25. “Er… er… um”

A favourite poem of mine is an early short meditation by Rilke, ‘Evening’, in which he suggests we live in two worlds, “not at home in either one”, sometimes feeling our weight, our boundedness, the life of a ‘stone’ –  sometimes rising to heaven and eternity, the life of a ‘star’.  Out of this polarity comes our life ‘with its immensity and fear’.  I want here to explore how something such as the Alexander Technique helps us cope with this immensity – of our thoughts, plans, ideals, imagination – and the fear, at root the fear of harm or death.  To get at the subject I want to contrast two kinds of pleasure in music which you could discuss in terms of ‘technique’.  If we think of a technique as an internalised skill, a quality which gives the impression at least that the effort has been taken out of the creating of an effect, you could see this virtue in the ‘complaisance’ of Baroque music, the performer pleased with herself and pleased with the playing or singing, the audience allowed to share in the effortless pleasure.

‘Complacence’ now often has a note of vanity or lifeless self-satisfaction, but for now stick with the feeling of flowing ease.  By contrast, I was just listening to a concert in honour of A L Lloyd, one of the leading figures in the preservation and recreation of traditional song and music in the twentieth century.  Here technique is about a lack of artifice; it’s to do with an authentic roughness and naturalness of delivery which is making the song something more than pretty.  These two ideals can meet as grace meets commitment, but they approach the listener from different sides of the stage: polish and awkwardness.  I was listening recently to an early morning interview with an economist about the current world crisis.  The interviewer was pressing the drama, with lots of anger and compulsion, “has to… forced to… must”.  Each time, before replying, the economist paused, just a few seconds, a pause to compose herself, to think, but it was so powerful, so unusual, so disconcerting.  It gave her a very distinct individual voice, but its conscious composure almost cut her off, left her beyond dialogue – a clear voice but her meaning difficult to take in.  We stumble and add ‘er’ and ‘um’ in what is called dysfluency in speech.  This economist had none of that.  This dysfluency serves many purposes: it can keep the interlocutor quiet, it can suggest your search for meaning, it can alert the other that something unexpected is coming.  All through the day, in speech and action, we use lack of fluency, lack of competence, sometimes consciously, often not, as a way of connecting with others, of establishing ease and openness.  It takes us into the space between us and others and reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge and control.  If technique means the wish for faultless performance, or competence in solitude, then for me it’s missing out on enjoying this everyday space of chaos and confusion.   It is a forum where we can try to ‘unravel’, as Rilke describes it, the “immensity and fear”.

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