Tempest in a Teapot

Last May, Salastina performed the original 13-player version of Copland's Appalachian Spring. After the concert, I chatted with several audience members. I asked them if they planned on attending our season finale a few weeks later. The finale was to feature the music of six terrific LA composers -- five of whom would be there. I was looking forward to the concert as a highlight of our season. 

Sadly, there was a dismaying lack of interest among those I spoke with. One audience member engaged in a long conversation with me about it. I realized there was only so much I could tell her to convince her to attend. 

This challenge presented an opportunity. I decided to write a blog post outlining my contemporary music programming philosophy. It was important to me to do so honestly, and in a way that non-musicians could relate to. My hope was that it would encourage our audience to trust our taste. And that this, in turn, would inspire them to attend our performances of new music. 

Our subscribers received my post in an e-newsletter a few days before the concert. Feedback was very positive. The performance was well-attended and extremely well received. It was a highlight of the season for all of us. 

 A collage we received from Todd Mason, an audience member and composer in his own right. Bottom row, center: Kevin with Adam Schoenberg, Gernot Wolfgang, and Andrew Norman, whose pieces were performed at the concert.

A collage we received from Todd Mason, an audience member and composer in his own right. Bottom row, center: Kevin with Adam Schoenberg, Gernot Wolfgang, and Andrew Norman, whose pieces were performed at the concert.

A few weeks later, NewMusicBox expressed an interest in republishing my post. For those of you unfamiliar with it: NewMusicBox is an online publication of New Music USA, one of the country's premier granting organizations for new music. I was delighted that Salastina would get this kind of exposure. 

I was also, admittedly, bracing myself for backlash. New Music USA serves the cutting-edge. In no universe would I have penned my original piece specifically for their readership. Because the editors made almost no changes to my post, I feared that, taken out of its original context, backlash would be all the more considerable. I admired that the editorial staff at NewMusicBox was willing to take that risk. 

In standing by what I'd written, I was, too.

A funny GIF my friend Hauk shared with me in the aftermath of my post appearing on NewMusicBox

Reactions, in a nutshell

I was pleasantly surprised to see my post receive more than double the support of the other most popular articles on NewMusicBox in recent months. And I enjoyed watching people share my piece on social media. 

It also got some interesting conversations going, with good points made from different points of view. Here are some big questions that came up, which I'd love to save for future posts:

How subjective is art?
Does the intellectual elite really know best?
What, if anything, is fair to expect of audience members?

What makes a piece of music worth listening to?
What's the difference between popularity, accessibility, and universality?
What does all of this have to say about the purpose of music itself? 

The naysayers, though, were rather vocal. One reader wrote an extensive essay in response to mine. In a diplomatic gesture, one of the editors at NewMusicBox told me that they were "editing his essay closely to insure [sic] that this will not turn into yet another internet slugfest." Even so, there were plenty of fighting words thrown my way. And plenty of the comments to both of our articles were well-suited to the boxing ring. 

I found themes and presumptions that came up in the backlash revealing, and worth exploring.

Sorry you feel that way

Let's say I'd dedicated my career to composing "challenging" music that the vast majority of people in our society don't care to understand. The relevance of my life's work, my aesthetics, and my artistic community questioned? I'd absolutely personalize that. It's only human. (How do you suppose I felt reading a piece that went on at length about how I wasn't "a true advocate for new music?")

If New Music lives in an ivory tower, I live in the one next door. I can relate to how alienating it is to feel, or be made to feel, culturally irrelevant. I make two thirds of my living recording for film, TV, video games, and albums. In the studios, I am constantly reminded that the kind of music most people pay good money for is not the kind of music I love. This value disparity can be agonizing, and even existential.

For Lady Gaga's act at the 2009 American Music Awards, I was covered in black body paint, dressed in a gas mask, and hoisted into the air in a transparent cube filled with dry ice. Meanwhile, I fake-played a fake violin. Ever the professional, I donned my best Poker Face  -- Lady Gaga pun intended -- and kept my existential crisis to myself. 

It took about a week for all the black schmutz to fully dislodge from my cuticles. Closeup of me around 3:45 in the video below.

