IN PURSUIT OF AN EXTERNALLY FACING ARTISTIC PRACTICE
Note: this speech was given on May 11th, 2017 at the 3rd annual New Music Gathering in Bowling Green, OH. It was originally published in the Log Journal, and that post, as well as a video of the speech, can be seen here.
Good afternoon. Let me start by thanking the organizers of New Music Gathering, the support staff, and you, my fellow artists. I am very honored to be here.
I have learned a lot in the preparation of these remarks, not the least of which is how inexperienced I am at preparing formal remarks. I hope I have gotten the tone right. I just want to be sure that, over the next 25 minutes or so, you never feel that I am telling you how to live your life or make your art. In fact, in more than 35 years of university teaching I have never knowingly instructed anyone — I far prefer teaching to instruction. So instead of this configuration, what Kafka skewered in “Josephine and the Mouse Folk” as “one person looking one way and everybody else looking the other way” — which is so often a geometry of pointless introspection — I’d like for us to imagine that we are all standing on the same side of this room, looking out together at the same thing. That way if I point at something, the focus will not be on the act of pointing, but on the outward gaze, on what we are looking at together.
We’ll be looking at the future, and a way of sustaining our art together. You should know, here at the outset, that sustain is how I understand the word “support,” the topic of this gathering. In fact in many languages — from the French supporter, to the German unterstüzten, to sostenere in Italian, from which we get a word we all know, its past participle, sostenuto — sustain is what most people mean when they say support.
So let’s talk about that, which means talking about the future and how to get there. And like many discussions about the future, this one begins in the past.
My first memories of my father were of him standing in a field, squinting at the horizon, the way farmers do. And while he was looking outward, I was looking inward, content with my mystery novels and early drum lessons. I was not destined to become a farmer.
I am still pulled inward. And now I will share an unvarnished truth: I am often tempted to leave the public side of my art and just practice my instrument, happily spending mornings hiking and afternoons doing nothing more than making beautiful mezzo forte tam-tam strokes or creating a new version of The King of Denmark. This is not a valediction — I have no intention of retiring from concert life anytime soon! But I do yearn for inwardness, for the simplicity of playing and for the sweet contact of stick on instrument. I long for the uncomplicated moment when I first fell in love, deeply and dangerously, with percussion. And thinking again of my father, I even long for the day when I announced that, no, I was not going to continue my pre-medical education. And no, I was not getting a teaching credential, just to be safe. But rather, Yes! (What a frightening and affirmative day that was!) Yes, to devoting my life playing new music as a percussionist! Music by living composers! So much was unknown then, but there was also great clarity and energy and simplicity. There was the beckoning expanse of the future. There was sustainability.
My dad’s displeasure at my decision was titanic, but he came around eventually and secretly bragged to his friends about my success in an “unconventional” life. But the risk at that moment, to my future financial security and, far more importantly, to the image of myself reflected in his eyes, was extreme. When I needed reassurance that my path was the correct one, I turned to the sounds of percussion — the punchy, wispy, earsplitting, glorious sounds of my art. They comforted and sustained me.
At the current moment, however, sounds alone are not enough. It’s a question of balance. At age 19, an existence founded on finding the perfect tam-tam stroke or a silky smooth snare drum roll was thinkable. At age 63, it is not. Today, with the responsibility I feel toward my art, to my students and community, and with what I know about our world, music as a solipsistic solo venture is not sustainable. The simplicity of hitting things can wait. What I need now is the sustenance of a rich connection between music and the rest of life. I am forced to turn outward.
In order to make music, I need three healthy relationships: with the materials of my art, with the world around me, and with the people with whom I share it. These are the building blocks of what I think of as an externally facing artistic practice. The goal of an externally facing practice is to become as complete a human being as possible, in whose life music plays a central and defining role. On the other hand, the goal of an internally facing practice — the default stance of much academic training, especially in this country — is to be the most skilled musician possible. A rich and rewarding extra-musical life is secondary. The external view is built on education; the internal one on training.
A propos the internally facing artistic world: have you ever noticed the standard publicity photos of classical musicians? Cellists in loving embrace with their cellos, pianists leaning on their pianos, conductors in their private peri-orgasmic worlds. These are not mere portraits of concentration, but demonstrations of a deeply felt policy toward musical material, holding that a profound connection to music requires only the musical moment itself. The gaze must always face inward; the real world is to be excluded. Musicians in this state of suspended reality often report that they feel at one with their instruments — and why not, if nothing external intervenes. A cello becomes a torso, the saxophone a kind of lung. Therefore, to think about music is de facto to think about oneself. The salutary goal is purity of purpose, but the disappointing results reveal the burdens of self-expression and excessive ambition.
However, the inward gaze was never really possible for me. Not that I didn’t try. But, as a young percussionist playing tuned saw blades, railroad spikes, bits of discarded pipe, and frying pans, I just couldn’t do it. How could I “become one” with a saw blade, or cradle a railroad spike under my chin at a glitzy photo shoot? The more I played percussion music, the more I realized that I could not expect my instruments to become me; I had to become them. Percussion music forced me to turn away from myself and, though it does not come easily for me, to look outward, toward the world.
