I am completely convinced of the necessity of arts appreciation in a college education.
This comes, firstly, out of the relentless joy that the arts have provided in my life—in primary school where I thought of myself as the-best-drawer-ever, to early high school when I was absolutely sure that creative writing would be my life, to the profound peace and wholeness that I experience after going to an art museum or reading poetry and literature.
And the flute.
But the arts don’t need to be a spiritually fulfilling experience to be necessary in a complete education. We don’t talk about the sciences that way, or critical thinking skills, or civics—and no education is really complete without these, either. The restorative nature of the arts is an added (and welcome!) bonus to the arts for me when I think about their role in education.
I think of college as laying the foundation for successful citizenry: contributing to society. Here I’m not thinking of being a wealth-generating peon but as being able to identify the range of roles that a robust, healthy, broad society needs; finding one’s place in it; loving one’s place in it; and valuing the places that others occupy.
There are two related, somewhat circular, reasons why I affirm the necessity of the arts in education and their undergirding of good citizenry.
There is no arts appreciation without empathy for other human beings
I start every semester of my music appreciation courses with a series of in-class, online, and writing projects that ask my students to explore, describe, and understand what they hear when listening to music (meaning not just the physical sensation of hearing but also what they remember, experience, and think about while listening). The takeaway from these assignments is that no one hears anything exactly the way anyone else does. The next step is why—understanding others’ perspectives, past experiences, interests—so that they can themselves hear even more in the music and so that they can understand what it feels like to be someone else.
This peer-to-peer eye-opening lays the groundwork for the survey of music history we take in the remainder of the term: it gives my students the critical thinking foundation to piece together historical data, economic factors, social structure, and biographical quirks to understand why someone would make a piece of music, or talk about it in a certain way, or what historical figures might have expected or wanted out of music. Empathy turns the idea of “a person” into a fully-fleshed human being and makes history come alive.
When I ask my students to imagine the hypothetical situation of being a prisoner of war, watching their homeland being ravaged and fearing not only for their own lives but also the lives of everyone they care about, and then, in that mindset, describe the kind of music they would write if given the opportunity—that’s how they come to understand the profundity of Olivier Messaien’s sense of inner strength that he derived from his faith.
Empathetic historical listening is how they grapple with Wagner’s egoism or Brahms’s trepidation or William Grant Still’s pride when each man thought about themselves in relation to Beethoven’s symphonic legacy. It’s the lens through which they approach Schubert’s, or Mozart’s, or Drake’s portrayal of women in song. It shapes the way that they return to their lives and find deeper meaning (or sometimes uncomfortable implications) in the music they already love, the music that’s ubiquitously shoved in their ears by consumerism, and the music their parents, grandparents, and caregivers sing at night.
Arts appreciation flexes, strengthens, and tones the muscles of active empathy. This kind of social-emotional fitness can then transfer into day-to-day life—looking for the broader factors that influence others’ behaviors, picking up on the nuance of others’ style, being sensitive to another’s concerns. People who approach life in this way are the people I want to share this world with.
If you can empathize, then you can appreciate any art
The second tenet of my thinking about arts appreciation is its democratic nature. Anyone can do it, because everyone has the ability to be empathetic. That isn’t to say that everyone wants to do it (“It’s just a class I have to take for my degree”) or that it comes naturally to everyone (“I don’t know what it sounds like”), but everyone has the ability, and that makes the arts a welcome forum for people of all backgrounds, perspectives, and identities.
In the long term, that means that the myriad benefits of engaging in arts appreciation, active listening, critical thinking, and aural wonderment are available to everyone. And as one engages in this kind of activity, one gets better at it by further developing one’s skills of empathy—nuance, sensitivity, awareness—and then in turn appreciating more art, and then becoming more empathetic, and then…
If anyone can appreciate art—because everyone has the ability to empathize—and if the act of art appreciation enhances the behaviors that make us better neighbors and co-citizens of the world—because it induces a greater sense of empathy, creates three-dimensionality in one’s understanding of what human society entails, and also makes us more receptive and aware of what drives, motivates, frightens, and inspires the people around us—then it is obvious why there is great benefit in the arts as an educational component.
These benefits are crucial in college, at a point when many students are becoming self-aware and asserting their identities (emotionally, professionally, globally) and at a moment when they are absorbing philosophies that will (subconsciously) shape their decisions for years to come. This isn’t to say that college is a unique “magic window” in which arts appreciation has potency—it has great value and effect at any age—but I think we as educators, as stewards of the future that these students will inherit, would be irresponsible not to provide them with all the tools to shape that future for the best.
Arts appreciation isn’t a magic pill
The cause-effect line between arts appreciation and civic engagement, becoming conscientious neighbors, or world peace is not a pathway etched in stone: “Just listen to this Chopin Nocturne and you’ll be a better person *POOF*”—that’s overly simplistic and doesn’t do justice to the process of arts engagement.
But I feel—and will continue to argue—that if you appreciate the arts, meaning that if you engage with a work and actively unpack what it entails (how it was made, why it was made, the details it contains and how they relate to not only each other but also the details of other works, the skills involved in creating it, the desires of the people who viewed it, the social structures that made the work possible or even necessary, how it makes you feel and what you bring to the experience), then there is no way to come away from an artistic encounter without feeling a sense of kinship with the humanity of those involved in its existence—the artist(s), the other viewers/listeners, the world in which you live. And in that process—fulfilling in and of itself, because art!—is where the value lies.
