Meditation on the Nonessential Art

Artists aren’t surprised to be counted among the economically nonessential. If nothing else, it gave fuel to our haughty self-proclaimed cultural urgency, which has persisted through centuries and somehow pushed us to make more during a pandemic, further romanticizing the plight of the suffering artist as the “true” essential work. It’s a dying belief many can agree is based on gender, class, and racial privilege, but many are reverting to nonetheless. Shakespeare, a white man, wrote three tragedies about loss and class during the Plague, blind to the irony.

History is percentages and descriptions of eras. We believe we are smarter than the people who lived through past pandemics because we can look at their mistakes now and see their catastrophic outcomes before they could. Future history books will be just as cruel starting at 2020.  As the Allies of WWII are defined by the words of Churchill, we too are subject to the legacy of our leaders. As Toni Morrison devastatingly wrote, “It is awkward to differ from a great man, but Tolstoy was wrong. Kings are not the slaves of history. History is the slave of kings.”

Luckily, art has regularly provided counterpoint to the ruling class. In classical music, there is an odd genre of “protest music” — music that served as a large public display of dissent, involving dozens of possibly unknowing musicians and hundreds of audience members, all masked as an evening of entertainment. (Hint: in the mainstream orchestral canon, much of this music is Russian.) We tend to put the burden of speaking up to the voiceless, or whom we consider so. We want the oppressed to respond beautifully, in galleries and concert halls, so we can lift them up a foot or two after they’ve climbed brutal miles alone.

I am thinking about the art that informs another: sculptures come from symphonies, which come from novels, which come from folktales, or any countless combinations of those plus others. It’s not about preserving culture, but building upon it. Even in an apocalyptic society, scraps can be resembled, but the goal should never be recreation. More accurately, I am thinking about how we can make something new now, not something that somehow recreates what we once had. 

We continue to be a discipline that looks back. This is in part due to how we write our own history: with titles in the rear view. Postmodern. Post-romantic. Neoclassical. We celebrate the protests past and neglect the issues in front of us. Now more than ever we need to seek out and celebrate diverse music; now more than ever we need to address the uneven distribution of resources to do so. 

Our eras are named for the large-scale societal events and the art that reflects them. I’m happy to see a spike in accessible digital performance during these two months of social isolation, but it would be a waste if this was the protest music of our era. Living room concerts are in solidarity, not opposition. Both are valid and necessary, but one carries more teeth, the other forces us to address our privilege. It’s simultaneously sexist, racist, and classist to think we all live in this same era together, and not with some of us watching it unfold from the sidelines. 

This is all combined with our collective ambivalence to make anything at all. The ability to battle through that also comes from privilege. Our history of the moment shouldn’t be surveyed like a bag of rice, quantifiable data only. It’s a true lack of imagination to be blind to the inequities. 

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”:

Here is a video of the world premiere of Tre Canzone by Claude Baker: