Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gidon speaks out

Gidon Kremer
Gidon Kremer, violin hero and champion of new music for many decades now, has released two letters (one included here) detailing his frustration with the trend toward the "celebritization" of classical musicians. His complaints about fĂȘting "rising stars" and name-dropping at the famous Verbier Festival are making the Internet rounds.

From his comments: "...all of us have something to do with the poisonous development of our music world, in which “stars” count more than creativity, ratings more than genuine talent, numbers more than…. sounds."

I have been thinking about the marketing error which hasn't done our music world any favors; namely, the tendency to conflate the experience of attending a classical concert with being blown away by a rock show. Be dazzled by superstars! Conductors! Soloists! Perhaps in revealing designer gowns! Head-banging and long hair! And even laser light shows. Check out the youTube Symphony Orchestra vids

What I'm missing is the acknowledgment of the individual composer's voice: the person who works largely alone, assembling the sounds that fills his mind and heart into meaningful structures; the musician who sorts what's worthy of staying on the page, struggles with what's meaningful, what's do-able, what deserves to be written and heard, what is schlocky and irrelevant, what may seem banal, but won't get out of her head anyway, and therefore should find its place in the score; the artist whose ideas can only be expressed through his own unique use of musical language.

I actually think this person is as vital to our democratic freedoms as the novelist or the poet. These people wrestle with the ambiguity of reality. A good novel has no stock characters or predictable outcomes. It is an exploration of a story that reveals the many sides of truth and allows the reader to ponder his or her own assumptions. The innermost thoughts of an artist, channeled into his work, reveal the complexity of sorting and sifting it all. This is the opposite of holding black and white views: a practice that makes a blunt instrument of politics.

Great music, which comes from a composer's struggle with his own inner soundscape, is ultimately about us. Creating a personal grammar, an individual sense of inflection, devising structures, conjuring sound colors, imagining worlds that have never existed...these are all in the realm of the composer's charge. As one of my favorite living composers, Osvaldo Golijov, (hear Dawn Upshaw singing "How Slow the Wind") says: music has "the power to build castles of sound in our memories." The truths that these artists uncover have the power to remain in our own hearts, memories and minds, revealing something of ourselves to ourselves. Music causes us to perceive differently, and that is to our benefit.

As a kid, when I was feeling alienated, I often thought of Brahms as my best friend. I wonder how many other people have felt this kind of kinship with another soul through their music? I just think that promoting the performer above the touching of consciousness to consciousness, composer to listener, debases that primary relationship.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Confronting stupid, with thanks to Seth Godin

Seth Godin aims high
Every morning, I get a new post from Seth Godin in my inbox. For those of you familiar with him, I would wager that you've appreciated his wit and insight into the nature of the new economy, what kind of work will be needed from us in the future, and how we can meet the challenges of a drastically and rapidly change global scene. While his comments are coming from a marketing/tech point of view, I have found his words potently germane to my profession.

Here is today's post, in its entirety:

"Some gigs are process oriented: Set up a process correctly and the rest takes care of itself. It's challenging and frightening to get it right, but after that, you merely have to do the hard work of showing up each day. Do the work and you'll get the results.
Other jobs require a different sort of hard work: the guts to be wrong, a confrontation with the risk of being stupid.
The comedian who fears that each new joke might fail, the writer who has to say something new, the leader who must improvise, solving new problems on a regular basis. What makes this work hard is that it might not work.
More and more people now have jobs that require them to confront the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis."

My friend who performs with the Oregon Symphony has been telling me about her term for section string players: "tutti swine". While this may seem derogatory to section string players, it is in fact a gallows humor jab from a consummate insider: an orchestral position can be all risk and no reward.

In Godin's example of confronting "the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis" he presupposes the silver lining that a person just might get it right and reap the benefit of seeming actually quite clever, thereby proceeding, possibly, to scaling up a business plan, making money, having a platform for trotting out new ideas or products, becoming well known, or whatever the next step may be. In an orchestra, once you've won the highest position/chair there is, there is no opportunity for advancement or larger voice in the shaping of the ensemble, artistically speaking. 

In orchestral life it is utterly unacceptable to appear stupid. That is, the player who misses notes, plays out of sync with the section, aims high musically but doesn't quite succeed, will stick out of the larger texture, call attention to himself, and be on the short list for a pink slip. There isn't room for "it might not work" in an orchestra.

