Applause for the band merged to clapping in time while they continued to play: accordion, fiddle, flute, guitar, bodhrán. To my eye, not a one of the 3,900 moved, though the actors’ final bow had long passed. We all needed it; we needed to hear more, clap more, pull together more.
Come From Away shows the part of the September 11 story that took place in Canada. While the nation fearfully awaited updates, and a friend and I wandered my closed upstate campus dazed, 38 planes carrying 6,700 people redirected to Gander, Newfoundland, doubling the population of a town that unhesitatingly provided all the support and comfort it could. Scars from that day remain fresh. All who were alive and aware lost something on 9/11; many, obviously, lost much. Watching that musical, we relived the moment when we heard and the aftermath, connecting others’ stories with our own experiences. Quiet tears in the dark. Catharsis.
“Catharsis” is my favorite word because it’s a beautiful concept, goal, and experience: “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” Aristotle believed it the purpose of tragedy. Having sought catharsis in many a theater, I believe the Greek dude nailed it, though catharsis is not solely the domain of tragedy, or even solely of theatre.
My wife and I greatly value live performance. We devote a not-inconsiderable portion of our disposable income toward it. We don’t do beach vacations, and we beat on cell phones and cars till they are antiquated scrap, but we see some damn fine shows. My reasons are not just aesthetic or diversionary; I chase catharsis. And I want it live.
Come From Away led me to reflect on my live performance experiences– theatrical, musical, and otherwise. In a streaming world with infinite content available at a click, why is live performance so much more satisfying, so much more likely to yield what I need?
Part of the power comes from the intense choreography to yield a single moment in the moment – there are no retakes. This is doubly true of fire. Metallica fans love the anti-war epic “One,” and I am no exception. The intro and early verses are acoustic; the choruses foreshadow impending ferocity, and when chorus fades to bridge and unaccompanied bass drum rolls vibrate in your chest, you know it’s coming. “Roar” fits the emotional impact of the guitar strikes, but it’s the wrong word because a roar is guttural and muddy. As with all Metallica’s truly great songs, those notes in the “One” bridge explode with absolute precision, and on the World Magnetic tour, absolutely precise pillars of flame punctuated them. I felt the heat twenty rows back. Each pillar burst at the exact instant the guitar began, vanished when it ceased, then burst forth in a different hue for the next guitar phrase with the same meticulous wrath, over and over while the amplifiers and crowd shook the arena. Wildness, power and anger perfectly tamed, controlled and timed for release by the crew to mirror the art of the band I had followed since adolescence uprooted me. Together, they had harnessed and released it all, and so could I.
Even when a headliner stands alone onstage, a score of people must simultaneously channel their efforts to fashion that moment. There’s a scene in The Dresser when the aging, declining actor cries out Lear onstage (blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!) but we watch the behind-the-scenes action: a stagehand turning a crank to produce thunder for the storm. But this is London, 1940—blaring air raid sirens overwhelm everything except the bombs that shake the theatre. All the while, the pitiful backstage god makes his tiny thunder because the show must go on and that is his part. It’s a transcendent scene that both lionizes and trivializes the stagehand, a dramatization of the faithful unseen. Applauding at performance’s end, we clap for those forgotten ones, too, which lends a poignancy to live performances. We dream of being stars; we are the stagehands and the roadies, toiling even as the performers take their bows. Their efforts create the grandeur of the enterprise.
Needless to say, we also clap for the excellence that the performers ever-so-briefly share with us. Ingrid Fliter gave the greatest piano performance I’ve ever heard, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Rochester Philharmonic. Her fingers trickled over the keys with impossible grace. I like classical music, studied it a little. The truth remains that I will never feel Chopin the way Ingrid Fliter felt it as she swayed behind that Steinway. But as the air-soluble notes tinctured my breath, I caught a whiff of her Chopin, and it was beautiful. It wasn’t the piece itself, which I’d heard via recording dozens of times. Just like I’d heard the crazy guitar sounds in Rage Against the Machine songs before I watched Tom Morello play, or like I’d listened to the 50s standard “Up on the Roof” many times before hearing Sutton Foster sing it. I didn’t know it could sound like that—I didn’t know it could be that. Many could reach proficiency with pianos or guitars or vocals; few do, and an infinitesimal fraction of those achieve brilliance. When we attend their performances, we witness artists scraping against the human limits of invention and beauty.
So we clap. We clap largely to acknowledge the artist, but we also clap so that we can confirm what we just witnessed. It’s the audiovisual equivalent of answering the question, “Did you see that?” We did, we saw it together, we applaud it together. Standing ovations are cool, but it seems to me that at the professional level they are also common. The rare thing, the special thing, is the spontaneous standing ovation, the ovation when you all spring to your feet immediately because none of you can bear to wait.
My freshman year of college, my honors program offered a trip to attend a Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performance for $15. Alfred University was perfect for me and I love it, but it’s in a village with one stoplight, and damn did I need that trip. I knew relatively little about classical music at the time, but, you know, Beethoven’s cool. A friend pointed out that number nine was the one Kubrick used in A Clockwork Orange, so we made repeated jokes about “listening to a bit of the old Ludwig van.” And when I flipped through my program, I realized that it was the “Ode to Joy” symphony. I had never heard its original context, but I knew the tune from church.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony begins solemnly, pensively. Bright spots appear in the first movement, but they never last, and each development section seems to further fragment the themes. With around a minute to go, the strings start to churn, their crescendo choking the light. Following that morose conclusion, bracing violin slashes and timpani open the second movement. The music rushes along, troubled, then gradually gives way to a more playful section, but the darkness returns more powerfully than ever. The violins shriek; the timpani pounds. The struggle persists throughout the movement. The third movement offers us tranquility that builds into grandeur, and then…
It’s important to note that throughout the whole symphony, which has now gone on for 40 minutes, there have been something like a hundred people sitting in still silence at the rear of the stage, doing nothing. I figured out they were a chorus, and when I caught my breath between movements, I would wonder when they were going to do something. There were also four solo vocalists who were a big enough deal to be individually announced in the program, but who had also not stirred from their chairs.
All the singers sit unmoving even when the fourth movement begins with a quick recap of what came before, but with all the dark stuff weakened and subsumed within the deepest of the strings. At last, we hear the famous “Ode to Joy” theme from the cellos and double basses. It’s soft. The violins grab the baton, and when the winds subsequently take it, it’s arrived—almost. Amid a bright flurry from the strings, the four vocalists and the chorus stand on cue. One last time, the darkness returns, rushed and fearful, but the strings close off the pain. Tentatively, the horns and violins try out the “Ode to Joy” theme, halfway: four quiet notes rising, no resolution. Incomplete, twice. The third repetition lightly swells through that fourth note and then, in an instant, full symphony and full choir combine to set everything free.
I don’t know quite how to describe it, except to say that it’s joy. Not the cheap, bullshit happiness of that obnoxious Pharrell song, but actual, real, light-from-the-darkness joy celebrating our continuing existence. We—musicians, vocalists, audience, conductor—have been on this odyssey together for more than an hour. When we leap up immediately after the finale, we’re not merely applauding the performers or even Beethoven. We’re applauding and affirming life itself, en masse. For those minutes, nothing matters beyond the simplest of facts: we live.
Live performances yield catharsis because they require, condensed within a very short time, dedicated effort from unsung heroes, brilliant artists, and audiences themselves. Recordings might represent that distilled moment, but they cannot ever reproduce that unified, spontaneous rush. Everything given to us that we might witness together, clap together, feel together.
In 2017, researchers at University College London found that as audiences watch live theatrical performances, their heartbeats synchronize.
Sounds about right to me.