Every spring, the APU School of Music faculty sits down for dinner with the students who are graduating. Toward the end of the evening, the floor is open for students to talk to share about their experiences here, and for faculty to give a few words for the road ahead. Tonight, I said two things:
First, one of the hardest things about graduating is the collapse of structure. For the past 4 years, every minute of your day has been accounted for, you have to know certain things by certain dates, you have to show up once a week and play for someone who intimidates you just a little, you have been forced into some very good habits. The day after graduation, all of that goes away. No more juries, recitals, exams, no more weekly lessons. The collapse of structure can be devastating. Figure out how to build that structure back into your life, so that you continue the good habits that are part of being a good musician.
The second thing is this: you have a power and a freedom that many of us no longer have. You have the freedom to be poor (lots of laughs, most of them from faculty members who are pretty convinced they are still living with this freedom). There is a real freedom in that. If you can live poorly, you can make creative decisions for creative reasons, without having to worry about how much money the gig pays. Don’t trade that freedom away too soon.
Don’t buy a new car. Don’t take on debt. Find roommates, eat at home, don’t buy things you don’t need. The less money you HAVE to make each month, the less time you have to trade away for that money. You don’t want to live this way forever, but for these first few years, embrace the freedom of being poor. You may not ever have a time like this again.
I don’t mean to romanticize poverty, at all. I do, however, think that I started worrying about making money earlier in my career than I should have, and passed up on the chance to do some really great projects because they didn’t tally up on the bottom line.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts. I know as a group we’re all over the map in terms of both income and creative choices, I wonder how often we stop to think about the particular blessings of whatever situation we are in at the moment.
I’m usually pretty good at finding things in hidden corners of the internet, but I’m having a really hard time locating high-res photos of famous paintings. I’d really like to use Caravaggio’s painting “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”, but all I can find are embedded versions on people’s blogs. Anybody know where I can find the real thing? Well, not the real thing, but a big old high-quality photo of the real thing?
Or, if someone wants to loan me the real thing for a week, that would be cool too!
Artist Paul Fryer’s piece “Pieta” was recently put on display in a cathedral in Gap, France. Although it is certainly not unusual to see a bloodied representation of Christ, it is unusual to see him upon an electric chair.
I have often wondered how Christ would have been executed if his passion were to have taken place in modern times. Would he have died under the needle? Or perhaps dropped to his death with a rope around his neck? No matter the modern form of execution, none compare to crucifixion on the cross. As painful as death by electrocution, hanging, injection, or rifle must be it is over in an instant, modern methods seeking to be as “humane” as possible. The cross was designed for a long and violent death as the victim bled, choked, and asphyxiated to death. In fact, people were surprised that Jesus died as fast as he did.
I would be interested to hear what your initial reactions are to the piece. I appreciate the work for its craftsmanship. Works of wax have become eerily life like and an effective medium for portraying humanity. As for the chair, I do not find it to be as scandalous or shocking as it is described, but merely a modern viewpoint of the crucifixion; helping us realize that Christ was indeed executed by both religious and political authorities, institutions of men, rather than suffering an ethereal or metaphorical death.
What made me interested enough to post on the piece is where it was being displayed: a church. If “Pieta” was merely on display in a gallery it could be approached from a distance. It could be found interesting or provocative, perhaps arousing a curiosity as to the artist’s perception of Jesus and Christianity, but would remain distant or merely cerebral. However, within the Church, where Christ is the center and the cause for gathering in the first place, one is forced to grapple with their understanding who Christ is and what this image has to offer that understanding.
I commend this church for its willingness to present Christ to the people in this manner. People will be blessed.
I was introduced last week to the musical work L’Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky. It’s a theatrical setting of a soldier’s story, there’s a narrator, the soldier is making deals with the devil, there’s a fiddle involved, and several un-marchable-to marches. I guess I probably should have encountered it sooner, but let’s be honest, I spent most of my time in music history class drawing dirty pictures of buxom ladies in superhero costumes (this was before wifi, and WAY before facebook).
I loved it. I loved it even more when I realized, about mid-way through the second piece in the work, that I was not listening to two violins, but to one almost unplayable violin part. The work is written for a small chamber ensemble, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, percussion, violin, and bass (acoustic bass, not awesome bass). Every part in the ensemble calls for a virtuoso; it’s some of the most difficult writing you’re likely to every see for those instruments. You can watch a full version of it online, conducted by Esa-Pekka and played by an amazing collection of musicians.
