Close to You

The desire for intimacy is a natural human trait. If music is a means of communicating perceptions and feelings, then it is equally natural for musicians

The desire for intimacy is a natural human trait. If music is a means of communicating perceptions and feelings, then it is equally natural for musicians to want to express as well as experience intimacy with their audience during performances. Expressing and experiencing intimacy take very different forms.

The simplest way to experience intimacy with an audience is to be close to them in a literal, physical sense. Anyone who has ever played in a club has felt the energy that happens when a small space is packed with people ready to have a good time. The performers can pick out individual faces or watch one person dance. They breathe the same (often stale) air as the audience does, and can easily sense the level of interest and enthusiasm the crowd is feeling. That facilitates the feedback loop of energy that emanates from and flows back to the stage that often drives a good performance to be great.

Those musicians who attain large-scale success often express in interviews a wish to again play clubs, or even theaters, so that they can feel more in touch with their audience. Their real challenge, however, is finding a way to establish intimacy with the huge audiences to which they more commonly play.

Not all acts court intimacy with large audiences, of course. Elaborate stage productions do not tend to foster a sense of closeness, nor are they intended to; they are intended as spectacle, in which the audience is less a participant than an observer. But for those who are interested in creating an intimate atmosphere on a large scale, involving the audience is key. Sometimes it is achieved because of the nature of the material or the manner in which the performer speaks to the audience. Other times, it can be the onstage setting, which might suggest something closer to a living room than a circus. These efforts can be surprisingly successful when done sincerely.

Expressing intimacy in a recording is a much more difficult task, since there is no interaction through which to create it. Without a physical environment or the opportunity to talk to or to observe the audience, the tools available for creating intimacy are the material, the performance, and the production.

Intimate material most often deals with emotions and interior lives, but it can also be approached indirectly with songs referencing common touchstones and archetypes. “Penny Lane” is a good example of that approach. In instrumental music, intimacy can often be obtained by limiting the size of the ensemble; although a sextet can certainly achieve intimacy, a solo violinist or jazz trio can do so more easily.

Intimacy in performance rests largely in the “touch” that musicians use, both vocally and instrumentally. There is something in Joni Mitchell's voice or Yo Yo Ma's cello that drips emotion and reeks of humanity, and that establishes intimacy instantaneously. Sometimes a slightly flawed performance can feel more intimate than a letter-perfect one, as when a singer's voice breaks on a single note while singing a significant lyric. Hank Williams's music contains classic examples of that technique. In all of these cases, the artists must reveal themselves to make the feeling resonate.

It is a more subtle matter to consider how production of a recording serves to induce intimacy, because that is focused more on setting than content and, by its nature, entails considerable analytical thought. Still, production can be key in delivering an intimate message. For example, the use of reverb can instantly convey a sense of immediacy if it is used sparingly, simulating smaller spaces, or it can give a feeling of loneliness or interior expansiveness if it is used to bathe a solo guitar in a large space, such as was done on a number of John Fahey's albums.

Panning can be an even more subtle technique for suggesting intimacy. Sometimes eschewing wide panning and keeping the soundstage slightly smaller than a full spread brings a feeling of closeness, as though the musicians were in your living room. Keeping the production simpler by limiting the number of different instruments or tracks is another technique for invoking intimacy, and quiet productions often feel more intimate than loud ones.

Of course, all that is emotional or passionate is not necessarily intimate, but emotion and passion are things that, when shared between people, often build intimacy between them.

The beauty of music and sound is that they can so directly access a listener's feelings, and that is the basis for much of the most powerful artistic expression. Many statements can be made sonically, but none are more special than the closeness of getting deep inside a listener's heart by conveying intimacy.