Contemporary Music Is an Act of Forgiveness

I was at the Mostly Modern Festival this past June, preparing a world premiere with the festival orchestra, trying desperately to keep my piccolo warm in my lap. The conductor started rehearsing the second movement, all winds tacet. This Ann Patchett passage came to mind:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?

I will tell you I thought of the essay for some reason more profound than watching the cellists rehearse and remembering a metaphor that briefly mentions Yo-Yo Ma, but it’s a feeble excuse. It has been on my mind since I read it nearly a year ago in Patchett’s memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marraige, and I’m probably recalling it at the slightest provocation.

I will pretend it was more poetic, it was something about coming together over a piece of music we’re hearing for the first time, repeating the passage until we can agree on how it’s written and how we read it. It’s wrong over and over until it’s not. And something about cellos.

I will not preach about new music other than to say it’s necessary. This, we can agree, is not profound. The same ruler in charge for decades is a dictator. What is the same composer programmed for 150 years?

The excuse I still hear from audiences is that new music is noise, less pleasant than Mozart, and pretentious. Some of this is true. New music requires work, finding and performing a new composition is not some magic act of inspiration. Composers will write bad pieces, and we will play them badly, and we both will learn. “Most of us are full up with bad stories,” Patchett says in the same essay, “bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist.”

Luckily for me and the orchestra, this piece we were rehearsing was far from the bad ones. The composer was an experienced orchestrator, and even the experimental parts didn’t feel experimental from him. It was not one of the bad ones, but it no doubt came after many of his that were. This is the fact of art. Playing the cello takes work. Writing a symphony is no different.

It is too easy perhaps to draw the parallels between Patchett’s essay and the plight of contemporary music — she does reference musical practice right alongside her writing discipline, which are not far off from each other, ask any composer — but this is not what I thought of when I first read the essay. No, reader, unfortunately my imagination was even less than it is now, and I used her very own words to equate the writing process to my practice. Luckily, it was precisely what I needed to find again before my final graduate recital:

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling like I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

My performance was never exactly what I heard in my head. While we are supposed to strive for that perfection, I don’t believe we ever achieve it. Ann Patchett apparently never did. I can’t speak for Yo-Yo Ma, but for the sake of my point I will say he probably hasn’t, either. It was necessary to be more forgiving with my performance.

Thank goodness composers are forgiving with reading orchestras. No doubt they feel at some point we killed their music along the way — a percentage is lost in translation from imagination to paper to performance. And the orchestra forgives them their mistakes, their typos and wrong transpositions. But for new music to make it, audiences must also be more forgiving, and by extension, more inviting. If my grandmother, after my recital, can request Nesting of Cranes be played at her funeral (she called it “the sneezing piece”), audiences worldwide can support contemporary music. And we performers will try our best to not slaughter it.

I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

Here is an excerpt of Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car”:
https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/577/a-writers-toolkit/style/

Here is a video of the world premiere of Tre Canzone by Claude Baker:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YMuAh4Y1yYk&list=PLUOHtooUK6OiX3SndTSGhj5zeTBld6cZy&index=6&t=0s

I Read Books at Recitals (And You Can, Too!)

People seem to be confused when I bring books to performances. If someone near me is curious enough to ask, they assume I’m an amateur enthusiast who just likes a nice place to read. “No,” I tell them, holding my page politely but not shutting the book entirely, “I’m a musician as well.”

Somehow, this is unacceptable. As a music student, I should be the example of discipline when listening to live classical music: back straight, attentive, maybe nodding my head when something sounds particularly good. I should not have my neck bent down in the pages of a book. I should not appear bored with what’s on stage.

No one said anything to me Sunday night when I did this. CMYS brought JACK Quartet to Yellow Springs with free tickets to students and adults under 25. I sat with friends in the back, knowing the sound is good at any seat in First Presbyterian and visual doesn’t matter. I intended to sit by myself with a book and not be much company, but the world doesn’t end at the hands of polite companionship. I paged a well-loved library copy of Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and listened.

