A Lecture-Recital by Jeffrey Chappell
The Stella Adler Studio of Acting
New York City
March 7, 2008
IN MUSIC AS IN ACTING…
Two books are referenced in this lecture: “The Technique of Acting” by Stella Adler, Bantam Books, 1988; and “Acting With Adler” by Joann Rotté, Limelight Editions, 2000.
(J.C. plays the Ballade in G Minor, Opus 23, by Chopin.)
So, I guess you think I’m a concert pianist. Actually, I’m a conceptual artist with an ongoing, lifelong piece that I’ve been developing. It’s called “Concert Pianist.” And so far, I’ve fooled a lot of people.
Now, what I’m aiming at tonight is to draw correspondences between acting and playing music because, after all, here I am in the Stella Adler Studio. And, in fact, there are a lot of things that draw these two together.
For example, I just played Chopin. An actor will say, “I’m playing Hamlet.” If you ask a musician, “What are you playing on your concert?”, they’ll say, “I’m playing Beethoven,” or “I’m playing Rachmaninoff.” It’s the same language.
We also work with our instrument. We also use rhythm. We also use physical actions to convey ideas. We also have a script, in our case a musical score. We also use a backstory to interpret music.
And according to Stella Adler and the website mission statement about the Harold Clurman Concert Series, we share the goal in our lives of growth, of development and fulfillment of our human potential. We can do that through acting, and we can do it through making music, in similar ways.
(reading from the concert series mission statement:) “The ability to grow into a mature actor depends on the growth of one’s humanity. The concert series is here for expanding minds.” Right! And Stella Adler declared the growth of one’s humanity to be goal of acting.
And now we could ask, growth toward what? The first answer that would come to my mind might be: growth toward knowledge. But Stella actually ruled that out. She says in this book (Adler, page 17), that “the collective memory of Man is such that he forgets nothing that he has ever seen or heard or read about or touched. You have relied on only a tiny fraction of what you know. But you know everything.” So I guess it’s not that we’re growing in knowledge because we already know everything, according to Stella.
Is it to grow in the aspect of Being? I don’t think so. Because you are a human being, there is nothing human that you’re not. Stella says (Rotté, page 134), “You are everybody. In some area of your life, you are a killer, a crook, a liar, and a whore. You are a genius, a god, and pure. You are everything.”
So if you already know everything and you already are everything, what is this “growth” that we’re talking about? I am going to say that it is the growth of awareness, the growth of consciousness. It’s the awakening and enlivening of all of your human possibilities. And Stella had this to say also (Rotté, page 38-39): “Before all else, I am somebody who is trying to awaken in you what you have, to a small proportion—your soul. To wake up the soul is the essence of the actor’s struggle for human development.”
So that’s what we’re doing. And this will lead to mastery, which is the ability to fulfill your intentions using the full range of options available. That would be mastery.
What we want is to match what is inner with what is outer. This is everyday experience. I want to pick up this stack of papers—I did it. I had an inner idea, I matched it with outer reality. It was easy. It was effortless. And that’s what we do all the time, in small ways and then in big ways. If you want to build a skyscraper, I guess you can go and do that as well. Then once it’s built, what is outer will match what is inner.
This inner and outer exchange can go in either direction. It can go from inside out or outside in.
As a musician, I can function in four different ways. I can be an improviser, which is where the music happens as it’s played; it hasn’t happened that way before. I can be a composer, where I have a set of ideas in a sequence that’s the same every time and is repeatable. I can be an arranger: I can take my composition or somebody else’s composition and change it around. And I can be an interpreter: I can play somebody else’s composition, and in so doing I will have to solve the problems that come with that.
I’m going to talk now about interpreting music. The first problem is to trace our way backwards. Here’s what I mean: a composer starts with an impulse, and because of that comes a series of ideas. We get the notes, the rhythms, the dynamic markings, how loud to play, how fast to play. And as an interpreter, we start at the opposite end: we look at the notes, the rhythms, the speed, the loudness. We try to go back and find what it was that started that piece of music, what was that original impulse. The composer goes from inner impulse to outer structure; the interpreter goes from outer structure to inner impulse.