It’s technically challenging, it’s also hauntingly beautiful and musically thrilling. I’ve been talking to different players about it, and the reaction is almost always the same; a wistful look of longing, some combination of words that boils down to, “I’d love to be able to play it. I’d love to be able to play it.”
It was the perfect time for me to encounter the piece. Earlier in the week, I did a reading workshop for my own piece, Our Father, Vindicate. The reading workshop is where a bunch of musicians get together, perform the work, let me stop and start them at whim, let me make changes to the score, basically they become a huge sequencer for me to work through some final decisions in the piece before committing to final ink. It was a wonderful experience (that’s a whole other post), with a group of our best students and a few professional singers reading down the parts. As good as they were, the piece was still almost unsingable at times.
I am not Stravinsky. Clearly.
But the combination of hearing great singers struggle through my piece, and then hearing world-class players grapple with the fist-full of notes in Stravinsky’s piece made be think about the obligations of the composer to their players.
I think there are three obligations that a composer has to their instrumentalists, when they decide to write technically challenging material.
First, it should be only as difficult as it must be to achieve the desired musical effect. This is the obligation not to write difficult music for the sake of the difficulty. There is no virtue in awkwardness, only in the musical effect.
Second, and this is where most young composers fall short, the composer has an obligation to understand the instruments they are writing for. If I am writing for violin, I should understand the instrument well enough that I can physically mimic how the player will approach the part, and can identify technical hurdles before the player ever sees the piece. This allows the composer to make informed decisions about the first obligation, to only write difficult passages when they are required. If moving the piece up a whole step places my violin double-stops on open strings, I should know that, and should be able to give a musical justification for why I decided to leave it in the more difficult key. Technical difficulty should never be the result of the composer’s arrogance, ignorance or apathy.
Finally, and most importantly, it is the obligation of the composer to ensure that the work justifies the challenge. This is the obligation to write well. If I’m going to give musicians a piece that requires substantial rehearsal, mental and emotional effort on their part, I better make sure that the end result justifies the work they are investing. Performing virtuosic passages requires the musician to internalize the music, to prepare it so well that it no longer comes from the page, but from the player. A musician who agrees to perform a work at that level is giving me access to their musicianship, allowing me to weave my musical ideas into them. That is a deep level of trust, and it obligates the composer to write up to a level that deserves such trust.
Toward the end of the week, I sat in and listened to a composition jury, where student composers preset the works they have written over the semester. It reminded me of how badly I’ve broke all three of these obligations in the course of my writing career. These thoughts have been rolling around in my head for a while, but the combination of these three experiences, Stravinsky, the reading workshop, and the juries, crystallized them into something usable.
I’m writing more difficult music today than I have before, but I hope I’m doing it for the right reasons. I hope I’m meeting these expectations myself.
I’m interested in hearing from those of you who are composers and performers. How does this fit with your experiences performing technically difficult works, or with writing challenging pieces?
So both of my sons have won the prestigious Principal’s Award at their school. Hooray… for Beth, “the good parent”, as some would call her. Ellie can sorta sing, is made for the stage, and all that. Hooray… for Beth.
MY contribution? Here’s a picture of Toby, my 8 year old. At Guitar Center. Playing Crazy Train. I almost cried.
If you are drinking water from the fountain in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, you should climb to the top of the Spanish steps, turn left, stop at the hilltop cafe to buy a lemon gellato, then walk another 500 steps up the bricked tree-lined walkway. All at once, the trees part, and you will find yourself standing on the garden terrace of the Medici Princes. It is the balcony of Rome, and from where you are standing, you can see everything.
To your right is the Vatican, the towering dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cathedral that birthed the Protestant Reformation. On the far side to your left, you can see the ruins of Imperial Rome, the city of the Caesars, just peeking out between and above the apartments and buildings. The arch and block architecture of Rome’s 1st empire on the left, and the dome and spire architecture of Rome’s 2nd empire on the right, and the whole city between is echo and cadence on those two themes.
The city is flowing with water. Every fountain in the city is fed directly from the Roman aqueduct, restored and doubled in capacity some 300 years ago. Is is fresh, clean drinking water, cool even on hot days, and the pride of the city. Romans will smile, and point to it, and say “Drink, drink! Is good!” Place your hand on the marble thigh carved by Bernini, stick your head into the stream of water, and drink!