This isn’t because I get bored at concerts or recitals. Quite the opposite — once a composer friend of mine asked quite seriously how I could sit through long Sunday afternoon recitals at the orchestra festival we both attended with no complaint. I didn’t realize this wasn’t the norm.

I’m no example of attention. I don’t believe it is possible to sit through a performance and focus on the performance alone. The mind wanders. Yoga Nidra allows this in meditation, but once it’s noticed to call the mind back to center. Don’t dwell on the shopping list or the scuff on the cellist’s shoes. Acknowledge it, and return. I’m not saying audienceship is a form of meditation, but when the mind wanders in a recital, let it. Then call it back.

This isn’t taught in music school. We’re told the basics of concert etiquete — enough to turn our noses up at anyone who claps between movements — and which performances are mandatory. Maybe we were supposed to learn how to endure the performance on our own. Maybe our generation just can’t sit still. The day Wright State took away the concert attendance requirement, audience numbers dropped.

I don’t always read during performances, but when I have a particularly intriguing book that will occupy my imagination those two hours anyway, I might as well bring it. I enjoy the combination of reading and listening; they both take on different meanings this way. During JACK’s performance of Elliot Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, I was reading Patchett’s essay “Love Sustained.” It is about Patchett’s relationship with her grandmother and her grandmother’s death, and I cried silently reading it. Carter’s Adagio now sounds like the complicated love and heartbreak of watching a family member succumb to dementia.

The secret to youth sitting through performances isn’t to make it more exciting or to even shove books in their hands. The discipline isn’t to sit still, but to sit with only your own mind for that long. This why they don’t show up for a world-renown ensemble for free on a Sunday night (I was one of a very few of JACK’s audience members under 25). I don’t hold the answer, I just wonder what would happen to audiences if listening was natural and not disciplined, and to audience numbers if we left the formality at the door.

The Program Notes You Won’t See at My Recital

I’d love to write program notes for people who’d love to read them. I’d love to offer a digital version you can read on your phone (I don’t care if you have your phone out at my recital). I’d love to bring in extra recycling bins for everyone to dump the physical copies that will probably go unread.

Just last week I was reminded of my least favorite question: “How do you have time to read a book?” It’s the most judgmental question you can ask a person. You’re saying, “How dare you use your time wisely when I would rather complain about how busy I am.” Everyone is busy. You make time for things you want to do. I want to read.

Because of this, instead of program notes, I would much rather have a recommended reading list to occupy you during my recital. The rules are simple: books are listed under their corresponding flute piece, with a short summary describing why it was selected. Use this summary to choose one book to bring to the performance, either from the list or let it inspire your browse through the library.

Program notes are my favorite part of a performance. I want to know the performer when I read their notes. This performance is heavily inspired by literature, which is a personal tool I cannot add to my own notes. Use this hour to open a book if it’s something you joke about never getting to do.

Partita in A minor for flute solo, BWV 1013, J. S. Bach

The Partita is four movements of dance music. The styles are traditionally refined, but Bach adds just enough scandal in the harmonies to make it interesting. For this, look for American classic literature: This Side of Paradise, the pseudo-autobiographical novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about well-to-do young men who get away with more than they should because they are men; or Lost Lady by Willa Cather, a shorter novel about a socialite woman who gets away with nothing because she is a woman, no matter how charming and attractive.

Sonata “Undine” for flute and piano, Op. 167, Carl Reinecke

“Undine” refers to a German romantic fairytale of a water sprite who marries a knight to gain a soul. Several reiterations of this story exist (most notably “The Little Mermaid”) in other cultures, many of them with a sad ending. Reinecke was inspired by the tale, but the sonata is not strictly narrative. I turned to the four Books of Earthsea when searching for imagery. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, is headstrong and invincible. Magic in Earthsea is held by those who know “the true names of things,” the language of the Making. The protagonist, Ged, is as reckless as the playful melody of the first movement. He isn’t faced with the truth of his power until the second movement, which is repetitive and tumultuous. It is broken by a humbling, romantic melody, and returns quietly to vivace. The final movement is represented by the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, which was originally intended to conclude the trilogy. The romantic melody of the second movement returns, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, the final book, Tehanu, was written decades later when Le Guin, then middle aged, could tell Ged’s story in the next stage of his life. I have written above this passage a line from the third book: “I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”

