Friday, August 25, 2006

Stage fright

John Lahr has a great essay on stage fright in the New Yorker issue of 28 August 2006; it's not available online, unfortunately, but here's the link for some of his other articles. Did everyone other than me know that Carly Simon has such bad stage fright that "she has been known to take the stage in tight boots, to jab her hand with clutched safety pins, and even, just before going on, to ask band members to spank her"?

At a celebration for President Bill Clinton's fiftieth birthday, at Radio City Music Hall, in 1996, Simon, terrified of following Smokey Robinson, invited the entire horn section to let her have it. 'They all took turns spanking me,' she says. 'During the last spank the curtain went up. The audience saw the aftermath, the sting on my face. I bet Olivier didn't do that.'

I like the idea of the fact-checker contacting the members of the horn section and asking them about the time they spanked Carly Simon....

It seems to me that there's a very fine line between the adrenaline rush you need to produce a good performance and the incapacitating stage fright that keeps someone like Stephen Fry from doing theater work these days. You have to like working on sheer nerve in order to thrive as a performer, but obviously the terrifying part is that one day all the accommodations you've made and that have served you well over the years suddenly stop working. It's beyond any rationality, and it's clearly often almost impossible to get over that kind of a collapse.

3 comments:

  1. josephbyrd@cox.net8/30/2006 8:37 AM

    Yes, a fine article, some very serious stuff nicely mixed with very funny early "Dame Enda Everage", almost concept art.

    It is the last, best hope for the essay, a form of prose that is endangered in the digital era. But The New Yorker drives me crazy. Every time they publish something, usually music-related, of which I have personal knowledge, it is flooded with errors: interpretations that are nudged to fit the thesis of the writer mingle cheerfully with half-truths and outright lies. Evidently popular music does not merit fact-checking.
    They do not print retractions or corrections either.

    This goes back almost a decade, and may coincide with the Tina Brown era. In a fairly recent issue, the Alex Ross piece on how recording technology has impacted music, there seem to be some interesting points, but every time I work up a head of steam, the author sandbags me with a howling error.

    To wit: 'In 1916, the conductor Ernest Ansermet brought Stravinsky a stack of American pop records, Jelly Roll Morton rags apparently among them, and the composer swooned. "The musical ideal," he called them, "music spontaneous and 'useless,' music that wishes to express nothing." (Just what Jelly Roll was after!)'

    No. Morton made his first solo recordings in 1923, and they were not rags (ragtime was by then a 30-year old form), they were his own solo jazz stomps and blues.

    '[Stephan] Wolpe was the first to take the plunge; at a Dada concert in 1920, he put eight phonographs on a stage and had them play parts of Beethoven’s Fifth at different speeds.'

    No, that was John Cage, and he did it at Bennington College when he was composer-in-residence one summer in the late 1940s. A pretty famous story, Cage being the maven of indeterminacy and all, but its impetus was that he was in charge of the "noon concert" of recorded music, and there were faculty complaints about the Javanese, Indian, and African ethnic stuff he was playing. "Can't you play some Beethoven?" the Dean asked, and that was Cage's response. (He was not invited back.)

    'After the war was over, Mullin tracked down a Magnetophon and brought it to America. He demonstrated it to Bing Crosby, who used it to tape his broadcasts in advance. Crosby was a pioneer of perhaps the most famous of all technological effects, the croon. Magnetic tape meant that Bing could practically whisper into the microphone and still be heard across America; a marked drop-off in surface noise meant that vocal murmurs could register as vividly as Louis Armstrong’s pealing trumpet.'

    No. Oh, the last sentence is true enough, but it had nothing whatever to do with Crosby's embracing (and investing in) Ampex Corporation. In 1946, Crosby was the richest and most popular recording artist, movie star, and radio personality in the world; yet he was tethered to the studio which broadcast his weekly live show. As his contract with NBC's Kraft Music Hall ended, he wanted to transcribe the shows on disc, but both networks balked. With Crosby's endorsement, the new audiotape technology helped launch ABC, and Bing was free to record several weeks' shows in a few days, then go play golf the rest of the season (the last is hotly disputed by loyal fans).

    But what Ross is talking about - the use of the microphone as an intimate, sensual part of pop music - is something Bing himself had already invented.

    Here's the brilliant Nick Tosches (from _Where Dead Voices Gather_): "There were a number of singers who would define and dominate popular music in the thirties and forties. But Crosby was the key: the first singer to work the microphone as if it were a woman - not only singing to it as if it were a woman, but taking it in his hands as such. Though overlooked and all but invisible to modern eyes, this was the most revolutionary move in the history of popular singing. Before Crosby, the microphone was regarded as an ill-favored object, a cold and ugly technological necessity whose presence was something to be overcome. He made of it a surrogate of desire, an instrument of physical as well as of vocal expression. When he caressed that microphone for the first time, it was a breakthrough; and the hands-on-mike stage presence of every singer, black and white, has been an ever intensifying reverberation of that breakthrough, from Sinatra to Elvis and Mick Jagger, and beyond."

    I could go on. This magazine truly does not "get" the history of American popular music. It loftily eschews corrections (I have written about not the trivia above, but huge errors such as the bland statement that "American vernacular music" began in the 1920s).

    If I'm right (and I am), how many more loose factoids are in article in which I haven't the expertise to recognize them?

    ReplyDelete
  2. michael i. goode6/20/2008 6:57 PM

    Dear Jenny,

    I have been busy writing but noticed your insightful comments on this blog regarding stage fright.

    You are quite correct that there is a fine line between the adrenaline rush and incapacitating stage fright. I cured myself of such debilitating stage fright ten-plus years ago and now cure others from my work and research at the University of Chicago in psychoneuromusicology a new field of science I created to study stage fright in performers. Believe it or not, there is an inherent rationality about the kind of total collapse that performers can have when they have debilitating stage fright. This is what I had to cure in myself and what I help others cure themselves from.

    But, your insights are right on target about the issue, I just want to give you hope that it is possible to cure such a condition
    and that I am living proof of it.
    I didn't think it was possible when I started either but now I know that what worked for me works for others as well.

    Debilitating stage fright is more common than you think, but it can be fixed.

    Sincerely,

    Michael I. Goode
    www.trumpetworkspress.com


    Jenny Davidson wrote:

    It seems to me that there's a very fine line between the adrenaline rush you need to produce a good performance and the incapacitating stage fright that keeps someone like Stephen Fry from doing theater work these days. You have to like working on sheer nerve in order to thrive as a performer, but obviously the terrifying part is that one day all the accommodations you've made and that have served you well over the years suddenly stop working. It's beyond any rationality, and it's clearly often almost impossible to get over that kind of a collapse

    ReplyDelete