(No) Practice Makes Perfect

(Video copyright National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)

I love when the familiar is made new. I love when a performer leaves his or her comfort zone. And I love when these two things happen at the same time.

In 1998, Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” opera at the Grammys. On doctor’s orders, he had to make an ultra-last-minute cancellation. Who steps in, with just twenty-two minutes to prepare? Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. In the original clip, there’s a the collective gasp of surprise when Sting announces the replacement. And then it seems as though the entire audience is holding its breathwould she make a fool of herself? Could she do justice to the song? What the hell were the producers thinking?

Franklin seems to have the same concerns herself. Early on in the performance, just before she starts to sing, she makes a little exhalation, one that could signal a moment of centering, or a moment of oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into. It’s the equivalent of the nightmare where you’re standing in front of the classroom with no clothes on—but in this case, it’s actually happening, and in front of millions to boot. Perhaps not having any time to prepare was a mixed blessing, in this caseshe had limited time to worry, little time to build up the jitters.

The first few notes are tentative. She comes in a little late at one measure, but quickly recovers. A few more lines go without incident, and very subtly, her body language changes as the orchestra swells. She begins to enjoy herself. Any attempt to evoke Pavarottiif there ever was one to begin withis completely abandoned.

Halfway through the performance, just before the choir comes in, a tone shift seems to take place. Franklin knows at this point that she’s made the song her own. It’s not quite opera, it’s definitely not soulit’s something completely unique and only something she could do. The performance takes on a once-in-a-lifetime moment, something borne of an act of friendship. It’s also an act of consummate professionalismof one artist taking up the mantle for another in an hour of need. What an understudy, and what a lucky audience was at the Grammys that night! The show must go on, and Aretha always puts on a damn great show.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

When ‘Wrong’ is So Right

(Copyright The Swell Season; Plateau, ANTI- recording studios)

“Once” made a huge impact when it hit theaters in 2006. The little indie movie that could featured wonderful music, touching performances, and the awwww-inducing real-life behind-the-scenes love story of lead musicians/actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Critical and widespread acclaim, including an Oscar for Best Original Song, soon followed.

Fast-forward to 2009. Hansard and Irglova are no longer a couple, although they’re still making fantastic music together as The Swell Season, demonstrated with the release of “Strict Joy”, their full-length album of songs inspired by Irish poet James Stephens. For me, the album reaches its peak on track 9, the Irglova-penned “I Have Loved You Wrong”. Whether it’s inspired more by Stephens or Hansard and Irglova’s own relationship is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s a mix of both.

It’s such a quiet song, but full of surprises. The two leads switch their trademark instruments — Irglova on Hansard’s holed guitar, Hansard on Irglova’s piano. Hansard, such a ferocious guitar player, is demure and controlled on the keys, letting Irglova steer the direction of her song in every way. The song’s hushed tone, and its last lyric of fond remembrance tinged with just a hint of regret, makes it come across as the ultimate demonstration of respect and reverence for a lost love. It’s the universal paean to “if only…”

And that last lyric–and refrain–is where the music, for me, becomes sublime. Irglova and Hansard sing together, “you’ve been/every now and then on my mind/yeah” for several measures, their voices in perfect unison. Strip away the lyric itself, and the timbre of their voices, the vulnerability and emotion behind the delivery, sums up where they once were, and the regard they still have for each other. In the span of two minutes, they manage to convey a love that’s morphed from lust to heady romance to heartbreak and, finally, to mature friendship.

As a listener, I feel a mix of sorrow and joy listening to this song — sorrow that these two kids couldn’t work things out, and joy that this gorgeous song (now available to the masses) was the result of such heartbreak. Sorrow because this song evokes the one who got away, who every now and then is on our own minds; joy because we’ve hopefully moved on to better, more sustaining relationships. The whispers of Irglova and Hansard’s voices, and the restraint of the arrangement, conveys that clash of resignation and hope, realism and acceptance.

This blog post originally appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.