Syrinx, Claude Debussy

In Greek mythology, Syrinx was a follower of Artemis known for her chastity. She is pursued by the god Pan, and asks for help from the water spirits when he corners her and threatens her virtue. They turn her into hollow water reeds that whistle hauntingly when the god angrily breathes across them. Pan cuts them down, fashions the first set of pan pipes, and plays this melody. It is mournful, yet not overly sad; it is multi-faceted and finds new colors each way you turn it. The poetry of W. S. Merwin is similarly meditative and nostalgic. Open any page of Vixen.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten, George Crumb

Crumb chose flute and percussion as the voice of nature and quiet intensity. When I was learning this piece, Dr. Chaffee assigned Julie Otsuka’s books for the latter qualities. A Buddha in the Attic describes the lives of female Japanese immigrants in California in the years before and during WWII. The book describes actions only with simple language, never elaborating or assuming a character’s reasons. Crumb writes in the program note: “The ancient sense of brotherhood with all life-forms … has gradually and relentlessly eroded, and consequently we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world.”

The middle of the piece quotes eighth century Chinese poet Ssu-K’ung Shu: “The moon goes down. There are shivering / birds and withering grasses.” This is whispered into the flute, eerily evoking images of speech through the trees. Crumb laments the “illegitimacy” of mankind in the natural world, our invasion of a community we are killing. This is personified in Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi book, The Word for World Is Forest, where humans harvest resources from an alien planet and its humanoid inhabitants quietly retaliate.


Edit: This is almost the exact handout printed for my recital in April 2018, with additions to the composers’ biographies and two suggested titles. They were indeed the program notes you saw at my recital.

In the Margins of Last Week’s Program Book

Chamber Music Yellow Springs
February 11, 2018
Bennewitz Quartet
First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs
7:30 PM

The following notes were written and compressed between printed words of the program. They are ordered here (more or less) chronologically.

This is the trick to sitting through a performance: Let your mind wander.

 

Leos Janacek, String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”

Feeding oneself one nut, one fruit, one leaf
as monkeys feed ended with control of fire.
We became
communal,
Became communities of who does what —
Who scoops honey from hives
Who cuts tongue from antelope
Who scrapes corn from husk

We became
arranged
Into cooks and hunters,
Husbands and wives,
Into worlds of many small fires and many small roofs.
Fathers and daughters, lovers and ex-es,
connected
by a desire to forget our histories.

(From Many Small Fires by Charlotte Pence)

Bedrich Smetana, String Quartet No. 1, E minor, “From My Life”

Beginning of III. Largo sostenuto: In the audience: Many heads bowed — sleep or prayer?

I imagine someone had these same thoughts in this same place this morning during service.

 

Intermission

If I look up, it’s easy to pretend I’m in a church in the Ozarks. Even in winter the celestial windows would be open; a bat could fly in any moment, trapped above us. I was homesick before I left.

Reading: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. A basket of cough drops is passed around me. I thought it was an offering plate.

 

Antonin Dvorak, String Quartet in G major, op. 106

I retract my string quartet envy. You can love things differently from a distance. More purely, somehow.

I Talked to a Stranger / Orchestra Season Announcement Season

I probably shouldn’t have yelled at the guy who gave me a free orchestra ticket.

It wasn’t aggressively. I was at my current favorite coffee shop (still trying to replace my favorite in Denver that replaced my favorite in Fort Smith) doing homework, the Monteverdi score I was annotating covering more than my share of the communal table, when a stranger leaned over and asked, “Do you like violin?”

What a vague question. I barely looked up to say, “I guess I don’t hate it.” He slid over a ticket for a concert two hours from then in Springfield, half an hour drive from that spot. I stared at it long enough for him to awkwardly explain what it’s for, and I interrupted to ask if he was just giving this to me. He said yes. I practically screamed but why?

