THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CLASSICAL MUSIC AND JAZZ, said the well-known conductor, is that with classical, the music is always greater than the performance. He'd been invited to talk about "Vulgarization" in a lecture series called Categorically Not, and to illustrate his point, he played a recording of Beethoven's Fifth on kazoos. Not vulgar exactly, but point taken: with the classics, we can pretty much agree that the genius at work belongs to the creator, the originator. If we're Bach fans, it's secondary who's playing at Carnegie Hall; Bach is the reason to buy a ticket, and the musicians are there to serve the composer. Renowned artists like Yo Yo Ma and Midori, Domingo and Upshaw, are considered greats by virtue of virtuosity, but their real talent is for getting to the heart of the music-as-written, for somehow intuiting and revealing all that is already there.
It's much the same for classical theater — or it used to be. Before the culture of celebrity, we went to see Shakespeare or Shaw or Chekhov or Ibsen to hear the words themselves, regardless of who was saying them, the assumption being that the actors would be up to the task. This isn't always true, of course; musicians can ruin a symphony and actors can destroy the best plays. But when they're talented and trained, grateful as we are, we don't often credit interpretive artists with elevating classical material. We assume (and rightly so in most cases) that the material elevates them. What's easier to accept is that with jazz, the soloist can transcend the composition for moments at a time: he's supposed to in fact. The individual performance — nuanced and singular — is the reward for performer and fan alike. First person narrative, memoir in particular, is like jazz; largely about the player, about where he riffs and scats, and how and why, and whether or not we come away from the material — the narrative, that is — feeling different for having read. As with jazz, the more specific and heartfelt the performance, the deeper and wider its impact. As with jazz, the composition matters, but we're looking to see how the artist filters it, how she handles the melody line. So the memoirist shares elements of craft and compulsion — even temperament — with the performer. We might think of memoirists, then, not as composers or creators per se but as cover artists, and memoir itself as a performance that, although grounded in actual events (or existing material), is driven by the "voice" of the writer. Memoirists "cover" the events of their lives; as writers of nonfiction in the first person, we get to play, to scat, to take the solo, to emphasize the elements that ring true for us, to slide past the ones that don't. A writer of memoir takes on personal history — that's her script, her score — and uses her voice to inform those remembered events and to make th...read more