In his lecture Play and Theory of Duende, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca has a fittingly poetic anecdote about hearing the Spanish singer Pastora Pavon.
She puts on a performance displaying her virtuosity. While impressive, the audience has none of it:
“When [she] finished singing there was total silence, until a tiny man, one of those dancing manikins that rise suddenly out of brandy bottles, sarcastically murmured ‘Long live Paris!’ As if to say: ‘Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else'”.
Then, all of a sudden, Pavon goes wild:
“As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, [she] leaped to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or color…[She] had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air…And how she sang! It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed hot stormy feet of a Christ…”
Musician and listener alike are after that “something else”. Its presence attracts us to a music and its lack thereof detracts. In its service are ability, technique, and skill. And yet these servants without their master make for an empty music, like in Pavona’s first attempt.
Could this “something else” be taught? Then again, teaching “something else” assumes that we at least know what it is. Is “something else” passion? Authenticity? Feeling? Soul? Lorca called it “duende”: an irrational, earthy, death driven spirit. It could be all of these and none of these.
In the end, Lorca thought that this “something else” could not be taught. To him the only thing we know is that it’s there, that it is present in good music. Perhaps that’s why when we try to rationalize why we love a certain performance or why we thought we played well, it all comes down to something we can’t exactly put our fingers on or explain: that something else.