In my memory, people ceased conversation, the coffee house playlist stopped, and everyone turned to look at the slightly deranged woman with Saturday Afternoon Homework Hair scream at a stranger. But he didn’t take the ticket back so I went to Springfield. (After posting a Snapchat video explaining where I was going and where to look if I go missing, just in case.)

Springfield itself doesn’t have much to report. Downtown was quaint in passing, but even the best cities look dreary in this muddy snow that will never melt, despite it being 50 degrees outside. It was a 5 pm concert, so I felt confident showing up in a dirty Subaru and jeans and just enough makeup to not look quarantined.

I found the guy I yelled at two hours before, and he directed me to our seats (I had wondered if he would be there or if he also gave away the other ticket in some odd ticketing roulette). We had four minutes left of small talk and I reveled in the beauty of local orchestras: I wasn’t a sore thumb in my painfully casual attire; ushers and box office workers and coat room attendants are all volunteers, and know many of the patrons personally and probably too well for people who only speak at concerts; there’s no awkward wait in the women’s restroom line when everyone chats about how lovely the orchestra sounds and how lucky they are to have this in their hometown. I think every audience member I was within earshot of knew a musician on stage — was their neighbor or went to church with them when they were kids. This orchestra is a fixture of their community.

It was in this bathroom line I was told the guest artists that night, the Shimasaki sisters, were Springfield natives. Only as a hometown affair could a small orchestra get not one but two talented musicians with impressive bios, and only at their own local concert hall could two sisters in their twenties play Bach’s double violin concerto in matching dresses (which was adorable).

When I was offered the ticket, I was in the middle of a two day-long text conversation about representation in orchestras (specifically, programming habits of both local and national organizations to only play music by dead white men, including the latest season announcement in my own back yard). As this ticket was handed to me, I was sent this photo:

Basically, we’re running out of excuses to play the same pieces on loop for centuries.

Because of this conversation, I was extremely aware of the audience demographics of the Springfield Symphony (which unfortunately reflects the demographics of most American concert-goers) and assumed the program in my lap would disappoint me. My ticket provider, oblivious to my snobbery, asked if I’d heard any of the composers before. I sighed and opened the program.

Of course Bach, preceded by Telemann. The conductor came on stage and made a joke about the government shutdown that day (another thing that can only be done in local orchestras). I looked ahead at the program, pleasantly surprised to see Piazzola’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. My ticket stranger loves tango, and said that’s what brought him to this concert.

“Especially the Golijov,” he said.

“The who?”

He looked at me blankly and pointed to the program in my hand.

Osvoldo Golijov, a living composer, who wrote Last Rounds for strings the year of Piazzola’s death. I wasn’t familiar. It was played standing, with the violins and violas intermingling in two columns to either side of the stage, the cellos and basses in rows in the back. The conductor said things like “sexy” and “lusty” and the audience chuckled.

It’s easy to know your audience when your audience is your hometown. The program survey insert seemed redundant.

They knew their audience and still made half a contemporary program: one composer was not white, and the other was not dead. What a far cry from the large orchestras with copy-and-paste masterworks concerts who claim Mozart and Beethoven are all their audience wants.

It’s not a cure to misrepresentation in classical music, but I left the concert hall feeling thankful and a little less cynical, opening the Snapchat replies to my potential call for help.

Don’t worry guys, I’m ok.

Please Livestream Responsibly

Studio class: An hour a week (or more) when all the music students of one applied professor get together for performances, lectures, and presentations.

I’ve been lucky to know studio class as a safe space. I’ve always been around such supportive flutists who really and truly want to see each other succeed, and give each other the tools to do it. It’s the ideal place to get through that first rough performance before an audition or recital—it’s just you and your colleagues, no competition, no ranking.

Studio class is a safe space. Until you film it on Facebook Live.

I have always struggled with being the best, which is inconvenient because I’m painfully aware I don’t stand a chance. With anything, fill in the blank. I don’t wear much makeup because I think I missed the age where it’s forgivable to do it badly, so now I just say it’s “natural” but really it’s quitting. You don’t see me putting my beauty routine on Facebook Live for a reason. 

