Inspiration and performance notes from Lotus Festival 2013

September 30, 2013

Every year for the last twenty years, the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival has graced Bloomington. It is now the second-largest world music festival in the U.S. Kaia performed on the mainstage and gave a workshop in 2009 and we have a burning desire to be asked back. It’s an incredible experience for attendees and performers alike.

Whenever I see performing arts, my brain is constantly scanning for tips and tricks to pick up that I can use in my personal work or that I can take back to Kaia. It’s actually quite irritating, since I have to keep reminding myself, “Be in the moment! Be in the moment!” Lotus is sensory overload because you go from venue to venue, listening to 20 minutes or a half hour of, say, 7 or 8 different artists a night. Plus Lotus in the Park features three more bands plus three workshops with three more artists. I used to go to the World Spirit Concert on Sunday, which is yet three more bands, but now I spend it recuperating with my guests.

Before I get to Lotus, I want to record an observation I made that has to do with performance. I recently took a two-part class on the American Songbook and they showed a video of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer. Bing was of course a professional performer, whereas Mercer was a writer. As they sing their duet, Mercer stays focused on the sheet music in his hand, but Bing keeps lifting his head to look out at the audience. Since it’s an old recording, the lighting is exaggerated. So there’s a dramatic difference between Bing’s downward gaze and upward tilt. As the planes of his face become illuminated, you feel a little “zing!” of connection. It’s much more interesting than just observing Mercer “recite” from his cheat sheet.

This is a long-standing beef of mine with performing artists. So many performers close their eyes as they sing or play, or stare down at the stage. I grew up watching Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland and other great performers who considered themselves not just musicians but entertainers.

One of the reason why Kaia is so difficult to categorize is our music (a cappella world music sung by women) is typically thought of as belonging to the “singer-songwriter” category of music. A pleasant evening but not stereophonic. But our performance style is dynamic, engaging, even outrageous at times. More like a band. So you get this totally different experience from what you expect. It’s entertaining. Not in a superficial way, but in a way that takes you on an emotional and sometimes spiritual journey. It’s thoroughly engaging. And, like Bing, we naturally raise our heads up and interact with the audience. It’s far more interesting than just playing a song.

On to Lotus! I don’t want to run down every artist we saw but rather focus on some takeaways for us.

The most compelling performers take risks.

On Saturday night we started off with Lily and Madeliene, a singer-songwriter sister duo. They had amazing blend (no one blends better than family members—it’s something to do with genetics) but their material was bland. In one tune the lyric was like “you open the lock of my heart like a key,” which is hardly an original metaphor. They had a home key that they pretty much stayed within, all the songs were the same tempo, they barely introduced the pieces and were tepid when they did so—this kind of stuff leaves me cold. I wanted to send them on a road trip with some coffee and cigarettes and not enough cash and let them come back two years later with some life experience under their belt so they could write more compelling work. They took no risks. When I think of Krista Detor scatting and doing a 1940s-inspired dance on one of her pieces, I understand why people love her. She surprises you with another facet of her personality. She takes risks. It doesn’t always pan out, but it almost always does, which makes for a wonderful live experience. And you just thrill to see her make the assay.

The most compelling performers commit completely to every moment of their performance.

Frigg is a perennial Lotus favorite. Four or five fiddles and some backing stringed instruments, playing foot-stomping traditional and original pieces. Their bodies were fully engaged in every song, using all three planes (low, middle, high) of the body space and athletically playing as if they were one with their instruments. They would bend all the way down to the floor and then rise up as the music rose. They jumped up and down. They encouraged people to dance. They were fun. I’ve seen lots of fiddle music and almost all performers just content themselves with playing the music. And while it may be a virtuoso technical performance, Frigg’s approach takes it to the next level. They were fully present in every moment and committed to whatever the music called for. Totally exhilarating.

Everything must serve a purpose.

We are in the process of adding new pieces to our repertoire, and this point was brought home to me as I found myself responding to the different acts we saw. Every piece must have a reason for being there. Why this piece for an opener, why that one for a closer? Why are they in that particular order? Why lengthen one on the fly? What does your introduction relay to the audience? Do you even talk about the piece at all or just let the music speak for itself? When you’re singing in a foreign language, what body language and vocal production techniques are you using to communicate the meaning? More broadly, why are you there, doing this gig? What is your purpose? In marketing terms, what is your brand and what kind of customer experience do you hope to create? Once you know that, every single thing you do must serve that purpose. That’s how you craft an exceptional performance. It’s not about trying to control every aspect of what you do. It’s about training yourself in the technical and artistic aspects of your trade so that, when performing, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You have to remain open in the moment in live performance, since you never know what’s going to happen, but if you’re very clear on what effect you’re trying to achieve, you can take risks in total commitment to create an outstanding work of art.