This semester, I’ve been teaching at two different campuses, SUNY Purchase and CUNY Queensborough Community College. The student bodies are quite different, so this has been an interesting experiment in essentially teaching the same course to three different classes of students. I’ll reflect on this properly at the end of the term, but this week there was a presidential election.
(And seemingly no blogging for the past year, but I've been blogging pedagogically. This semester it's run the gamut--on women in classical music, on ballet, on thinking of composers as real people, on conducting, on the notion of musicking, on the physiology of music—and also curating a couple of student-run blogs.)
This week, the scheduled in-class topic—set out in the idealism of August when my as-yet unseen students had no idea that they were going to LEARN EVERYTHING—was music making during World War II. Because the Purchase course description requires that we approach music through the lens of its intersection with the other arts, economics, philosophy, and politics, this week’s class easily fell into place as an intellectual exercise around politics and pieces of music I already admired (and had already taught): Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 (1937) and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1940). It comes in the 10th week of the term, by which point I expected my students to have mastered (did I really think that 3 months ago?) usage of music-specific vocabulary (melody, polyphonic texture, clarinet vs. oboe, etc.). By now we would have successfully romped through the ideals of the Enlightenment and Classical string quartets. We would have digested the behemoths of Beethoven and Wagner and their repercussions for German nationalism, musical canonization, and Romanticism. We would have already sagely noted salient differences not only between the musical styles of Debussy and Schoenberg, but also the styles of their painting and literary counterparts (Monet and Munch, Baudelaire and Stefan George, respectively). At the very least, things resembling these ideals happened.
Last week, we broached the topic that classical music wasn’t necessarily welcoming to everyone: emigrants and musical nostalgia (Chopin), careers of female musicians taking backseat to those of their husbands (Clara), and racial minorities in the US (Scott Joplin, Robert Johnson, and Billie Holiday’s recording of Strange Fruit). In class we touched upon issues of censorship. In the guided online discussion, students grappled with the residual effects of sexism in the classical music world.
It was so neatly laid out, a logical intellectual progression, that suddenly aligned with the 2016 presidential election. I sat in my office on Wednesday, with gnawing anxiety over unfinished lectures for Thursday and Friday quietly growing, listening to my 20-something female coworkers crying—sobbing—during Hillary’s concession speech. Sitting in a dour talk-our-feelings-out impromptu staff meeting full of references to Canadian emigration. Imagining the world through my students’ eyes, and our planned lectures no longer seemed so intellectual.
I started classes this week asking my students how they felt—How are you guys doing today? No really, how are you feeling?
Shock. Fear. Anger. Disbelief. Some tears. Confusion: over why people would vote for Trump, would choose hate, would think that his credentials made him qualified for the job he sought. Panic leading trans students to secure passports, proceed into marriages they thought were eventual rather than imminent, and withdrawing their money from the stock market. A sense of betrayal: as women, as people of color, as immigrants, as Muslims, as students who had been told they needed to go to college in order to succeed. Uncertainty: their family member’s undocumented immigration status, their access to health care, going to war, rioting or other violence, laws that would be passed or undone.
I treated the day as an open forum, creating space for them to articulate their feelings, but I couldn't let them stop there without a sense of what they as individuals with agency could do to shape the world around them.
They felt uncertain about how to react with anything other than crippling fear or frustration. And unsure about their role in what happens next. Uncertain about the process by which the Electoral College could be changed. Unaware that they could contact their state and federal representatives. Unsure what purpose protesting serves. Not sure what community organizations they could be a part of. (These questions were all eventually answered, for what it's worth.)
My students are mostly aged 18-20, were voting in an election for the first time, and have lived their adult lives believing that a Black president is just a totally normal thing. This was an uncomfortable whiplash moment for most of them to realize that limits of their world are not the limits of the world.
The lecture portion of the day was short, but I kept it in because I thought was important to talk about musicians who, in the face of the shittiest, grimmest realities, did what they can with what they had.
But before that happened, I told my students why I teach and why I think meaningful music appreciation courses are a necessary component of the degrees they’re working towards:
I’m playing the long game. I’m not going to change my students' lives today or this semester, but the work we do in class—becoming more attentive listeners, learning to unpack different people’s perspectives, understanding the kind of talent required to produce a piece of art, appreciating the myriad impulses and social structures and inspirations and human desires that create a piece of art—makes them more empathetic people. Our work sows the seeds that I hope will make it impossible for my students to look at another person as an “Other” or as a caricature rather than a human being ever again because they'll be able to sensitively and meaningfully notice, infer, and appreciate the wholeness of that person. And that will make them the kinds of citizens I will happy to share my world with in 20 or 40 years.
(Part of this final paragraph made it into a pitch my boss gave at a successful fundraising event we held on Thursday—it was both thrilling and odd to hear my words in another person’s mouth.)
Earlier this month, I attended the Resonant Bodies Festival at Merkin Hall to hear fantastic singers present compelling 20th and 21st century music that moved them. This year, the festival is kind of a big deal, and all three women headlining the well-attended opening night were unquestionably a big “get,” and the audience seemed to know it. I found the music to be lovely and the singing to be exceptional, and I was especially captivated by the exactitude and charisma of Tony Arnold’s opening set. Most reviewers gushed about the entire program, understandably.