Social media is usually blamed for this comparison syndrome. Yeah, I often strive for my hair/house/pets to look like my Instagram feed, and I won’t post a picture if I’ve found enough flaws (awful makeup skills, subpar camera resources, messy house, etc.), but I fell short even before I was on personal social platforms. My Neopets were far inferior to everyone else’s and it truly bothered me.

I will gladly support artists online. But in this world, I’m purely a consumer; I’m far too chicken and self-conscious to post my playing where someone might listen to it.

Then I agreed to help get our studio classes livestreamed.

Yesterday was our second livestream of the semester. The first one was to test the waters, ending after the piece was done and left out our comments and critiques. It was posted entirely from my iPhone and is shaky enough to be distracting. It got nearly 2,000 views and the most shares of anything else we’ve done.

Yesterday was an hour-long livestream (still entirely on my phone, but remarkably more steady) of three concerti for an upcoming competition this weekend. Suddenly, our bubble feels far less safe.

There is a popular philosophy among musicians that mistakes belong in the practice room only. You should only perform as the most perfect version of yourself, and don’t let anyone peep at the man behind the curtain. Yesterday, I messed up live on the internet and I can’t take it back.

This was an incredibly humbling experience. I thought I was over my performance anxiety, but seeing that tiny iPhone propped on a stand at the back of the hall alerted me to the audience I could be stressing over.


This feels just like a recital I’m not prepared for.
Everyone’s gonna hate this, and by extension, hate me.
Everyone I’ve ever befriended has access to this.
According to the internet, this is the most accurate representation of me as a performer.
Ohmygosh that piano is way brighter than I thought it would be.
I am representing not only myself and the studio but the entire grad program.
“Is this really the best they could get?”

(I hadn’t even played a note yet.)

All this over a livestream that had no more than 8 viewers at its peak and averaged around 3. I didn’t even really mess up that badly (not that I’ve listened past the first ten seconds). And this was for the edification of the entire class, not my own hyper-critical audition. Really, as far as career-destroying acts go, this was pretty benign.

I feel like I have so much to prove, like I have to be an immediately finished product. Progress is linear and if someone can pinpoint a weakness of mine that is a strength of theirs, I’m failing. I can’t let anyone know I’m failing.

I can’t believe I still think this way.


The best thing I learned from this is that I ain’t shit. And thank goodness for that. I’m allowed to be a work-in-progress. My mistakes aren’t restricted to the practice room, musical or otherwise. I’ve known and implemented this in other facets of my life, and I learn over and over these aren’t perfectly compartmentalized.

It wasn’t an honest performance; I held back far too much for it to be authentic. I guess if I can say the most embarrassing video of me on the internet is a bad performance, I’m doing fine.

I still removed the tag, though.

I Fell in Love with a Musician (Again): A Concert Review

It’s 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I just got home from a Chamber Music Yellow Springs concert at First Presbyterian Church. It’s raining, has been for hours, and I want nothing more than to sleep.

Instead, I’m sitting on my couch, in heels, grilling a sandwich, and writing this with the window open, because I know I won’t sleep until I do.


String quartets make me regret my instrument choice. Not only can string players swear while practicing (instead of having to halt air flow, curse breathlessly, and resume—a habit that has lately gotten me in trouble in lessons) and play whole entire chords at once, they also get all the coolest literature (to anyone who says string quartet isn’t the most metal instrumentation: Grieg String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor). Growing up in a small Oklahoma school district, orchestra wasn’t an option; it was band or bust. I’m not even sure I would’ve picked orchestra if I had the option. I only joined band because my friends did, and I’m pretty sure I never would’ve been friends with people who picked orchestra.

Tonight, twelve years after that decision, I sat in that worship hall watching Calidore String Quartet, knowing entirely I would’ve been their friend.

These tickets came to me by way of a text message Saturday night. I had other plans, cancelled them, and was offered an extra ticket I had a hard time giving away. Here, I hope, those people I offered it to will find remorse and redemption.