Rome invites you inside her history. I expected ropes and barricades, a history to be viewed and appreciated, but never touched, not stepped on, or leaned up against, or drenched under. Instead, I placed my hand on wall etched with an ichthus 1700 years ago, deep in the catacomb tunnels. When I was tired, I sat down on the marble foot of a column set in place by Raphael when he was the lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. I sat on a wooden bench in the Sistine chapel where Michelangelo paused to eat his lunch, those few days he did pause, while painting The Final Judgement on the front wall of the chapel.
Every ancient thing in the city is in the city, in the midst of a teeming and vital urban center, with people living their lives, just as people have lived their lives since the tribes of the Three Hills first met together to trade in the sunken valley that would later become the Forum. Rome is not a museum. Her bones are wrapped in flesh.
Every ancient thing is a monument, a starting point and a prop in the telling of some great story, some story that moved the rudder of history, that set in motion some important thing still echoing today. This church, designed by this artist who was smuggled out of the French court by this pope, which caused this war between Spain and France, which is why this region is part of France to this day. This platform, from which Marc Antony delivered his impassioned eulogy of Julius Ceasar, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear,” which drove Brutus and Crassus from the city, opening a power vacuum in Rome that would be filled by Ceasar’s adopted son Octavian, whose ascent to the imperial throne sealed the fate of Rome as an empire ruled by tyrants, and no longer a republic. This dank and fetid hole, where Peter and Paul were chained to the wall for 19 months before being martyred for their faith. This archway, built in honor of Vespasian upon his return from Israel after destroying the temple in AD 70, the act that would cement his political power bloc and cloak him in purple, the act that would crush the national identity and religious center of Judaism for 1900 years. This chapel, where Michelangelo, the 33-year-old sculptor, who had never painted anything before, painted frescoes with such ferocity and realism that art changed around him.
Rome is the story of the church. She was incubated and born in Jerusalem, but she grew to maturity in Rome. Rome gave us engineering, architecture, and city planning. Rome gave us banking, and modern economic systems, and taught us how to build infrastructure. Rome is the story of the Renaissance, bankrolled in its prodigious infancy with papal commissions. Rome is a thousand stories, a hundred beginnings, all told with props and monuments that you can walk between, lay hand on, lead against, and on a hot day in July, splash your head beneath and drink deeply from.
Drink. Is good.
(click to see a slideshow of pictures from the whole tour.)
I found this to be fascinating. It’s a flash video of a pencil line drawing of a woman reclining, but it shows every step, from skeletal structures through to final shading. There are a few moments of nudity, but in a very hoity toity “Chagall Paints a Nude” kind of way. Click the image to see it.
I won’t be active here much in the next few weeks. Remember this? It’s now this:
I’m doing a record of my own songs this summer, and opening up as much of the process as possible to anyone who wants the voyeuristic thrill of watching somebody create an album. Stick, I know you, in particular, would love to know how records actually get produced. You can watch streaming video from the studio, subscribe to podcasts of the songs in process, with daily updated mixes.
The thing that will be hard for me, but I think interesting for other people, will be letting people see how much of the proccess is just plain ugly. Quick sketches of half-broken ideas, themes that aren’t quite thought through, pushed into demo form, then reworked, and reworked, until they emerge as the things we all listen to and love. Being, as I think most creative people are, inherently insecure about what I do, I usually wait until something is finished, polished, mixed, and shrinkwrapped before I even acknowledge that I had a hand in it. I want to preserve the idea of the inscrutible artistic muse, the illusion that inspiration strikes, and what emerges is just the song of the heavens echoing down through us. I’d rather not acknowledge the part of creativity that’s just plain mundane craftwork, from sometimes ugly raw material to finished product.
I think that’s a copout. It’s a way of distancing ourselves from the object of our work. If our hands are muddy, then we own the thing, and good or bad, it’s ours. On the other hand, if it was sprung full-grown from the head of Zeus, then we get to remain the amanuensis, and the criticisms don’t really belong to us.
Not this time. I’m in this thing. Good or bad, ugly or beautiful, my hands will be muddy all over it.
So, the website is 30dropframe.com. Come check it out. It’ll either be spectacular, or a complete tragedy. Either way, it’ll be interesting to watch.