The festival, in its own words “supports the growth and evolution of contemporary vocal music and vocal artists,” but as the night went on (and on, and on—3 hours by the time the night was done), it became increasingly disconcerting for me as I realized that all of the performers (singers and their accompanying instrumentalists alike), organizers, and composers who graced the stage that night were white. (The final bows were a throwback to what I imagine the halcyon days of everything-before-1970 was like, just plus women.)
Whiteness (or brownness) is clearly not a determinant of musical quality, but as the headlining, much-regaled opening night of a trend-setting festival that has maneuvered itself squarely into the New York contemporary music scene (and plans to expand to Chicago, LA, and Melbourne soon), the lack of diversity was a disappointment. White music, performed by white people, for a (mostly older) white audience.
(In selecting music, the singers did choose music that reflected a variety of ages and national origins of the composers—USA, Germany, Hungary, Britain—as well as a variety of languages, including non-language sounds. One of the young composers featured is on the festival’s Artistic Advisory Board, and one of the two women composers is, also.)
As gatekeepers—concert organizers and festival presenters whose high profile helps define taste and lend legitimacy to young and emerging composers and performers especially—does a festival such as Resonant Bodies have an obligation to ensure diversity its programming? What is it missing out on by presenting a stage full of white voices, both performers and composers?
It’s partly out of the festival’s hands, since they (after choosing the singers, of course), let each singer decide what and how he or she wants to present (“Vocalists are invited to curate and perform in their own 45-minute set, with no restrictions on repertoire, format, or style”). However, all three women featured sit on the festival’s Artistic Advisory Board. Tony Arnold brought up the issue of what music is worthy of being on that center stage by telling the audience, in the middle of her set, that her chosen pieces represented the range of what she thought was exciting in classical vocal music today. How unfortunate that she, along with Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton, are most captivated by the music of white men (there were two pieces by women on the program, one in Upshaw’s set and another in Shelton’s). Shelton’s demanding set featured 4 (four!) world premieres, but that implies that still, in 2015, she’s working nearly exclusively with white composers (and three of the four premieres were by men).
(A friend also noted after the show the tension or awkward power dynamic of music nearly exclusively by men composers being sung by women.)
Is this homogeneity an indication that our musical education system (and social system more broadly) is only producing or encouraging white composers who are capable of composing the kind of music suited to this festival, or who are capable of networking in the kind of way landing a gig like this requires?
Or does it imply that the festival producers, and the singers themselves, as the gatekeepers deciding what does and doesn't get played, don't realize the omission they've made? Or they do realize it yet don't think it's an issue? Or do they believe that featuring one non-white singer at some point in the festival fulfills some sort of mollifying quota, and the accompanying instrumentalists are a non-issue?
(Previous festivals have featured non-white singers and instrumentalists, to be sure, and Du Yun was featured on the second night of the festival this year, but the remaining singers selected this year were white. I didn’t attend other performances, so I can’t speak to the accompanying instrumentalists’ ethnic backgrounds. However, a palette like that of Resonant Bodies 2015 stands in stark contrast to the recent cover of Opera News and its list of “25 Rising Stars,” coincidentally issued the second day of Resonant Bodies. Or mic.com’s list of “9 Brilliant Contemporary Composers Who Prove Classical Music Isn’t Dead,” which includes Thomas Adès, whose music was sung by Tony Arnold at Resonant Bodies, in addition to Unsuk Chin, Saed Haddad, and Angélica Negrón.)
But if these are the festival's additional goals, then why remain so mired in one demographic for nearly all the artists involved?
After the concert, wine in hand in the lobby, I heard, told in that breathless “Isn’t entrepreneurship amazing!” way, that the Resonant Bodies Festival began three years ago with a few thousand dollars out of the founder's pocket, and via networking and fundraising has grown its donor base to support its much-expanded, more press-worthy third season. Part of me wondered if that fundraising drive would actually have been equally financially successful if the festival’s on-stage profile were more diverse. Do moneyed white patrons actually want to support musical diversity, or just a range of musical sounds within a white community? How much of a role does race play in the palatability of strange, often unfamiliar, musical sounds? Jessye Norman’s presence (as a decidedly “resonant body”) probably would have encouraged checkbooks to come out, but would Pumeza’s? What if three Asian singers on this list had been featured for an entire night of the festival?
Trying to get a seat at the metaphorical musical table is a defining aspect of non-white classical music careers. Composer T.J. Anderson has lamented the “invisibility” of black composers especially:
“We’ve been invisible. Like Ralph Ellison said, you know: We’re invisible, and any chance we get for exposure is very important.”
The festival was notable in its featuring of women (singers, composers, and instrumentalists), which is unsurprising given that the founder is a woman, as are most members of the festival’s Staff and Artistic Advisory Board; their programming grows out of their network of colleagues and the issues that are palpable to them. Yet, two women composers doesn’t define diversity, and catapulting them to the mainstage alongside revered men composers (what an awkward epithet, one that only underscores the “normalcy” of men composers!) doesn’t do justice to the other minorities, and intersectional minorities, left in the shadows offstage. It’s not as if all categories of artist other than “white man” simply require a single representative to satiate some sort of quota of “otherness”—ok, guys, this time white women are taking one for the team, and next time we’ll send an Asian guy. Or a black guy. Or another token systematically-oppressed minority. But not too many of them, because then it’s a minority event. (See The Perfect Guy, which has been mistakenly referred to as a “black movie” because of the presence of a black cast).