The previous owner of the tickets said: “The Janáček will be one to see. I couldn’t do the Haydn or Beethoven without…” *pantomimes nodding off*. Most of this statement was true.

The concert started with the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 64, No. 5, “The Lark,” which was by no means a snoozefest. It was the most Haydnian music you could ever imagine, with luscious melodies and comedic interjections that sometimes go right over the audience’s heads. Honestly—and no offence to Franzie here—you could forget the music entirely with this group. I’d be alright watching them on mute; I’d still feel in the silence. The three lower voices (second violin, viola, and cello) were perfectly in sync. They were the company dancers, choreographed and rehearsed at the barre in front of a wall of mirrors by a tough-love Austrian lady. It was a beautiful, wordless conversation. So mesmerizing I overlooked entirely the soloist of the group, the first violin. He was in a world of his own, moving in and out of the company’s shapes—or rather, above, since he was the Lark. I have nothing to say about Haydn’s music because I didn’t listen to it: I watched it. The audience begged to clap.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127, which was plain mean. I understand why this was programmed here: It’s the longest piece, it would have to stand on either side of the intermission alone, and it’s common practice to have the longer single piece at the end. But, as an audience member, it was exhausting. I wrote no notes on this one other than “why,” and “there was exactly 1 sexy moment in the entire piece,” referring to the second movement, Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, which was s e v e n t e e n   m i n u t e s   l o n g . This note was taken at minute 8, which in adagio time is more accurately hour 2. In true Beethoven fashion, the last movement was covered in false endings that just moved to another key, which is when I realized Beethoven is an asshole.

None of this matters, though, when I mention the Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer,” who stole my heart like a true Russian aristocrat and crushed it.

You may recognize the name as an affectionate reference to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, dedicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (probably also why Beethoven was programmed, but I’m still bitter), which inspired the Leo Tolstoy novella of the same name. This quartet is a dramatization of this novella.

The story follows Pozdnyshev, a misogynistic, hard-hearted man who doesn’t believe in love or gender equality, and his ill-fated marriage of passion and vicious fighting. He possibly loved his wife in the early years, most likely for her beauty and status, and this optimism for their future shows in the hopeful melody of the first movement. It is glorious, like a ship just leaving the docks, but lacks genteel manners needed for longevity. The dance melody of the second movement is celebratory, yet leaves something behind, a fog over the courtyard. The performers are happy, too, but it’s bittersweet: They know the ending.

The third movement shows the dark side of their home life: Passionate material love interrupted by hatred. Now the performers have transferred fully from musicians to thespians, telling the story with every part of their body, not just the instruments. Here, Pozdnyshev’s wife has taken up piano and began playing the Kreutzer Sonata with a violinist she soon falls in love with. The first violin and cello share a new melody, sweet and knowing—the love and music making shared in infidelity. It is interrupted by screeches of rage by the second violin and viola when Pozdnyshev learns of his wife’s adultery. He is telling his story on a train afterwards, and the fourth movement is reflective of the first, a shadow of itself. The performers lean back in their chairs, broken. They all ask for forgiveness with Pozdnyshev, who has been convicted of his wife’s murder.


What is it about live music that makes it so easy to fall in love with the performers? (I will call it love, despite Pozdnyshev’s fellow passengers contesting him on what makes true love; they surely would argue what I felt couldn’t possibly equate love, but I tell you that is all it could be. After all, as Pozdnydshev said, “What is love?”) Live music is itself a shared experience, a strong unifying one; a great performance is also vulnerable, and inspires the audience to be just as open and raw. I feel like I was laid bare and examined, despite never making eye contact with a single member of the quartet, and I’m unashamed. It is impossible to not instantly fall into a deep, temporary love right there on the poorly-cushioned pew. I selfishly hold this in me, and choose to ignore this experience wasn’t mine alone and is (to some extent) shared with other members of the audience. By intermission, I’m thankful no one took the extra ticket to break this illusion.

It is now 11 o’clock. It is still raining. My sandwich is gone. I will go to bed dreaming of Russia and my life as a string musician.