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Stanislavski’s Urlinie

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actor-preparesStanislavski’s An Actor Prepares is one of those books about which I’ve been thinking, ‘Must read that someday,’ for years. Someday arrived by chance recently when I spotted it on the ‘recently returned’ shelf at the library and picked it up on an impulse. And by now of course wished I’d read it years ago.

Back when I was teaching Musical Philosophies and Aesthetics to the postgrads at Birmingham Conservatoire, a frequent subject for discussion was the relationship between the text and the performer. Is the performer a creator or merely a puppet? How can a performer speak with their own voice whilst still being true to the composer’s message? What, exactly, is interpretation?

This, of course, is a practical question for advanced musicians, not merely an academic one (which is why we included the subject in advanced degrees in performance and composition). And I am inclined to think that Stanislavski – with his focus on the practical artist - handles it rather better than many writers about music. He doesn’t seem to find any conflict between systematic analysis and the life of feeling – rather that depth of analysis is a route to emotional truth.

Even as I write that, I can feel how a century of musical modernism has made us squeamish about those kinds of words, even while they remain relevant to all the non-modernist (older, post- or popular) music which constitutes the majority of what we do.

Anyway, the bit that really stopped me in my tracks was towards the end where he talks about a play’s ‘super-objective’ and ‘through line of action’. That is, at a global level, what fundamental human question lies at the heart of the play? That is the super-objective, and once you know that, all the details of the play come together in service of that objective, to form a continuous line.

Here, this is how he explains it:

An Actor Prepares, p. 276An Actor Prepares, p. 276

(Tortsov is the fictional director – a thinly disguised version of Stanislavski himself; though the book is narrated from the viewpoint of one of the students – a thinly disguised version of Stanislavski’s younger self.)

For anyone brought up on Schenkerian analysis, this rings so many bells it’s untrue. There’s the concern with coherence and direction, the interrelationship between whole and detail, the moral overtones of the discourse.

Two other things leapt out at me about this. First is the way it comes late in the process, as a method of synthesis rather than analysis. How to break down a play into its constituent units comes much earlier in the book, and is – as in music – a progressive process, each subset of the whole being subject to further disaggregation until every element is identified and understood. Likewise in music: formal analysis and harmonic analysis are introduced at earlier stages of education than linear analysis. Indeed, as you learn a piece, you take it apart before you put it back together.

Now I write this, it seems terribly obvious. But I think I will emerge thinking of Schenker as providing a synthetic rather than an analytic method.

The second, related, observation is about how he helps the students develop this idea. They are given progressively longer sections of a play and asked to determine the super-objective for each as if it were a whole. As the spans of dramatic content expand, the super-objective shifts, and thus the shape of the through line of action adapts. Again, this mirrors the way we teach Schenkerian synthesis – starting by tracing the line through short extracts, then longer extracts, then short movements, up to larger-scale works.

In music, we tend to see the point of this as showing that the same kinds of processes are working on both the small-scale and the large-scale. Which is interesting and beautiful in the same kind of way that fractals are, and worth noticing. (Ditto the findings of motivic analysis of Rudolph Réti, indeed.) But Stanislavski’s point that the shape of the line changes depending on the end-point to which you are heading is possibly more useful for bringing coherence to our performances. What feels like closure taken in isolation may in fact be a moment of great instability in the larger scheme.

The other thought sloshing about in the back of my brain here is the question I wrote about first in the chapter on performance mannerisms in my book on barbershop. Tortsov’s second diagram presents the approach suggested by the old Interpretation Category (and arguably still supported by Sweet Adelines): it’s all about the moments. The barbershop Harmony Society introduced the confusingly-labelled concept of ‘theme’ as an attempt to introduce some sense of musical continuity. And I guess the specific message for the people in this corner of the musical universe is this: if you’re going to mess with the tag, you’ll end up having to sing the intro differently too.

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