To pursue the comparison further, out of a sense of self preservation, an orchestral musician would be well-advised to choose Option 1: set up a process correctly, and show up each the work and get the results. This actually works to a certain extent in an orchestra. Musicians these days are exquisitely trained professionals with extraordinarily fine techniques to rely on. Trouble is, music is not automation. It's a human need, and musicians go into the field because they feel music so deeply, so inextricably as part of their identities.

Can you imagine automating your identity?

The orchestral musicians I know are far from callous beings. They are sensitive, highly trained artists who are doing their best to play at a high level under daunting work conditions. Today, Greg Sandow, who writes about the current state of classical music, quotes extensively from a report authored by Robert Levine, Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. His searing remarks link the myth of the omniscient conductor to the culture of infantilization within the ranks of the orchestra.

Sandow's larger question is how this squelching of artistic identity within the orchestra is linked to the trouble the classical world finds itself in today. That would be evidenced by the folding of many ensembles, the recent bankruptcy filing of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the extended strike at the Detroit Symphony, declining audiences, etc.

So I do ask these questions: Does the rankist (see definition by Robert W. Fuller) symphony orchestra model need to change to reflect our current democratic sensibilities? Do conductors need to change the way they view their job description? Are orchestras squandering their most precious resource, namely the artistry and creative vision of their musicians? Is there a way to make room for risk-taking within the ranks without jeopardizing the artistic cohesion of the ensemble?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting in touch with your Inner Punk.

Flux of Pink Indians

I was never part of the punk scene. The music is too loud and I am not an anarchist at heart. But we classical musicians are missing something in our esthetic.  Punk screams from its own primal creative soup. I am of the belief that it exists in classical compositions - Beethoven was way punk. Listen to the Grosse Fuge. It screams. Check out Bartok's Fourth String Quartet or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. 

I spend a lot of time teaching music. It can be wonderful, and it can be challenging. My students are lovely people, and I enjoy them very much. It takes anyone a ton of devotion, time and work to learn an instrument and they are definitely stepping up to the plate. But it's hard as a teacher to guide them on the path to finding their musical identities, while simultaneously equipping them with the requisite technical skills to support their musicianship.

Balance can be hard to achieve. Some teachers emphasize technique so much that their students seem to have seriously underdeveloped musical sensibilities. On the other hand, students who go out into the musical world (professional world is what I'm thinking) without adequate technical preparation are going to experience severe career disappointments.

I think about musicians on the other side: non-classical, non-conservatory-trained musicians who taught themselves guitar, wrote songs in their bedrooms, learned some chords on a keyboard and sang along...and I think sometimes all of our training to do things at a really high level can get in the way. For instance, I know a lot of superb instrumentalists who are too scared to try improvising. I know I was. It took me six weeks of going to jazz lessons with David Balakrishnan before I was no longer experiencing abject terror at the notion of improvising two bars of music. And for all the immersion in great music we have, very few of us ever try our hand at composing or even arranging.

Back to the students. I try very hard to get my students to play technically correctly, because good technique is what makes it easier to play well. And playing well is the goal, yes? But I wonder if there's something of putting the cart before the horse here. Long ago, I taught a little girl violin. She was a lefty and a real cutie pie, starting at age 5. She came into her second violin lesson and absolutely ripped through the first Twinkle variation. She probably broke a few hairs on that micro-bow, if you know what I mean. She was punk. She struggled to get a handle on technical issues that didn't come as easily as for other students, especially bowing, which, for a lefty, is sometimes counter-intuitive. But she pushed her way through and today is a professional violinist who performs on both modern and baroque instruments.

It's one thing for a youngster like her to show up at age 5 with all that uninhibited verve to tame and focus, but what about older students? Fifth and sixth graders who are just starting out but who are already aware of the need to do things "the right way"? Can we teachers open the door to that room where their inner punk dwells? Do they need to find that door themselves? Or should we be simply giving students permission to explore what's in there? Maybe just knowing it's good to explore is all that is needed. 

Finally, I would like to offer this video  from violinist Nigel Kennedy, who once described the essence of it all as being "animal". When was the last time you saw a performance like this in a concert hall?