Stella says the same thing about what you do when you are reading the words of a play (Rotté, page 173): “The actor systematically works backwards, from the words to the sources of the play, and then works forward to speak the words, simply and meaningfully.” That’s what musicians do when we go to a musical score. Exactly that same thing.
Now, one of the problems a musician has to solve is getting a good text. That would mean something that shows what the composer wrote down, not someone’s other version where indications have been added. Imagine if someone took the text of the play that you’re working on right now and added a bunch of punctuation, and adverbs in parentheses, all the way through it. That’s what a lot of music scores are like. So what we musicians try to do is to get to the original text.
In the case of Bach, for example, he was a composer who put nothing on the paper but the notes. He almost never said how fast, how slow, how loud, how staccato, how legato. So it’s up to the interpreter to come up with his or her own particular reading. In this case, the musician’s talent is in his or her choice about what to do with those notes. Here’s an example of a blank script from Bach with nothing but the notes on it. It’s the Prelude in C Minor from the Second Book [of the Well-Tempered Clavier].
(J.C. plays the Bach Prelude.)
You can have a historical backstory about a piece of music. For example, if I were going to play something by Beethoven, it would be nice if I knew not only his one sonata that I am about to play the first movement of for you, but if I knew all 32 of his piano sonatas, and the rest of his piano literature, and his nine symphonies, and his opera, and his string quartets, and all of that. And then if I knew all of the music from the Classical period. And then if I knew all of the music from the Baroque, Romantic, and Modern periods as well. And if I knew all of music, I would have a great context for playing this Beethoven sonata.
There is a friend mine named Michael Arnowitt in Vermont, and he has lifelong project of his own. He is playing and studying the Beethoven sonatas when he is the same age as when Beethoven wrote that sonata. So, he can stop when he’s 57, because that’s the age at which Beethoven stopped composing. It’s nice to have that kind of personal identification.
To have the large context of a piece of music in the cosmic musical universe is one thing. At the same time, every piece of music is its own universe and its own set of rules. And each performance of a piece, again, is its own universe and set of rules. It’s never going to be the same every single time.
Beethoven left behind a letter, and it’s famous. It’s called “The Immortal Beloved”. And actually, I am told here (in a printout of the letter) by some scholar that the actual German translation would be “Eternally Beloved”. (J.C. was approached after the class by a German-speaking student who found this to be incorrect; “immortal” is the literal translation.) And he wrote these words, among others: “My heart overflows with a longing to tell you so many things. There are moments when I find that speech is quite inadequate. Be cheerful, and be forever my faithful, my only sweetheart, my all, as I am yours. However much you love me, my love for you is even greater. Is not our love truly founded in Heaven? Why must one be separated from her who is so dear? Yet my life at present is a miserable life. Your love has made me both the happiest and the unhappiest of mortals. Be calm. Love me. For you—you—my life—my all…” And so on.
Now, he didn’t put to whom that letter was written. There has been all kinds of speculation about it. There was, among the ranks of the candidates, a lady named Therese von Brunsvik. Her name appears at the top of the Sonata, Opus 78 as being dedicated to her. And so it’s very possible that this sonata, declared by Beethoven to be his personal favorite, might have something to do with that. Who knows?
(J.C. plays the first movement of the Sonata, Opus 78, by Beethoven.)
And after he wrote the letter, apparently since it was found in his belongings, I guess he never sent it. Or did the woman ever really exist? Or when he wrote it, was he remembering something that happened ten years ago? Or…on and on. You can do all kinds of things with that letter, even when you are interpreting the music.
You can also have an imaginative backstory, something that wasn’t historically accurate, something that we make up ourselves. There is a type of music called program music, which is music that specifically follows a story line. A good example would be movie music, or music for the musical theater, or some classical piece of music which has something like the title “Pastoral Symphony” by Beethoven or some other such thing.
