When I was but a whee lad, my family co-owned an artisan’s shop at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Some extremely weird adventures working amongst the Renaissance people and my Renaissance British accent is totally incredible. Ok, you busted me. I still walk around everyday wishing I lived in the Renaissance times… “Pardon me my lord, would you like to play, Catapulting Frogs?”. Oh yeah. I began working an entertainment game at the fair called, “Catapulting Frogs” when I turned 12 years old. The layout in this part of the fair was dominated by a large wooden Carousel and flanked by artisan shops of all sorts. This wooden Carousel had pedals at each seat that the patrons pedaled by themselves to make the ride go. See? No electricity in the Renaissance times. Gotta pedal. No electric motors. “You pay $5. You pedal 5 minutes.” Risky proposition now that you’ve chugged about 5 mugs of wine out in the sun today, and while drunk and pedaling around in a circle at 170 BPM, 5 minutes can feel like an eternity. They found out. Lots of puking on that ride.
After a visit to the Carousel, usually they would stumble over to me…
The Catapulting Frogs game was the second-to-last stop in a long line of shops at the bottom of a dirt and hay covered hill. On my left, was a clearing with a small performance stage underneath a large old tree, where the audiences sat on bales of hay 10 rows deep. All day long, performers juggled clubs and knives and told bad Renaissance era jokes, and musical performers sang and played era appropriate songs with era appropriate instruments. “Hear ye, hear yeeeee! Dear Lords and Ladies, I’ve been coming to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival quite a lot lately! I volunteer here part-time as a Jouster. Dare I say… I am a, free-lancer?” Crickets from the audience. I watched these performers go through their acts. A LOT. Where, pretell, do you think I got this kick-ass sense of humor??? Even the non-nerd among us may have found their performances entertaining. Really hard to say. I will admit to you though that during the downtime, I had also entirely mastered the Catapulting Frogs game. One might even have called me, “a marksman”.
To sell the game to the patrons, my pitch began to hinge upon this new found, sniper level frog catapulting skill I had developed. The drunkest ones often stumbled up to my booth to investigate, and I would invite them to play it. “Can’t be done.”, they would say. “Inconceivable!”, to borrow a line from Princess Bride. The next move was to grab a hammer, place a small dark green block of wood (“frog”) onto a real wooden catapult 20 inch long, look them straight in the eye, and without a word… WHACK the catapult with the hammer for launch. Frog flies across the room and lands in a wooden bucket. The drunker the patrons were, the more fun this game was.
Honestly, I enjoyed working the Renaissance Festival as much as people enjoyed visiting it. But, it was after the festival closed for the night, that the very most interesting adventures and experiences would occur. Back then, for better or for worse, if you were out to find a weird or illicit adventure, you could get into just about anything you wanted to on the fair grounds. This was old Indian land, and voices in the wind spoke to me at night as it whipped through the dirt and trees. A magical darkness. I have never forgotten these times, and the experiences I had there in my childhood helped to shape the artist and person I am today.
Flash forward 30 years. Present day. The algorithms I interacted with today felt fast and rigid. The popup ads on the screen are all things I am supposed to want to buy, based on my browsing history. Most of my day is spent wearing headphones. Must…block out…the… robot…music, oozing from every open door. The singer’s voices sound more robot than human. Our computers have fundamentally changed the cost and ease of making and recording the new music we hear in the world. You don’t need to rent a recording studio anymore. Now, anyone with a computer has the tools to create and record a song at home. It is, however, in acceptance of these new tools that we have unknowingly surrendered many of the important traditional tools which make music a true celebration of being Alive. The vacuum of their absence sits unrecognized, but does not go unnoticed. Listening to this new music can feel deeply unsatisfying. The interpretive tools of dynamics such as the push and pull of crescendo and decrescendo. The constant but nearly imperceptible stretching of tempo as a classical musician performs a piece, directly reflects the speeding and slowing of the beating of one’s heart as you witness the musical atmosphere before you. The musician and audience become intertwined as these emotional experiences are evoked. And the sophistication of harmonic motion and themes developed within a piece of music by a truly great composer can take you on a trip to the stars, if you are willing to let it.
In training to become a classical musician, we are taught to “shape” the feeling of the composer’s phrases using these tools, and that each phrase is fully alive. We are the servant, communicating this love note written to the World, echoing through the annals of history. You, the singer. Your body is the instrument. The emotion of your day changes the sound of your voice as you offer it. “Whyyyy did I go to bed so late last night”, I think as my throat slowly tightens up half-way through the performance. But steadfast we must remain and draw upon all the training and practice, reclaim our balance, open into a deep breath that electrifies the body, and continue on with painting the musical canvas.
In our present day music, these vulnerable life-giving aspects of singing are regularly, “fixed” by producers with computers in the studio as if they are mistakes. “You may not bend the tempo in the phrase,” I was told. “We must lock every beat to timecode for editing!“ I responded, “You know, I really want to bend the line here and slow it down to build some tension for the end of the piece. Then here, in the next phrase, push the tempo gradually to cash in all the chips for a big payoff at the end.” The reply? “Sorry, can’t be done.”
I never believe it when people say those words to me. Even if I am not personally able to accomplish it in the moment, my drive is always to take the music back into the lab and figure it out. Reinvent it. Keep trying on new ideas until magic arrives. This is the grind of working at our Art and the way an artist develops a personal, “language” of interpretation and communication. A style all your own. It is one of the true responsibilities we hold as artists - to lead our audience through an emotional hero’s journey, through each part of our performance which evokes deep, real feelings. They don’t have to like all of what you’ve given them. Hell, they will probably enjoy your performance more overall if they don’t like everything you did, because of the depth of the journey you offered… if you stayed honest with them through it. Your strength and vulnerability, tugging war with each other under the microscope of their attention. Striking this inner balance as a singer while walking through the musical storm of a performance is where a lot of the Art resides for me. When I am at my best, it is a ballet more than a boxing match. The performance is not always what I want it to be. But I have found the audience truly loved my performances most often during the times I felt the messiest on stage. The times my singing felt trashy. When the voices inside my head wouldn’t leave me alone afterward. I came to realize this was because in those moments, I actually was being the most honest and vulnerable with them that I could be. In life, as in performance, the baring of one’s soul is appreciated. Even craved. And if you are willing to be so open, in return the audience will bare their souls back to you. When the commitment of all involved holds this type of intention, the theatrical experiences can be absolute Magic for all.
In closing, I can only say that the current production practice of, “air brushing” the Art has yielded a modern musical product devoid of the root energetic forces of human life. The onslaught of this formulated robo music which gathers as much money as possible in as little production time necessary, is no longer serving us. Time is money they say. But, please be warned my friends, listening to music with these critical life forces artificially removed from them, creates an emptiness where something should be. The result is an energetic vacuum that pulls that very life force out of you instead to fill the void. Your blood is delicious…
In strange times like these, it is singers like the little girl below who burn like a towering inferno for me. The purity of her offering in this performance stands as a metaphoric beacon of light for the collective reclamation of our true Voice, in the present climate of lying and passive aggressive disenfranchisement.
The spirit of Art and passion will never die.
Bring on the Renaissance!