The external orientation of “becoming my instrument” has had practical ramifications. On a corporeal level, when I play the angular array of discarded junk in Iannis Xenakis’s Psappha, my motions become, similarly, angular and machine-like. The more rounded set-up of his Rebonds, which I will perform tomorrow, produces a more curvaceous choreography. A bass drum is essentially a large container of air, so an extended bass drum moment in the music of Gérard Grisey, for example, has a pneumatic, practically bel canto quality. John Luther Adams’s music for multiple triangles, not so much. The physical touch there is small and quivering, just like the instruments themselves.
I do not shape this music; I am shaped by it.
But physicality is just one domain. Instead of the inwardly facing vectors of so much concert music, spiraling as they do toward the dense, hermetic language of fine distinctions, the porous leading edge of percussion music draws us into an ample space of interconnectedness.
Talk about support! When I first touched a drum as a child in a small Iowa town, I also touched the lives of my musical ancestors — drummers, most of whose names we no longer know, who centuries ago played under the starry skies of West Africa or escorted a funeral march in New Orleans or, like my great grandfather, led a regiment of Mr. Lincoln’s army into battle. I also touched the life of the animal that gave its skin, and held in my hand the tree that was felled to make the shell. Percussion was my outward-bound conduit to everywhere and everything.
And then there’s noise, the maternal language of percussion. Imagine that music is not constructed, but whittled. That we start with a supreme all-noise and create music by removing whatever is not needed. Imagine also that this all-noise is a step beyond white noise, moving beyond simple acoustical saturation to include all sounds that have ever existed, from the Babel of ancient languages to the calving of glaciers; from the anguish of Cassandra to Harmon Killebrew belting a hanging curveball deep into the Minnesota night. And music, which is the artful fenestration of all-noise, contains all of it: the whole crackling, humming, beautiful historical mother lode of noise!
Noise may be the natural language of percussionists, but we are not unique. Touching any instrument means touching the face of this supreme noise. Imagine that a cellist touches not only the music of Bach and Ustvolskaya, but also a past of ageless wood and gut strings. A flutist holds in her hands not only a tool optimized for the performance of Mozart or Saariaho, but also a tubular conduit to breath and to the wind itself. And to be an organist, buoyed by centuries of reverberations echoing through cold vaulted air, touching the lives of joyous celebrants and lonely penitents! Extraordinary!
An externally facing practice demands that we transcend the claustrophobia of the concert hall and imagine our art not as a set of skills, but as an ethical orientation to the world. And it is to the world that we now turn.
Until recently, musicians were unashamed to take inspiration from the natural world. It was expected that a composer would relate deeply to the outdoors. From the Pastoral Symphony to Brahms’s Second, to storm scenes in Berlioz, Rossini, and Debussy, even to Wozzeck drowning in a moonlit lake, the natural world was the natural habitat of musicians. But around the end of the Second World War, not coincidentally about the time our collective posture towards memory and historical legacy changed, we largely turned our backs on the natural world.
But stop, you’re undoubtedly thinking. What about John Luther Adams and his music of Alaska, and now the Sonoran Desert? What about Eve Beglarian’s trip down the Mississippi River or Peyton MacDonald’s epic bicycle marathons and the music that has resulted? David Dunn? Pauline Oliveros? Olivier Messiaen? Exactly! Precisely because these are the few well-known examples of art inspired by nature, they are also the few well-known exceptions to the norm.
I’m not arguing for more program music about the outdoors. I am arguing that a complete person needs a deep connection to the natural world, in whatever shape that may take. You can start by walking outside, closing your eyes and smelling the promise of rain over the light green fields that surround us. Whether as a response you, as artist, make music about that or not, is your business.
So let’s forget about art for a moment. Let’s not aim to make nature-infused music. Let’s turn our back on the processed, easily metabolized images of nature, what the writer Barry Lopez has called “eco-porn.” In fact let’s admit that living fully in the natural world means that it cannot be a constant source of material for new music. Maybe it’s time to admit that we’ve carried the Cage legacy too far. In 1952, it was fresh and revelatory to think that every sound was music. But today I hope that a composer can go to Cuba for two weeks without it being the basis of a new piece. And, I hope that a peaceful moment in the sun can be just that and not another performance of 4’33”. If everything we do is art, then where do we rest, where do we find peace? If everything is music, where do we find music? A healthy externally-facing artistic practice demands the energizing presence of not-art. And, if we can accept it, not-art is what the world offers us in great abundance.
Eleven years ago I embarked on my own grand art-making project. That it failed as art and quickly became not-art, changed my life profoundly. I walked from San Diego to San Francisco, about 1,000 kilometers, over the course of a little more than six weeks. Initially I thought I was walking to listen to the noises of the California coast and to examine the possibility that, as a percussionist trained in the art of noises, I might have some special insight into the environmental noise of my home state. Could environmental sound alone offer wisdom about our place in the world, our relationships with others?