So, when I work with my piano students, I try to get them to perhaps enliven their playing by coming up with their own personal program that they have brought from their imagination. There’s a piece by Grieg called “Elfin Dance” and one of my students played it sort of like this one time.
(J.C. plays “Elfin Dance” by Grieg in a flat manner.)
It was kind of like that, so I said, “Well, what’s the title? ‘Elfin Dance’. Well, where did you hear that music? Did you get lost one day when you were walking in the woods and night fell and you were stumbling around in the dark and you stopped for a moment and you heard a sound over there and you followed the sound and as you got closer you thought you heard the sound of music and you saw a little glow of light around the base of this big tree and you peeked around and there was a little ring of elves in a circle? And how many elves were in the band, and what were they wearing? And was the elf about that high (J.C. holds hands about 6 inches apart), the one that had the horn call, and did his cheeks get red and puff out when he played those few notes?” And then she played it again.
(J.C. plays “Elfin Dance” in a light and colorful manner.)
When I work with students to help them define the kind of expression they want to convey in a piece of music, I refer them to the masks of comedy and tragedy in the theatrical tradition: is the feeling in the music a happy feeling or a sad feeling? And then, which of the million kinds of happiness or sadness is it? For example, if it is a happy feeling, is the happiness of getting a good grade in school? Of winning the lottery? Of having an ice cream cone? Of just getting married? Are you feeling the happiness right now, or are you remembering being happy in the past? Or perhaps it’s someone else’s happiness. Is that person male or female? How old is the person? Are they alone with their happiness or are they telling the world about it? There are so many angles to take, and the more specific and focused the angle you choose, the stronger the projection of feeling will be.
We can also have a backstory that isn’t programmatic or personal, but really impersonal. In this case, a description of nature. Ravel wrote this piece, called “Jeux d’Eau”. I’ve spent quite a few decades tracking down the real translation of “jeux d’eau.” Finally, I was in France last summer, and I asked my composer friend. I thought it meant “fountain”, and then I thought it meant just “the playing of water.” But apparently in France, a “fountain” is a “jet d’eau”, a “jet of water”. That would be a fountain like what you drink water from, or a single statue of perhaps a fish with water coming out of its mouth. And a “jeux d’eau” is like the fountains at Versailles Palace. They are works of art, and they are built to be that, and they create these amazing curly-Qs of water shooting in the air in all directions. I know you can just imagine it. There is an inscription at the beginning of this piece, in French. It says, “The river god laughs because the water tickles him.”
(J.C. plays “Jeux d’Eau” by Ravel.)
Then there’s more backstory material just based on musical information. For example, the first movement cadenza from the MacDowell Second Concerto. It’s actually the opening music that the piano plays. And part of it goes like this.
(J.C. plays the beginning of the first movement cadenza, MacDowell Second Concerto.)
Music, being the invisible force that it is, is energy and movement. What you hear is just the trace of something far greater. And the job of the musician is to create an inner world so vast that every note comes out with a feeling of inevitability. The more there is behind each note, the more it’s falling into place exactly.
So from here to there—(plays the first note of the cadenza, which is low, and the second note, which is high)—it sounds like there’s a note down there and then one up here. But no. That’s not what I’m thinking at all. I’m thinking, for one thing, that there’s a reach from the low note to the high note (plays the bottom note and makes a glissando across the keyboard to the high note) that you don’t hear but I’m feeling. And you probably feel it too, through the magic of stage projection.
I also have three beats to do it in. (Plays the bottom note, counts to 3, plays the top note.) But I’m not thinking “1—2—3” (evenly spaced). I’m going “1——2—3” (long first beat, accelerating through the others). I’m manipulating the beats that you don’t even hear. I’m also thinking (plays first melody with added repetitions of each chord to fill in long notes). Behind the notes that you hear, there are more notes being played in my mind.