This issue of responsibility is one that haunts my own programming. I acutely feel guilty (it’s more of a pulsating dyspepsia) when my ensembles’ programming or invitations issued to composers ignore the diversity of artistic voices available to us (and they’re available—digital communication removes any excuse for in-network only collaborations). At the same time, I worry that my own intersectionality makes me overly sensitive to artistic perspectives being ignored (or remaining invisible, following Ellison and Anderson), and I worry that my championing of them turns me into that “black musician,” reducing my value as a musician into that of a minority cliché (that too-easily dismissed “angry black woman” who receives eye rolls in meetings because she’s talking about “black issues” again), or preventing me from having legitimacy in the “normal” (ahem) classical world, or pigeon-holing my repertoire for the foreseeable future. It’s not a fight that will be won on the stage of the Resonant Bodies Festival alone, nor in the small battles in my own ensembles’ programming; it’s an issue along the lines of a “Black Voices Matter” movement (plus additional such necessary movements for all the other marginalized voices out there) that will require a collective, communal, unrelenting (even if glacial) push to demand, ensure, and celebrate a true diversity of musics on the stages where it counts.
Last night, I graduated from the CUNY Graduate Center (family in town, the hooding ceremony, all the official pomp!), and it was such a mix of sensations: trying not to dis/encourage my wildly waving brother in the audience too much, awe at the range of impressive dissertations by the new doctors from all the disciplines (Doctor of Audiology! Doctor of Urban Education! Doctor of Criminal Justice! oh, and the PhDs, too), the concentrated endurance of focusing as nearly 250 graduates were named and hooded on stage, and nerves.
I don't get nervous for musical performances anymore. I feel like I know what I'm doing, what to expect, how to prepare, how listeners will likely react, and I do it often. Speeches are another matter. I haven't given a proper speech since my high school graduation. I can't remember what that one exactly entailed; likely it expressed a great deal of youthful optimism and encompassed the extent of my awareness of the big, wide world we cocky seniors were entering into (which is to say, not very much). Last night, I gave the address on behalf of the 2015 graduates, and I was, in fact, nervous. I wouldn't be talking about music, composers, or my experience with a piece; I wouldn't be showing listeners what to listen for and then taking my flute out like a medieval shield to hide behind; these words wouldn't be a preamble to the main performance I was about to do.
After getting settled on stage at Avery Fisher, all the classic nervous signs appeared, swirling up from past experiences where I thought I'd banished them forever: sweaty palms; a need to focus on deep breathing; suddenly wishing I'd practiced more; and thoughts, so many doubtful thoughts, crowding into what should have been a calm, confident headspace: What if the microphone does that screechy sound? Do I need to adjust its height when I get up there? What if everyone thinks my voice is ugly or grating or too deep? Do I need to talk louder or more clearly than usual? Everyone else's address so far has been calm and run-of-the-mill -- is my delivery style going to seem falsely animated, or girly and naive, or awkward? What if I flub the words? What if everyone starts to look bored during my speech? What if...
My speech opened with formulaic greetings and welcomes that did nothing to quash these doubts; it wasn't me speaking them. But as soon as I reached the meat of my text, where the form and content had so readily flowed without me having to wrest them out during my drafting process, everything became easier. I didn't have to read the words anymore, I got to enjoy the ideas I was sharing with the audience, and their laughter at all the right times brought the experience that much closer to the interactive aspect of music performance that I thrive on.
The rest of the night was intensely enjoyable. The keynote speaker, a professor at the Graduate Center (with a lovely English accent), beautifully emphasized the fact that while he was not one of the famous "gets" that universities like to be able to boast about as a commencement speaker (Michelle Obama, Stephen Colbert, Maya Rudolph, Matthew McConaughey, Robert De Niro, or, no really, Bon Jovi), the money saved by the university for such an appearance fee (typically $50,000) could instead fund two full-time, five-year fellowships for Graduate Center students. Families in attendance were fantastically vocal and supportive when their graduates walked the stage. One man called out "Yeah, that's my wife!" when his special lady received her doctoral hood. Small children ran amok, screaming and cavorting happily through the aisles. And my fully-grown siblings gesticulated wildly every time I even seemed to turn my head in their general direction. It was a beautiful scene all around.
Commencement speech on behalf of the graduates, May 27, 2015
Good evening. It is such an honor to speak on behalf of the 2015 graduates.
Thank you all for joining us to celebrate this moment of commencement. Welcome, President Robinson, Provost Lennihan, Distinguished Honorees, Trustee Martell, Executive Vice Chancellor Dobrin, Graduate Center Foundation Board Members De Ferrari, Kaplan, Glucksman, Hecht, Morning, and Urvater, Graduate Center faculty and staff, and obviously, my fellow graduates.
And, of course, thank you to family and friends in attendance and scattered across the globe. Although you might not fully understand what it is that we’ve been doing for the past several years, or you may even regret having asked the seemingly casual conversation-starter “So, what’s your dissertation about?”, you have been supportive regardless and understand that today is kind of a big deal for us.
When I started at the Graduate Center in 2009, I said to myself, “Five years? How could anything possibly take five years? I’ll be out of here in four, tops, no problem. It’s just a couple of classes and a little paper, right?” I thought of this degree as a singular event, a hurdle to be jumped and moved past. But this degree represents 20% of my time on this earth, and it signifies not a momentary accomplishment but rather an ongoing set of experiences that define the role I hope to play in the world at large. So I offer the following observations about my time at the Graduate Center as illustrative proof of my ongoing process of finding my place in the world, and I hope they resonate with my fellow graduates’ experiences.
When I started at the Graduate Center, I didn’t anticipate how much I would love teaching, or how my students would eat up all of the time I gave them, or how I would pore over their papers and my lecture notes on the subway. And at home in the evenings. And on weekends. And on holidays... I didn’t anticipate how energized teaching a class would leave me feeling, or how the questions my students asked and the progress they made could affirm my faith in the future, or how commiserating with my colleagues about the broader social and institutional difficulties facing educators could temper that idealism with a cold dose of realism, or how heavy the weight of responsibility is when you’re sitting on the other side of the teacher’s desk.
When I started at the Graduate Center, I didn’t think that New York City would be so awesome – so vibrant, so surprising, so picturesque. Or so expensive. Or, over a decade into the 21st century, that there would still be so much to protest about and demonstrate against: the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy, the Occupy Wall Street movement, minimum wage negotiations, or the more recent deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.
I had no idea my fellow doctoral students would be so damned smart – every single one of them – and that their comments during seminars, or lingering in one of the gray hallways after seminar was over, or in the middle of a party, or even on a facebook post could be so consistently compelling and thoughtful. Their intellectual curiosity and fidelity to academic inquiry aren’t switches that turn on and off but rather are integral parts of who they are and how they interact with the world. I also had no idea anyone could be so passionate about Robert’s Rules of Order. Thank you, Friday night Doctoral Student Council meetings.
I didn’t anticipate how intimidating and inspiring my fellow students’ breadth and depth of skills would be. I assumed that the music department would be filled with talented young professionals who came here to be a part of one of the most diverse and high-caliber music scenes on earth and to study with innovative musicians and scholars, but I didn’t realize that I would find my fellow students’ artistry and worldview as musicians so invigorating, or that my classes would be filled with players and composers with whom I would want to continue working and making music for the rest of my life. Just like students from other disciplines at the Graduate Center, my musical colleagues here are fierce and impressive in terms of their abilities, expertise, and accolades; they perform not only with impeccable skill but also with purpose; they explore a wide palette of new sounds and musical ideas rather than retreating into the cocoon of complacency; they are concerned with reaching and meaningfully engaging new listeners, making what we do relevant while retaining artistic integrity; and they embrace the beautiful diversity of musical experiences from around the world with respect and intellectual curiosity.
I also never imagined how much fun writing the dissertation would be – once it finally got going, of course – that writing it would feel like traveling at light speed, doing backflips and yoga simultaneously in my mind, all while sitting still and typing at the computer.
I was unable to foresee how life would get in the way of what was supposed to be the simple, elegant narrative of “working on my doctorate.” I had no idea that my father’s sudden diagnosis of cancer and death early in my second year would energize my will to complete my degree and not waste a single precious moment of time, but that my mother’s unexpected death at the end of my fourth would slow me down so much, turning my emotions into a thick molasses within which I struggled to accomplish even the simplest tasks.
But I also didn’t know how consistently supportive the Graduate Center community would be, and not only when I thought I needed it most – how fellow musicians as well as friends from other departments would come to my concerts both on and off campus; how this would be the first school I’d ever attended without a sense of competitive jealousy among the students. I had no idea that an institution could contain such successful, intelligent people who would be so generous with their time despite being so busy with their teaching and research schedules; people who would say, “Let’s get coffee” and actually mean it; people who would never hesitate to lend me a much-needed book, or remind me what pages were supposed to have been read for seminar, or be so open with their own work; people who could be such masters in their respective fields and yet humble in the face of others’ research. I didn’t think the Graduate Center would be full of people who would be so adept and exuberant in their non-academic knowledge and interests, sharing their dog sitting skills or their cooking expertise and organizing ski trips and other important respites from scholarly pursuits – basically, that an institution could exist whose members have accomplished so much but remain so human.
When I was considering doctoral programs, I ultimately decided to attend the Graduate Center because it felt like a place where I would, every single day, feel holistically inspired by my fellow doctoral students and faculty in a way that no other institution seemed to offer. That unfailing energy spurred my work here, and it also is the standard with which I want to engage the world, because I know that’s how the rest of the Graduate Center community will continue to do so. I thank you all for making our academic community inspiring in its accomplishments, intimidating in its collective knowledge, and joyful in its pursuits. I feel lucky to be numbered among you because it is you, your achievements thus far, and your future accomplishments that will arise out of your own set of meaningful experiences at the Graduate Center that make my degree mean anything at all.
Thank you all.
I love cooking. A lot.
During football season, I create a new recipe every week to sustain my friends through the marathon that is three sets of games every Sunday (with ample Red Zone). These usually need to be foods that can be eaten plateless, sitting on the couch. But instead of going to a couple of solid standbys every week, I invent new snacks, often taking entree-type foods I love and turning them into balls or muffin-sized individual servings. See examples from Pigskin 'n Pie's tumblr here for some of my past indulgences. Also, take time to admire her intense baking skills and wit.
I also have trouble containing my enthusiasm for cooking. I am a chronic over-cooker (as in, too much food, not a serial burner of foods).
After I deposited my dissertation in April (and officially became a doctor), I threw a party for all the people who had (at least indirectly) supported me through the process. Here is an array of (most of) the appetizers):
Because of the large-ish guest list, I also made (3!) meatloaves, a Provencal tian with zucchini and goat cheese, and a melange of roast vegetables with a roast garlic aioli, but then panicked that there wouldn't be enough food and made southwestern spice-rubbed roast turkey breasts as well. No pictures of these survive.
And then there was dessert: a honey-lavender-ricotta ice cream, an Earl Grey ice cream, and a coconut basil mint sorbet. Plus Pigskin 'n Pie brought a chocolate mousse cake.
Panicking, over-cooking, and over-preparing are my modus operandi. My friends laugh about the Christmas I panicked at the last minute (after having made what any normal person would have thought was already an excessive amount of food) and made a three-flavored layered panna cotta (pumpkin, vanilla bourbon, and cinnamon)... Panna cotta, panick-cotta... yeah, my panic attacks are not only classy but also pun-worthy. But after laughing about there being too much food, they still talk about how delicious it all was.
I love the process of cooking: the chopping, the smells, the tastes, the heat, and the colors, but I especially find comfort in how methodical planning allows me to improvise and feel ready for anything. (My pre-recital ritual in grad school was baking cookies the night before so I would have something positive to do. And so I would have cookies. For the reception, obviously.) Being methodical and organized means I can make panna cotta at the last minute because I have all the skills and the ingredients ready to go. It means I can make dinner for 30 of my closest friends, no problem. No one will go hungry (even the vegans or vegetarians) and no one will get food poisoning. It also means that I can sit back and enjoy the process as it unfolds, knowing it's going to turn out well, because I've set myself up to succeed.
I find a lot of similarities between the way I approach and love food and the way I approach and love making music. In the kitchen, I imagine how I want people to feel after eating my food and the journey of flavors and textures I want them to experience. I love watching their faces when something I've made tastes good. I find cooking for people to be so nourishing: for other people's tummies, but also for my soul, because I get to make them feel good and satiated with something I've made with my own hands and imagination. There are so many steps to cooking, but none of them feels like a chore or work because it's all in service of an end product that makes me feel so good I would pay any price to achieve it. Replace "cooking" with "fluting" and "food" with "music" in the preceding sentences and everything still holds true. (I'm also thinking about Jennifer Cluff's article on how to prepare for a competition, in which she describes thinking about the music you make emanating directly from your heart and moving the audience.)
I find that my sense of comfort and enjoyment in the kitchen (cooking food that tastes and looks good, not feeling pressed at the last minute for time, not doing work after guests have arrived) comes down to good mise en place: doing as many preparatory steps ahead of time so that I have everything at hand exactly when I need it. This morning, I'm working on a different kind of mise en place for two larger musical projects I'm preparing: "The Curious Case of Ed Leedskalnin" with The Curiosity Cabinet, and the summer season for Fiati Five. Cutting, taping, hole-punching, highlighting instrument changes, marking in breaths and fingerings, cueing parts... These are the things that happen before I ever pick up my flute and that make me feel confident about what I'm going to play, how I'm going to play it, my role in the whole project, and how successful it's going to be. I don't want to find out at a first rehearsal that I don't have enough time to make a page turn, or that the oboe has the root of the chord, or that the viola should lead the tempo change. These are the kind of little unexpected "oops" moments that, when they pile up, throw me off my game and undermine my confidence by distracting me from the musical line I wanted to play, make rehearsals inefficient, make my time spent with my colleagues less fun, and make performances nerve-wracking.
Both of these projects are going to be great, not only because I'm playing great music and working with great people, but also because I'm going to bring my best, most prepared, most focused self to the rehearsal room, and then the rest will take care of itself.
And afterwards, we eat.
The story-of-the-week in music-no-one-has-heard is that of Jonas Tarm's unceremoniously-cancelled Carnegie premiere with the New York Youth Symphony (Klinghoffer, anyone?). A friend of mine posted a link to the NPR story on my facebook wall with the added question: "Should he have to disclose his intent?" My immediate TL;DR reaction was "no," followed by a TL version I've pasted here. (There's also a passionately persuasive plea in the New York Times for the necessity of just letting the damn thing be played).
The notion of “intent” is problematic – a notion embodied is not the same as a notion received. Whatever the composer’s intent might be or have been is likely no longer his intent (since intent is not a fixed, static object), and the past experiences and expectations a listener brings to the experience are a large determinant in how he or she perceives the meaning and effectiveness of the music.
A piece of music should be surprising (otherwise, what’s the point of creating “new” music?) – in the message it conveys, or in the way it makes a listener feel, or in its combination of sounds – but it’s impossible to know what will be surprising, moving, pleasing, or upsetting for every listener. To write a program note that provides a “trigger warning” is a fool’s errand. It seems that the composer’s evocative quotation of T.S. Eliot would actually be an excellent preparation for the aesthetic experience his piece creates without forcing a listener into a narrow listening experience entrained toward a single aspect of the music (e.g., the musical quotation that people who haven’t heard the piece are already offended about).