I planned to write a book about my walk, theorizing my aural experiences as a 21st century manifestation of Cage. Well, several years later I have told the stories many times, but I have not written the book. It turns out that the stories are interesting; my theories are not. I even knew it at the time. Two hundred miles into my walk, just as I approached the gleaming scimitar of Zuma Beach north of Malibu, it struck me that I was not walking to San Francisco to make art or write a book, but for a very different purpose, to propose to my girlfriend Brenda, now my wife, who was living there at the time. As a result I spent the remaining 500 miles in a state of constant delight, not in chin-scratching inquiry. It’s a far better way to start a marriage.
“All-noise” led me to “not-art” — and, in the process, revitalized my understanding of both art and noise.
What comes next?
Yes, what can we say about the ascendancy of Donald Drumpf to the presidency, except to paraphrase the great Tom Waits? “The higher the monkey climbs, the more he shows his butt.”
This historical moment has electrified many of us in ways not seen since 1968. And we musicians are wondering how we can be a part of it. I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but at least we start by speaking the right language. I mean language in a literal sense. We’ve all learned a lot of Italian, French and German by studying musical scores. Thanks to Beethoven and his Appasionata sonata, even as a child I knew the Italian word for “impassioned,” and from Debussy I got an early sense of the French and their précipité — their impetuousness. I learned the wonderful list of words that mean playing or singing together: ensemble, tutti, sonata, cantata, and the very word “concert” itself. In the language of music we find expressions for passion, energy, motion, playfulness, elegance, protest, and togetherness. We even find strong emotions representing sadness, anger, resistance and rage. But we should take solace from the fact that you can scour a music lexicon and will not find a musical term for bigotry or condescension; racism or homophobia. No music is marked by the crude slurs of predatory sexism, and you’ll never see an Italian phrase that means, “Muslims not welcome.”
I conduct the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, a community ensemble of three hundred extraordinary musicians who make music for love and not for money. I have proposed to them and to our listeners — and they have accepted—that we can no longer afford an internally facing art, that the quality of a musical experience is not the sum of its sonic attributes, but moving beyond that, its impact as a moral experience. We still care greatly about accuracy in interpretation, but accuracy alone is not enough.
In a recent performance of La Mer, we asked our listeners to imagine not just what the sea sounds like but what it means: as a site for science or leisure, as a canary in the well of climate change, or as a promise of passage to a better life. We maintained that a great performance of La Mer is not possible without imagining overcrowded dinghies foundering in the Mediterranean, without hearing the cries of refugees as they sink by the thousands beneath the waves, responding to what is, in essence, the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis of the past half-century. Where this will lead, we do not know, but our hope is that such an imagining will confer not just entertainment but also responsibility.
Action on a social level is not simply a matter of making music as well as possible. I am increasingly troubled by Leonard Bernstein’s response, formulated in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that to heal a grievous wound we must “make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.” Perhaps that was enough for Bernstein and a nation united in grief. But it seems like a hollow dictum now, since at this moment we are not united, but rent by savage crosscurrents of contention, bigotry, and cruelty. And, anyway, are we not already making music as intensely as possible?
What would it mean to go further than Bernstein? Or as one San Diego church posted recently on its marquee: “What would you do if you were brave?”
Again, I will refrain from instructing you. Each of us needs to decide for him- or herself what that might mean. But, friends, it’s America in early 2017, so at the very least I ask us to hear the nearly inaudible sounds of our culture — we are musicians after all, and if we cannot hear them who can? I ask us to hear the fearful voices in local synagogues and Jewish Community Centers as the damnable virus of anti-Semitism makes a comeback in our midst. I ask us to hear the sick and alone, who now fear for their health and indeed their very lives. I ask us to hear the voices of immigrants in our cities — our neighbors and our friends, our brothers and sisters, who are now living in a penumbra of uncertainty and fear, and to hear the voices of fellow citizens who are at risk for violence simply by walking down the street in the skin color that God gave them. And I ask us to hear the voice within each of us that reminds us that music is not merely a set of skills. Making music today must be about nothing less than asserting moral force. It must be about how we — we who have so much and who live so fully — can act responsibly in a world where so many have so little. It must be about the voices too faint to hear.
Somewhere between the ascension of science in the late Renaissance — where facts came to mean everything — and the political landscape of the early 21st century — where they seem to mean nearly nothing — we’ve lost track of the role of music as a divining rod for the truth. Yet as I look around this room I see much reason to hope for revelation and illumination through music. You are dreamers; you are thinkers; you are dry kindling ready to burst into flame. But most importantly you are musicians, born of noise, rooted to the earth, and connected to other people.
The poet Gerald Stern told me once that he defined poetry as a “rifle loaded with the future.” Ah, the future! We are indeed standing on the same side of the room, looking at the future. Some of you here may live to see the 22nd century! Please say hello from those of us who won’t make it. That’s a welcome reminder that ours is fundamentally an optimistic project, since making new music requires of us to believe in future audiences, future artists, future ideals, and future idealists. There is a lot of work to do before we get there. And while that thought might seem daunting, let’s take comfort from these lines by the American poet, Wendell Berry.
The Real Work (Wendell Berry)
“It might be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work.
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Thank you for listening.