So there are all these layers of things to do, directing the rhythm, directing the gesture of the music. That’s more on the backstory. I think you get the idea.
Part of what we’re doing is talking about improvisation. So, change of topic. This would be to look at the meaning of the word, for one thing: “improvised”. Take the “im”, it’s equivalent to an “un”; “pro” is like “fore”; “vis” like “vision”—”seen”. Something that’s “improvised” is “unforeseen.”
Improvisation would be something that we do all day long, whether we’re talking, making a salad, driving a car. It’s actually our basic form of functioning, if you think about it.
And it would have to be the oldest form of musicmaking, not just for jazz but for all styles of music, and all periods, and all places on Earth. The famous composers were great improvisers. It was only thanks to a certain German composer, Beethoven, who insisted that people stop messing around with the notes he wrote down and just play those notes. At that point there was a split. The complete musicians who used to improvise, compose, arrange, and interpret music now specialized into those who compose and those who interpret.
But nonetheless, composers, especially, were improvisers. Here’s a description from the book, “The Great Pianists” by Harold Schonberg: “Where Beethoven especially shone was in his improvisations. Indeed, they were better than his performances of published pieces because he had little time or inclination to practice. When he improvised, however, it was evident to his hearers that after awhile he was on his own, idea pouring after idea. He would get carried away, pound the piano, and the strings of the delicate Viennese instruments would pop, hammers would break. He banged the hell out of the piano. Carl Czerny said that Beethoven’s improvisations were so brilliant and amazing that often the eyes of his listeners filled with tears, while some members of the audience sobbed loudly. For apart from the beauty and originality of his ideas and his ingenious manner of expressing them, there was something magical about his playing. It is impossible to describe a Beethoven improvisation, though the opening of the ‘Choral Fantasy’ is supposed to give an idea.” Why don’t I play that for you right now? In a stroke of luck I was programmed to play this piece just two Saturdays ago, so I happen to have it ready to go. So here’s Beethoven…I’m going to “play Beethoven” improvising.
(J.C. plays the beginning of “Choral Fantasy” by Beethoven.)
Jazz is part of the Harold Clurman Concert Series, and it accounts for most of the improvisation in music that’s being done these days. It brings into question the difference between the attitude of the classical musician and the jazz musician while they’re making music. I talked about interpreting, and essentially the classical musician is portraying a character. If the opera singer goes onstage, she is not Carmen. And when people in an orchestra dressed up in suits are playing folk tunes, they are not folk musicians. But when Ella Fitzgerald sang, she was always Ella Fitzgerald. That’s the difference.
The ideal in jazz is to be yourself, to be honest about your feelings at that moment. Very often when I work with students improvising music, especially if they haven’t done much of it, they’ll come nervously to their instrument and I’ll say, “How do you feel right now?” And they’ll say, “I feel nervous.” So I’ll say, “Play some nervous music.” And they play some nervous music. You have to work with what’s there right then.
Interestingly, I ask them when they’re finished, “How do you feel now?” “I feel much better.” “Play some much-better-feeling music now.” So in the doing of it, it can transform the feeling.
Jazz musicians don’t portray. They present themselves. They wonder why classical musicians would give up their own voice; while, through the way that music can make us grow as human beings, a classical musician would say, “I couldn’t say it as well as Haydn or Ravel could. I didn’t know I felt that way until I heard that piece by Rachmaninoff. I didn’t even know I had those feelings.” So that’s the reward of playing somebody else’s music.
Miles Davis said, “It can take a long time to sound like yourself.” He said that pretty late in life; I saw it in a video interview. So the goal in jazz is to find your own voice.
I’m not saying I’ve found mine, but since we’re on the topic, and since it’s on the program somewhere…what does the program say? Oh yeah, “Improvisation On Jazz Tunes”. Well, I’ll do that. This is a tune called “Blue Bossa”.
(J. C. plays “Blue Bossa” by Kenny Dorham.)
