The Unrecordable Element

On September fifth, I was lucky enough to see Verina Chen perform her sophomore piano recital to a nearly filled Madsen Recital Hall. Verina played some technically impressive and difficult pieces, including twentieth century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D minor, which required virtuosic skill. However, the truly exceptional aspect of Verina’s performance was how it made me contemplate yet again the unique properties of live performance that I think many forget or don’t understand in the modern world of highly accessible recorded music.

Verina’s theatrical performance style revealed itself when she sat down and, in ritualistic fashion, slowly took a handkerchief to clean her hands and wipe the keys while in deep meditative preparation. The whole crowd waited in tense silence as Verina finished her cleansing ritual and bent towards the piano, hands poised, waiting a long fifteen seconds before starting. A simple minor arpeggio began her first piece, Scarlatti’s Sonata no.108, sounding clear and innocent. As the simple, tinkling melody developed, Verina seemed very aware of her controlled, purposed stage presence. Hers is a very physical style, and that night she offered no resistance to the sweeping waves of music she simultaneously created and reacted to, in a strange kind of emotional feedback loop. She swayed to the side with sweeping runs; she leaned in with passionate fury; at other times she pulled away as if afraid to carry on with a painfully sad melody. Sometimes, Verina’s hands barely brushed the keys in fast runs and other times she dramatically dug into the keys with chunky chords. As I watched, I felt less like an observer and more like a participant in Verina’s journey; I felt the recital less of a performance and more of an invitation to participate.

I spoke to Verina afterwards, commenting on how I reacted to her stage presence. At first, I found myself watching her intently without thinking about the music, but when I realized what I was doing, I closed my eyes and focused wholly on the music. I mentioned to Verina how difficult it was for me to decide which I preferred. When I watched her movements, I felt connected empathetically through her the music’s affective properties, but when I closed my eyes I experienced the music in a purely abstract form, without the environment or even the performer connected to the isolated sounds. She explained that, for her, movement is an integral, natural part of her performance and is integral to her unique sound, but has also been a struggle to live with. “I’ve had the hardest time this last year focusing on the right sound and getting the right tone, and my teacher has said, ‘Maybe your movement is the problem.’” Even judges at her performances tend to point out that at times her physical expressiveness affects her tone. However, Verina happily confided that in this latest performance, she felt like her natural movement was there and so was a clean, controlled tone. “The sound was there and the movement was there too. It was natural for me to move that much and this time I was really focusing on the sound, and I got it! I was really happy with it.”

She argued that, for her, a live performance is more than sound; performing is about creating a unique moment, a time and place that resists re-creation and that defies explanation. “Music is something you listen to and then it’s gone. You can record it, but it’s never the same. It’s the same with performance in poetry or in an English piece. I’m sure that Shakespeare’s plays were amazing, but he performed them and then they were gone. They’re both similar in that way.” Though someone did record Verina’s performance, only few of us who saw it first hand enjoyed the participatory experience though Verina’s strong presence and emotive sounds and movements, both essential to the full effect her performance. A recording can rarely capture that aspect, and that essential element can only be re-lived in the memory of the participants. This was a performance that reminded me how special live performances really are and how two-dimensional recorded music is in comparison. I left the performance flying mental circles, but I resolved to seek out more opportunities to be present for these unique, unrepeatable moments.