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Livingston explores musical improvisation with Emerson Foundation grant

By Lucas Phillips '16

September 5, 2013

“We write the story of our own lives as it happens, just feel it and go,” Nathan Livingston ’14 explained mid-song during his performance in the Chapel on Monday.  The performance, entitled “Song Silhouettes,” represented the culmination of Livingston’s Emerson Foundation project and explored the power of improvisation through the raw energy of live performance.

Livingston began the performance outside the Chapel, playing some of his original works on bagpipes. Though instrumentally and stylistically unrelated to the rest of the performance, Livingston’s playing set forth something of an ideological base for the concert.  The drones of the bagpipe echoed the core of emotion that Livingston sought to expose in the show.

The title of the performance reflects Livingston’s songwriting philosophy. He explains that in music, people see “a silhouette of emotion.”

Livingston believes that emotional intensity is best achieved through a degree of improvisation.  According to Livingston, “whenever I write a song, I am improvising.” He believes, furthermore, that his music “manifests most powerfully when there’s an audience.”

Livingston’s philosophy was more than evident in his performance.  He strolled through the crowd, kicked over a chair, stood up and sat back down and let the energy of both his music and the audience move him.  Livingston explained that he views the transformation he undergoes as a performer as  the accessing of a “pure form” of himself.

In the spirit of improvisation, Livingston did not stick to a setlist.  Inspired by the heavy rain that preceeded the performance and the strong role that rain plays in his lyrics, Livingston spontaneously performed one of his earliest songs, which he wrote in eighth grade.  He estimated after the show that 20 percent of his lyrics were improvised during the performance.

Livingston credited Bruce Springsteen as one of his great influences. He clearly draws from Springsteen’s energy and follows elements of Springsteen’s vocal delivery: alternatively low and gravelly--tinged with regret--and sonorous and full.

Livingston’s songwriting, is, however, greatly unlike Springsteen’s. Springsteen, to use an analogy, is a novelist while Livingston--as his poetry-specialized creative writing major would confirm--is more of a poet. Instead of creating characters and absorbing the qualities of places as Springsteen does, Livingston prefers to convey his message through understated, often ambiguous lyrics. He is more interested in exploring the self than Springsteen, and this imbued his performance with a very personal quality.

Livingston spoke of a collective experience in his performance, however, noting that every audience member contributed to the atmosphere and the sound itself.  “Every ear,” he said, “is an instrument.”

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