Academic journal article Humanities Research

Knowing Stillness

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Knowing Stillness

Article excerpt

Daisy: I'm totally into this thing of whatever you're doing, just being there and being yourself. I mean, not trying to do something above or below, just trying to be very honest and very open. In a performance the best and the strongest performance is always when you are extremely relaxed. Being relaxed is not about being lethargic - it's just about being relaxed and then you are incredibly aware and incredibly there, and all your deepest power comes through.

Margaret: Nothing is inhibiting that flow.

Daisy: Yes... so it doesn't matter so much if you've practised or not actually; it's how you feel at that moment.

Yu: It's how you feel, yeah, completely!

Daisy: You just live. And if you let anything that happens... Because for me the strongest challenge in a concert, just like anything in life, is - anytime I make a mistake, it doesn't matter. And you look at the next moment as if that moment [of making a mistake] hasn't come. Because then you're only in the next moment. And the audience - if you live like that - the audience will never even notice you've made a mistake. And if you don't uve like that and you don't perform like that, they will not notice you've made a mistake either, but they will not feel that things are so powerfully coming across any more because they will know that you're somewhere else, you're not so there.

Yu: Well, you're in the negative. You're being pulled by this having made a mistake thing. [Yu mimes pulling a string behind her head, as if it was attached to her and pulling her backwards.]1

View Introductory Sequence: 'Being Yourself'2


This article draws on ethnographic work with professional musicians in Vienna to explore the activity of musical performance.3 In particular, I draw on my work in both film and text to identify and elucidate a skilled practice by which professional musicians are able to produce great performances with consistency. Performance is not just a matter of technical acuity in playing an instrument. It is a communicative act that involves the bringing together of a diverse range of skills, techniques, practices and abilities while playing. Musicians hold such knowledge at different levels of awareness, bringing aspects of it to consciousness as needed while they play. In and through this article, I argue that, during performance, connections are made between actions, perceptions, thoughts and intentions that only emerge in a kind of stillness. This 'stillness' facilitates a communicative performance.

In this article, I demonstrate the concept and practice of 'stillness' as they hold significance in the lives of the musicians I worked with. I do this by drawing connections through a variety of different ethnographic material, both filmic and written. I show how thinking with a camera, and working with the strengths of filmmaking processes, allowed me to arrive at and elaborate the concept of 'stillness'. In my exploration of stillness, I use different ethnographic examples - some audiovisual, some written - to access knowledge that is not conventionally found through text and processes of writing. This provides an example of how we can know things differently through the visual and through an engagement with different kinds of material thinking - specifically in this case, the materiality of film and filmmaking processes.4

What I am calling 'stillness' is characterised by the ability to make many different elements come together in synthesis at the right moments. In developing the concept of stillness, I endeavour to show it to be a skilled process, linked to a way of being, through which years of making music and the diversity of skills this involves are gathered into the moments of playing. Stillness, which I link with 'being-in-the-moment' (a turn of phrase that some musicians do use), is, paradoxically, filled with a history of professional and non-professional activity, technical practice and previous performance experiences. …

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