The Rapidian

Give Away The Stone (pt.2)

Underwriting support from:

Link to Pt. 1

Link to Pt. 3

This is Pt. 2 of a three-part conversation about "walking away" after creating something, and the implications for audience and artist.


/Open Source (Google Images)

 Put your hand on this stone, it's the stone of a home you know.
- Beach House, "10 Mile Stereo"

Perhaps the most literal example of "walking away" is when a performance artist walks off stage. But the process of walking away transcends that, of course. And it definitely transcends format: it could apply to painters, poets, comedians, writers, sculptors, graffiti artists, builders, technical directors, et al.
Getting back to performance artists.  Grand Rapids native Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle) has long been famous for staying out of the spotlight.  Literally.  In the 1990s, the otherwise commanding lead singer began performing in the background, sometimes dimly lit, as "part of the group of musicians."  No longer the focus of the performance.

A number of lead singers of rock bands could fairly be described as habitual egomaniacs, so Mr. Keenan's choice to "step back" was unique, at least for such a high-profile rock band.  Rather than diminishing the importance of the lyrics, it may have enhanced them: the vocals were, for once, in balance with the rhythm section, and guitar.  Suddenly there was relativity, and perspective.  The songs, and their performance, became more dynamic - possibly even truer to their intended meanings.
Artist's intentions vs. observer's interpretations

Maynard's "stepping back" from the spotlight, onstage, is an example the artist taking control of the presentation through context - lessening the chance of wild misinterpretation by the observer, by setting the tone.  
In the example offered in Pt.1 of this three-part series, I mentioned how we lighted Ritsu to create a mood that tied her to the film "Nosferatu," making the visual experience unified for the observer - the original score, its performance, and the film.  All one, new thing.  By design and execution, that experience had a framework: establishing it was part of the creative process.  There remained ample room for personal interpretation, but the observer operated within some degree of established context.  While this might be cynically interpreted as undue control of the message, I'd prefer to consider context a thoughtful gift.  I need all the help I can get.  Taking Tool as an example, again, the art and its intended message is reinforced (put into context) through thematic lyrics, tone, rhythm, concert lighting, multimedia and other elements.

It's also about what you don't do, about what you do not give away.  Mr. Keenan has a reputation for refusing to elaborate on the specific meanings of his lyrics, nor does Tool publish Mr. Keenan's lyrics with the album.  He said "there are diverse ways in which people can interpret art and lyrics, and draw them into their own experiences." 
Could people misinterpret, too?  Of course.  But one could find value and growth in discussions about the meaning of things.  At some point, it may become irrelevant what the artist had intended.

The action of letting go puts the artist in the role of passive non-participant; Mr. Keenan has been known to go further and assume the role of active non-participant. 
For example, he occasionally offers ludicrous interpretations of his own lyrics, as a way to challenge his audience to dig deeper and find their own meaning.  Mr. Keenan once said with great conviction that every Tool song was about the same thing: a particularly carnal form of human coupling, which is often pooh-poohed.  But the moment anyone seriously begins trying to interpret the songs this way, the complexity of the lyrics reveal this explanation as almost impossible (*almost). 
The ploy is a success: Mr. Keenan has provoked the audience member to a more thoughtful examination of the songs.  In the process he has given away nothing, provided no interpretation, but still played the role of active non-participant in the process, by pushing the observer to greater exploration of meaning.
So these are some of the benefits the audience can experience, from artists.  The next and final segment of "Give Away The Stone" will focus on the implications for the artist, in how the audience interprets, discusses and criticizes what the artist shares.

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In this  social media age, I think Maynard is (in a good way) the embodiment of or throwback to another era. We are programmed now to seek out absolute understanding. While on the surface this seems a good thing, it eliminates the possibility of interpretation. And we've become increasingly literal in that interpretive act. Maynard brings us back (or maybe forward?) to a time when the act of listening to a recording or witnessing performance was as important as the performance itself.

MTV seemed like a good idea 30 years ago, but now songs seem secondary to the video, the musical equivalent of watching the movie before reading the book. Reading "Dracula" as a kid scared the crap out of me. If I had seen the movie first, I'd have been stuck imagining Keanu Reeves throughout the book, which wouldn't scare anyone.

So hats off to Maynard for rejecting the opportunity to explain himself. It seems the artists with the most to say (Bob Dylan and Tom Waits come to mind) often opt to leave interpretation up to the audience. And while the audience interprets their current work, they quietly move on to the next project.