I reflect on presence and how I have worked on developing presence and embodied performance from inside the musical practice, and what can it mean to actively bring embodiment into performance and to allow the body to take on a more central role in interpretation?
Presence can be defined in many ways. A quick google search on stage presence gives me 16 600 000 results. I roughly separate presence into two different kinds of presence on stage: the “being present” as in physically being in the room. And the other as a kind of inner concentration, creating an atmosphere around the performer, using charisma to draw in the listener. This latter relates to the notion of an embodiment of presence. They are both important for the experience of the audience, but I believe this inner energy is what can make it feel like magic happens during a performance, or give the feeling of “flow”. Aikido practitioner and social anthropologist Håkon Fyhn says presence comes from the heart of human experience, and can never be totally objective. Presence is therefore an ontological question, and not just the description of an action and quality of experience ((Fyhn, H. (2011). Møte med tilstedeværelse : mellom form og tomhet i produktutvikling, aikido og antropologisk erkjennelse.(2011:210), Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet, Fakultet for samfunnsvitenskap og teknologiledelse, Sosialantropologisk institutt, Trondheim)).
In her Stage presence from head to toe: a manual for musicians Karen A. Hagberg focuses a lot on outward visual presence on stage – how the performer should behave, dress and be according to conventions of the traditional classical music scene. She defines it as “the visual aspect of a live musical performance” ((Hagberg, K. A. (2003). Stage presence from head to toe : a manual for musicians. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, p. 2)). She is concerned with impeccable stage presence, because “[…] it can be the key element in the making or breaking of a concert, no matter how well the musicians play” ((ibid, p. 1-2)). I agree that it is important, and it resonates with the rules of the rhetoric orator and how to behave on stage in order to convince the audience. But I feel very strongly that the “spark” she is talking about, is a type of inner energy and concentration which will draw the audience in, no matter how you dress, and that this type of presence is more important than stage behavior. We do, however, agree on this subject being neglected in the classical music world.
But then again, what is this energy? How do we activate it, internalize or describe it? Some call it the x-factor, others talk about magic, or American philosopher Eugene Gendlin’s felt sense ((Gendlin, E. T. (1982). Fokusering. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand)), or pneuma, the European Renaissance’s analogue to oriental Chi: Ch ́í-yün/Qi/ Ki, the first principle. The ancient Chinese described it as «life force». They believed chi/qi permeated everything, likening it to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive and functioning unit ((Kaibara, E., & Tucker, M. E. (2007). The Philosophy of Qi : The Record of Great Doubts. New York: Perseus Books, LLC, p. 13)). I come in contact with non-Western paradigms and practices that look at these processes in a different way than in the West. The First Principle, the first of six principles for good painting set down by the art critic Hseih Ho in the fifth century A. D. ((Soper, A. C. (2011). The First Two Laws of Hsieh Ho. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 8(4), 412-423. doi:10.2307/2049541)) is ch’i-yün (Chi or Qi in China and Ki in Japan ((Stenudd, S. (2015). Qi or Chi or Ki. Retrieved from http://www.qienergyexercises.com/qi-chi-ki.htm)): «spirit resonance (producing) lifelike animation» ((Lancaster, C. (1952). Keys to the Understanding of Indian and Chinese Painting: The «Six Limbs» of Yaeoedhara and the «Six Principles» of Hsieh Ho. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 11(2), 95-104. doi:10.2307/426036, p. 7)) or Blum’s definition “breath-resonance life-motion” ((Blum, D. (1977). Casals and the art of interpretation. London: Heinemann, p. 1)). Blum goes on to say that Qi: “comes from within. It develops in the silence of the soul” ((ibid, p. 2)). Håkon Fyhn describes it as “a feeling of energy flowing through the body” ((Fyhn, H. (2011). Møte med tilstedeværelse : mellom form og tomhet i produktutvikling, aikido og antropologisk erkjennelse, p. 156)). A good Qi will radiate presence, FaQi ((Zarrilli, P. B., & Hulton, P. (2009). Psychophysical acting : an intercultural approach after Stanislavski. London: Routledge, p.19)). For us Westerners it is perhaps not so easy to grasp this concept. I understand it as an inner life-force, flowing through our bodies, which can and should be in everything–tension, but also release. It has to do with breathing, but it is not breathing. Qi is willpower, but we cannot force it.
When I watch and listen to Casals, he maintains the musical line with his energy, but without forcing it, totally effortless. His body looks relaxed. He bends the timing and articulates clearly. His sound is both raw and delicate. Always varied. “If you don’t breathe you die! The music is the same, you have to breathe [in the music]” ((Hammid, A. (director). (1961a). Master Class series Casals – 1 The Library of Master Performers: Shar Products company, 16:45)).
David Blum, relating to Casals’s musical principles, says that this is one of the most important aspect of his musical philosophy ((Blum, D. (1977). Casals and the art of interpretation. London: Heinemann, p. 1)). This energy, or quality, some have it more easily – but like they say about dancing, acting, fencing, riding, martial arts and many more practices, it can be learnt and developed. In classical music, we sometimes think of it as the undefinable talent, but we don’t talk about how to develop and strengthen it. The concept cannot be achieved only through cognitive understanding, but can be fully under- stood only through practice and embodied understanding. The search to achieve, feel and keep Chi/Qi is a lifelong learning process, “[N]ever stop polishing that jewel” ((Fyhn, H. (2011). Møte med tilstedeværelse : mellom form og tomhet i produktutvikling, aikido og antropologisk erkjennelse, p.192)).
WHAT CREATES PRESENCE?
What seems obvious for someone working in one tradition can even be regarded as somewhat revolutionary when trans- ferred into another tradition where this is less discussed. I see presence as something that classical musicians don’t talk about. When I asked my supervisor Hatto Beyerle, he said: “[…] it is something you have or not. You have to find it by yourself”.
We make informed interpretational choices as to the main points of the music or the articulation, expression and sound, but in the performing moment I need the freedom to sense the music and express what I want, creating a presence through a direction of energy and awareness of the music, through the body. The merging of action and awareness is made possible by a centering of attention.
Embodiment is an important part of this presence. The analytic and haptic processes (sense of touch) are inter- woven with aural, visual and sensory awareness. Eugene Gendlin’s felt sense could be a way of describing it as a com- bination of senses and experiences, a pre-verbal sense of «something» as that «something» is experienced in the body. He explains it as a special kind of internal bodily awareness, a body-sense of meaning ((Gendlin, E. T. (1982). Fokusering. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand)).
Embodied presence is for me important in creating a meaningful use of music as language, in interpretation. The experience of art brings us an immanent meaning states philosopher Mark Johnson:
Good art reinvigorates our felt sense of the situations out of which meaning and thought emerge. It helps us to be more attentive to what our bodies tell us. It invites us to listen to our embodied experience – to be ‘present to our experience’, as some Buddhists would say. It challenges us to gather the embodied meaning of our situation” ((Johnson, M. (2007). ‘The stone that was cast out shall become the cornerstone’: the bodily aesthetics of human meaning. Journal of Visual Art Practice, 6(2), 89-103. doi:10.1386/jvap.6.2.89_1, p. 102)).