Moreover, the idea that we should shelter ourselves from things that are unpleasant precisely because they are unpleasant is absurd. The idea that we should deny a potentially moving aesthetic experience (or even one that falls flat) because some people can’t handle it emotionally is also tyrannically absurd. There will be unexpected moments of emotion in our daily lives (e.g., a stranger walks by wearing perfume that reminds you of a dead relative, and you feel suddenly overwhelmed, physically paralyzed, and taken out of your body). To suggest that we can only allow for certain kinds of aesthetically-induced emotional experiences, or that we should only experience certain kinds of emotional reactions with proper full-disclosure preparation for them sanitizes and sterilizes the aesthetic experience. It marginalizes the aesthetic experience by boxing it into a safe space where we come to engage it volitionally rather than allowing it to engage us. It suggests that our interaction with the world is something over which we can and should have control.
However, I think that misses a central point of protest art and emotionally-moving art in general (not just political music) – these issues, these emotional triggers, these moments of beauty, these flickerings of tragedy that propel art are everywhere. The world is an overwhelming place, filled with remnants of the past and intimations of the future. We gloss over them in our daily lives because it’s inefficient to curl up in a ball for the afternoon because you were reminded about genocide. It’s somebody’s duty to draw our attention to how beautifulterriblebig the world is, and I think art like this tries to take up that mantle. I think the only reasonable reactions to a piece like this would be 1) oh, I didn’t like that so I don’t think I’ll listen to this composer’s work again; or 2) wow, I hadn’t thought about X in that way before, and now I have the potential to be a more empathetic, more aware, more ready-for-anything citizen of the world (where X = sound, idea, image, emotion, etc.).
Also, it’s just music.
Is is possible to want something without wanting to have to work to get it?
I was talking to a (non-musician) friend over brunch a couple of weeks ago about how he wanted to get in shape. (Don't we all?) He has never been able to engage his abdominal muscles -- crunches, planks, and core are all foreign sensations to him! He thought back pain was normal during all the activities other people usually engage their core to perform. Ouch. In a session with a trainer, she had finally gotten him to feel a twinge of what it means to flex one's abs. He didn't like the sensation, and his reaction was, "I don't like that, I don't think I'll do it again." "But," I argued, "doesn't that mean you don't really want to get in shape?" If he didn't want to do the thing that was a necessary step along the way to his goal, could my friend really say that he wanted to get in shape?
I think that wanting something means wanting everything that comes with it -- all its pre-requisites, co-requisites, and baggage. Desire is a commitment, a faithfulness to a goal, not just an idle dream. I think about this when students don't want to play scales but do want to play a solo -- they don't fully appreciate what playing that solo entails. They can't see the path you have to walk in order to reach a goal, and like my friend, they encounter a hurdle along the way and give up because it's hard.
I recently came across a quotation from Martha Graham in which she more eloquently equates commitment to a dream with commitment to the process of achieving it. I am particularly inspired by the way that committing to the process of practice (instead of the end goal) gives her a sense of inner purpose:
“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
While in a lesson during my master's degree, my teacher looked at me after I'd finished playing a passage and said, "I just don't hear desire in your sound," and I was crushed, because I felt immediately how devastating a critique that was. Technique, tone, dynamics, and intonation are all fine and good, but the thing that drives them, that propels the music, and from which confidence emanates just wasn't there. This set about several years of introspection (and self-doubt) into what "desire" meant to me. Along the way, I examined my technique: why didn't my sound spin? why did I go flat at the end of every phrase? why did my vibrato warble just before a harmonic resolution? Because I didn't desire (want, yearn, need) the line, the note, or the phrase to be just so -- and therefore I let the pitch drop, the vibrato warble, and the sound sit fat and unmoving. I was focused on executing properly rather than living in the sound I made. I thought I had a desire for desire, but I didn't fully appreciate what desire entailed and I was even a bit embarrassed to have someone witness my vulnerability in the act of desiring.
I found my sense of desire and my ability to engage it (even if it hurts!) through an embouchure change, a new flute, working with new colleagues, going through one break-up too many, and learning to find joy in being alive. Yet, it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been told that my playing lacked desire in the first place -- I was suddenly aware of its absence. My playing was fundamentally changed by learning what desire meant to me and trying to understand what it meant to desire desire.
This past Thursday, I went to a performance at the Kaplan Penthouse of visiting German musicians presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The program closed with a piece for two cellos by Thomas Demenga, performed with his brother Patrick, that was an extended rumination on the cello: what is it; what sounds can it make; why must it be played thus? There was an 11-note chromatic jazz line, allusions to birds in an Australian rainforest, fingers on the cello body, bowing on the peg, audible breathing that forced me to be aware of the human agency in performing the music, cellos turned sideways and played like dulcimers...
Last night, I was at a birthday party full of my colleagues from the Graduate Center. I count myself incredibly lucky to be part of an academic community that is on the one side vibrant, rich, and brilliant, and on the other, perhaps more importantly, full of supportive, non-competitive, friendly people. Everyone was animatedly discussing their research (19th-century New England symphonists, African diaspora in Haiti, cumbia music from Mexico in New York City), but one friend was just beginning his dissertation on Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88). He was drawn to the fact that Scelsi became enamored with, fascinated by, and ultimately obsessed with the idea that all music emanates from a single note and devoted his compositional life to mystically exploring this sound.