I don’t know if you noticed, but in classical music the body stays still and the arms move, but in jazz you need to move around. There’s a different physicality to it.
I need some pacing. How much time do I have? (The answer is provided.) Fifteen more minutes. (J.C. decides what to omit or include from the remaining parts of his lecture on jazz, techniques and concepts of improvisation, the contrasts and the shared goals between jazz and classical music, and the use of physical movement to convey musical ideas.) Here’s what I’ll do in that case.
We’re going to do some movement tonight [improvised movement by students of the Stella Adler Studio accompanied by music played by J.C.]. Movement is a very important part of what I’m doing. I have to find the movements that match the music. These people are going to move, not at the keyboard, but I have the job of finding the choreography of the hands to outline and convey the music when I’m at the piano. There’s an appropriate gesture of the hand to make it come out the way the message matches.
I’m going to play my arrangement of “Tenderly”. And then you’ll hear a little bit more of the jazz side of things. Part of arranging is to put an attitude onto the music, so I don’t play tenderly at the beginning. I play very roughly at the beginning and it gets tender later on. It takes three and a half minutes.
(J.C. plays his arrangement of “Tenderly” by Walter Gross.)
It’s perfect timing for our movement and Elena Zucker, who, if through my interactions with her, has indicated at all the level of expertise and depth of commitment of the faculty of this school, I must say that the Stella Adler legacy is moving on in quite good hands.
E.Z.: Thank you!
J.C.: You’re welcome. I’ll let you introduce what we’re doing.
E.Z.: This [group of students in the room] is my second-year conservatory class, and we’re going to do a continuation of a movement improv we have done in class [which was itself an extension of a pedagogical exercise by Jacques Lecoq]. I’d like to reference what Mr. Chappell said during his presentation, about finding one’s voice. It’s through studying what exists in the world that we find ourselves. That’s a lot of what I do in my class, which is called Physical Storytelling. One of the things we’ve been studying that exists in the world is music. We were playing with it in terms of entering into it as though it’s physical matter so that it has dynamics and colors and textures and forces.
I was really looking at it in terms of perspective: sometimes it can move me, and sometimes I can enter into a relationship with it where I move it, and sometimes I’m one and the same with it. These are perspectives we find in theater, of course, and also in life. It’s treating music as the partner onstage or in life. So Jeffrey and I spoke on the phone about continuing this work in front of you and just looking at these different perspectives in little 2-minute sections.
The first perspective that we’re going to look at is the idea of being led or controlled by the music. The students are going to allow the music to lead them.
(J.C. plays his composition, “Piano Misterioso”, as the students improvise movement.) E.Z.: The next perspective is that one of our students is going himself to lead the music, so that his proposition is something that Mr. Chappell follows.
(J.C. freely improvises music as the student improvises movement.)
E.Z.: The next group conceptually is quite close to the last. We’re striving to be one and the same, and by that I mean of the same mind. We saw it here—often there was a sudden overlap where they were of the same mind—now we’re really going to strive for that. Rather than to be led by the music or to seek to lead it, let’s strive for a sameness of spirit, an enactment of the music as it happens right then and there.
(J.C. plays his composition, “Piano Allegro”, as the students improvise movement.)
E.Z.: What we saw just then is that in some ways it’s an artificial exercise because it’s very hard to stay at one point of view. It’s very hard to remain, “I am just pushed,” or “I only lead,” or “I am you at all times.” We see here that these students are sensitive actors, and true playing shifts in and out of all these perspectives. That’s why, as an exercise, we insist on focusing on one perspective at a time, the better to see that they would naturally weave in and out of both each other and the music. By naming a relationship or point of view to focus on, we can really draw our attention to its unique expression. In that last case, the students were aiming to be the music, and now for our last piece, Mr. Chappell will aim to make his music exist in the same moment, spirit and time as the soloist’s movement.
(J.C. freely improvises music as the student improvises movement. Applause for all participants.)
J.C.: Class dismissed!