Potential energy is the energy an object possesses based on its position in relation to other objects. For example, a new piano has more potential energy at the top of a staircase than it does in the mover’s van. A freshly delivered Bärenreiter score of Winterreise has more potential energy on the top of my music pile than it does in the depths of my backpack being needlessly carted across the country (wishful thinking). My dissertation has more potential energy with a fancy title sitting in its own file on my desktop, cursor blinking...I digress.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the metaphorical power of potential energy and how art can parallel life in this sense. Without a doubt, pieces of music and works of art have potential energy; some masterpieces even create their own fields of force. Consider the anticipation of a singer and pianist about to share Schubert’s Winterreise with a small audience at a house concert. Similarly, could any scale measure the power captive in an orchestra about to deliver Mahler’s Second Symphony? The moments before filled with hasty scales and stray excerpts. Then comes silence. Two rounds of tuning, (silence).
Visual art has it’s own magnetic pull, like how the eery austerity of a Modigliani portrait or the existential murk of a Rothko sucks you in - you may even forget that you came to the museum mainly for the free air conditioning! Speaking of museums, remember Marina Abramović’s iconic performance art piece at the MoMA “The Artist is Present”? Abramović sat across from over 1,000 strangers in silence for minutes at a time. The experiment was incredibly moving. I think the reason is that participants were forced to stop and silently observe another human long enough to consider an alternate perspective. To pause the life movie and realize how many assumptions we make about others on a daily basis in order to survive (or perhaps, to numb out).
This summer, I made the all-too-common mistake of building an individual into the narrative of my carefree vacation life movie. In my version of things, we could live in harmony and keep an open line of communication. Fast forward a few weeks and my needs started to conflict too much with hers. The disappointment was real. This made me think that things would have been better if I hadn’t cast her in my life movie. Easier said than done, of course. I learned that there is great danger in superimposing any narrative onto humans with complicated relationships to one another...complicated potential energies. Investing too much in the potential energy of another human is like casting that person in a supporting role in your life movie - and they probably didn’t get the memo!
Interestingly, the same dangers do not exist when we immerse ourselves in great art. For me, when I throw myself into a piece of music, the world shines brighter for a bit and I feel more present. I think that when we embrace our vulnerability through music - feel the alienation of Schumann’s “In der Fremde”, the surreal fatedness of Lili Boulanger’s “Reflets”, the overflowing gratitude of Schubert’s “An die Musik” - we open ourselves to deeper connection. Every live performance is an opportunity for connection. In this way, could there be a more powerful setting than a song recital?
This post didn’t highlight a particular song, but as we plan for our upcoming season here at Boston Art Song Society, I wanted to zoom out on the bigger picture. This season is about empathy and shared experiences. Every facet of our programming will reflect this mission. We’re going to push the limits of deep connection. We’re going to go there and I sincerely hope you’ll join us. Look out for a season announcement very soon!
Cover art: Assorted portraits by Amedeo Modigliani