These anecdotes encapsulate a large part of why European music of the latter half of the 20th century is so alluring for me -- its practitioners delve deeply into music not only with impeccable technique and thorough training but also with philosophical intent and rigor. In terms of the bigger picture, I suppose it doesn't really matter if humanity ever knows what it means to cello or if we find the pitch from which all music flows (this weekend's protests place in sharp relief the more pressing concerns of the day, for one). In a way, such erudition feels selfish. Ivory tower, shunning the world, kooky. Yet, in the moment, Demenga's performance had me convinced me otherwise.
At the end of November, I premiered a set of newly-commissioned 15 one-minute works ("Fifteen Minutes of Fame") for flute and soprano with Mary Hubbell. One composer, Fabio Monzu Rosselli, traveled from Rome for the performance, and before the concert he and I were flitting through several conversation topics, as one does when meeting someone for the first time. We spoke about my recent travels in Campania, his musical career, and Rome before, via Goethe, things took a darker turn. He began passionately lamenting, in contrast to the grand cultural history of Italy, the current state of affairs in Italian culture and taste -- how standards were dropping, how people didn't appreciate real art anymore, how what we as artists do feels futile. I offered Dylan Thomas as a rebuttal:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This is how the hours in the practice room are spent; this is the armor we wear on stage going into battle. We fight for philosophy and erudition and beautiful things that might otherwise wink out into darkness. It is not necessarily a fight for classical music itself (some have already declared it dead), but rather it is a fight for the inquisitive artistic impulse and the social infrastructure that supports such inquiry, a fight for the importance of yearning in and of itself.
We must know what it means to cello.
On the insistence of Mike Walker, I finally watched Somm. The pressure! The heartbreak! Oh, the lovely, luscious, enigmatic wines they tasted!
There's something about food documentaries (Jiro Dreams of Sushi comes to mind -- the trailer even starts with an orchestra tuning followed by Beethoven Symphony 7) and cooking shows that makes it seem like their subject could just as well be music and musicians' lives -- the odd, grueling hours and low pay, the intense passion and devotion to one's craft, the exacting standards, and being quickly replaced by the next hot thing.
And of course, there is the strength of one's personality shining through the dish/performance. Contestants on Chopped, when faced with criticism or when slinking away, tail between the legs after being "chopped," inevitably say, "I stand behind my dish." (Seriously, pick any episode and at least someone will say some variation of this phrase. At least once.)
Maybe the music-food affinity is based on their twin roles in the consumption of things that make you feel satisfied in a way that you didn't even know you were previously lacking, in the full-body buoyancy of experiencing something new and revelatory.
Maybe it's in the patience, personal growth, and self-discovery within the confines of one's technique, tradition, audiences, and critics.
And maybe it's just because food and music pair so well with wine.
So let's play on, drink on, and try to live up to Andreas Fuyu Gutzwiller's ideal musician: "one whose personality has matured in the music as a good wine has matured in a well-made barrel... it is the wine that is consumed not the barrel."
A friend of mine recently posted an article on facebook that claimed personality in performance was dead. He bemoaned (like Bernstein's complaint that competition is for racehorses) the prevailing expectation of technical flawlessness in favor of risk-taking.
I shrugged it off. We panic in the classical music world. The Internet encourages sensationalism.
And yet I've been thinking about what "individualism" and "personality" mean in light of this article. It can't only be the extreme, idiosyncratic interpretation in which the player's fancy takes precedence over the indications in the score. The article article praises this as "overt performance personalisation." (so British)
I think "personality" comes from the inside -- from conviction in your identity, in your values, and bodily awareness. Perhaps this is why "technically flawless" performances that all sound the same ring hollow. As performers, we can't all have the same inner experience of music (and then project that experience in our performances) because we physically cannot experience it the same way -- my hands are not my students' hands, and try as I might, my lungs will never be quite what my teacher boasts. But we typically teach to an ideal, and maybe listen oriented towards an ideal, rather than lauding a player for mindfully knowing oneself inside and out.
Like most other new music fans in NYC, I was deeply moved by eighth blackbird's "Heart and Breath" program at Miller Theatre on September 18th. The commedia dell'arte portion was fine, but what really spoke to me was the first half. It opened with a recent work by Richard Reed Parry, in which the duration of the violist's notes was determined by the inhalation and exhalation of her breaths. I found myself breathing with her bow, being physically drawn into her unique perspective on the world, and literally hearing the rest of the program with new ears.
In shakuhachi playing, rhythm is tied directly to a player's breath, to his or her bodily awareness of the in-out cycle of air. And for Watazumi, bodily awareness goes deeper:
"And when you consider rhythm, rhythm is not just simply rhythm; rhythm is the movement of the entire body from its last cell. And that movement differs from person to person because everybody’s flow of blood is different… Everybody has that movement within their bodies. You have to balance, then, the movement of your pulse with the movement of your body."
Performing is literally bringing forth the inner structure of one's body, of being so in touch with one's inner workings that there is no distinction between the player and the played. Maybe that's what I at least am looking for in performance -- a profundity of candid self-awareness that is simultaneously beautiful and loyal to the score.