I had a small gig the past weekend. It was held at Parliament On King at King Street in Newtown, the hippest place in Sydney. It’s a tiny venue that can accommodate only 25 people. This was the second time I’d performed there. Proceeds went to an NGO called Asylum Seekers Centre. The first time, we used the money we raised to buy mobile phones for a few refugees.
What I want to talk about is the topic of performance.
I have been performing since my high school days and I still prepare for each gig. Several days before the Sydney performance I had a cough that had been going on for four weeks; I finally took antibiotics, hoping my voice would be well enough to perform.
In addition to trying to keep my voice intact, part of my preparation before each show is planning my repertoire. I am always expected to sing the hit songs I made with APO, so I did that. That’s a given. But I also made sure to play new compositions that I’ve composed since APO ended 10 years ago. I have been writing new music and done two solo albums since. I am still as excited as ever about doing new material for anyone who wants to listen.
Throughout the years, I’ve developed and discovered my own philosophy about what a performance really ought to be.
From National Artist Rolando Tinio, I learned that theater is all about the filling up of time and space. You create content for people to watch. Your content is your material. And you perform the material.
To me, a performance is an artist’s attempt to bring his (or her) audience to a time and place where they have never been. I am speaking about physical, emotional, sensual, spiritual states that they have not experienced. While they may have felt similar emotions in the past, a performer’s unique material will make it a new experience. It is an engagement with the audience’s imagination and a suspension of disbelief.
A magician will arouse wonder and mystery. Dancers will wow the crowd by showing great agility in moving their bodies through the choreography of different successive physical movements coordinated to music. Often, they seem to defy gravity. Singers engage the audience with songs that they know and enjoy. They interpret the songs using their own vocal styles and arrangements, giving a new take on them. Playwrights and actors create and tell stories that engage their audience. Athletes break records of human physical endurance, strength, speed and skill. Religious leaders aim to take you toward spiritual states that give you a feeling of comfort in your belief and a feeling of liberation.
All throughout, through the clever use of surprise and delight, and/or shock and awe, good performers take their audiences to different places and states of mind.
In a little gig such as mine, I aim to bring enjoyment and delight via songs that elicit memories of the past, stories about the songs I have written, and other topics about life that people can relate to. I also sing new material. I know it sounds like a formula that’s been done before over and over again — and on the surface, yes, it is true. But I believe in the power of live performance and engagement. Something wonderful always happens to both performer and his audience when one has the right material and it is delivered powerfully.
A combination of spontaneity from the performer’s end and an audience willing to have fun can bring magic to the situation. A wonderful combustion can happen. Carl Jung once said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
The specificity of any present moment and place and has an inert energy about it. To a seasoned performer, it is ripe for exploitation. He can focus on anything and exploit it. He can seize the moment and instantly make comments or do something that can affect the audience in a delightful way and play it to the hilt.
In comedy, it’s called improvisation — where you go off script and directly ride with the flow of the moment. In jazz, it’s also called improv, or ad libbing. The musicians become completely extemporaneous without any previous preparation. And if they’re good, a magical performance happens.
A performer gives something of himself to every show. A live performance opens you to vulnerability. Your voice may crack. You can lose timing. You can forget lyrics or sing flat or sharp notes. Many things can go wrong. But that’s the thrill of it. That’s what a live performance is all about.
I try to give a new spin or take (no matter how small) to songs I have done countless times and make it fresh and new again. There are many ways to perform an old familiar song and give it a twist. Sometimes, I stretch one note longer, or even just hold the mic with the other hand. Adding even little nuances while performing can make me more present.
During the APO days, I used to imagine myself as some sort of high priest as I put on my costume before a show. I looked at my clothes as vestments that gave me the power to transform the next two hours into a creative moment of entertainment, thrills, magical music and alter the emotional state of my audience to something wonderful and memorable.
It took us years to learn everything we did. These days, I am still trying to find my comfort zone as a solo performer. It is a good stage to be in. I like trying new things. At my age I still look at myself as a student learning many lessons. Sometimes, I think I am getting better.
Performing is something I don’t think I will ever get tired of doing. I had 44 years of it with APO. Throughout those years, I learned a lot as a songwriter, singer, performer, arranger, director, scriptwriter and, yes, critic. I have also learned to calmly accept criticism. They were great years because they engaged all of my creative powers. What more could I ask for? I just wish to continue doing this.
Sometimes I remember performers I knew who “died” onstage while doing a gig. While it may have been a shock to their audience, I feel in way that they were lucky and blessed. At least they left this earth dressed elegantly, doing what they loved to do.