sense this questions the source of attraction - how musical is it, how much is really there in the sound and not the hem line? But this is a real can of worms critics would be opening because if it is really about the sound in classical concerts, why the formal dress for both the musicians and the audience? More fundamentally, why does a physically expressive (but not necessarily excessive) player get extra points? "Looks" in this sense come with the territory - except that Vanessa-Mae is using her good looks - this time "looks" in the more common use of the term, as in physical looks. And this is deemed somehow an unfair advantage compared to coattails where you just need to find a tailor. But then, isn't the whole concept of talent unfair in that sense anyway?

In Summation: Respite
For this last question perhaps Vanessa-Mae said it best - we all have talent in something or the rather and we have to just thank those who have helped us nurture it. As to the other questions, well, questions are the way forward in learning and teaching music, questions like, gee, what if I scratched horse hair on cat-gut? If Vanessa-Mae is not exactly accepted by the rest of the world in the same way as the interviewee's who said that she was one of the greatest talents of this "and perhaps many other generations", she can be accredited for bringing the violin to the person on the street, and for allowing those questions to be out there, asked, and explored.

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