Just about the least me gig I've ever done. (Kevin said he "peed a little" when he watched this.)

In all seriousness: I am able to dedicate as much time and energy as I do to Salastina because my livelihood is subsidized by this very value disparity.

This is not to say that my field is dying, or irrelevant. On the contrary: the niche it occupies is thriving in many ways. We have the good fortune of living in an enormous world, full of different kinds of people and their equally varied interests. That said, classical and contemporary classical music do not enjoy the mass appeal I feel they deserve. 

For personal and humanistic reasons, however, I see no sense in reproaching society at large for a lack of depth. I've always felt that we should direct our efforts at opening the Ivory Tower's gates. Why insist on a moat?

Confirmation bias

Selective reading betrayed confirmation bias among some NewMusicBox readers. A few accused me of "disparaging" and "maligning" a composer in my original post. In it, I'd shared a story about attending a particularly insufferable concert. I'd declined to name the composer, the presenting organization, and even the geographic region in which the concert took place. How was this libelous?

A few others raised their pitchforks over what they perceived as false "generalizations." More than one reader was of the opinion that the term "modern music" itself is meaningless. Like most people, I assume that "modern music" means "music written today, or recently." To me, such an insistence on semantics betrays an understandable sensitivity. 

I certainly do make generalizations based on what I've seen, felt, and experienced over the years. (Who doesn't?) 

For instance: with few exceptions, I loathe most classical minuet/trio movements. Schubert's orchestral music often bores me silly. A part of me dies every time I am called upon to play his 9th Symphony -- the so-called "Great" C Major. But I love much of his chamber music; Salastina has performed his sublime cello quintet several times. 

When it comes to new music, I admittedly groan a little inside when I see an encyclopedia of instructions inside my part to a new work. ("Insert champagne cork between D and A strings," etc.) That said, some of my favorite contemporary works call for unusual sound effects.

Here's something that's come up on several occasions over the years, while playing various composers' premieres. After giving impossibly difficult passages our best shot, groups I've played in have requested simplifications. Upon being told: "no, please play what I wrote," we would often make the change anyway. Why? Because more often than not, the composer failed to notice the difference -- despite insisting on what he'd written. 

Is it "closed-minded" to call BS on that? While some might disagree, I personally do not buy that this sort of thing doesn't matter. On one such occasion, no less than Joan Tower observed the composer's abuse of our good graces with: "why are you doing this to them?"

It's not about me

Every time a new piece lands on my stand, I really want to like it. It reminds me of serving on an audition panel. Each time a candidate walks onstage, I want him or her to be the one who'll blow me away. I tell my students the same thing: every time you walk out there, the audience wants you to do well.

For something to be exceptionally good, it has to stand apart from the norm. The norm is, by definition, the category most things occupy. Therefore, most of what's written -- and what's been written -- cannot be exceptional. Bach's contemporaries, for example, were not Bach. (Love you, Vivaldi. You too, Leclair and Telemann. Don't be mad; it's nothing personal.) 

I am not guided by the dictum that all music deserves to be heard. Does it deserve to be looked at with an open mind? Of course. Do I then have the right to dislike it, or to prefer something else? Of course. Why categorically chalk dislike or preference up to closed-mindedness? 

Several NewMusicUSA readers presumed that my opinion must be borne of "ignorance." They did so with varying degrees of condescension.

One reader mansplained me with the most cliché 20th century music history lesson there is. So cliché, in fact, that I'd almost included it in my original post. (I'm referring to this one: after two World Wars, composers couldn't write pretty music anymore...

My major in college was musicology. I graduated with honors from Yale, which boasts one of the strongest departments in the world. One of my favorite courses was 20th-Century Music History.

Some New Music USA readers assumed I mustn't know that there is "more than one kind of new music." One charmingly suggested that I "muster the energy and the guts to browse through the vast offerings on You Tube," while another implored me to check out the work of a host of composers -- all of whom I was familiar with, and all but one of whose music I had played. 

One of the composers suggested to me was Esa-Pekka Salonen.  

 Here I am, at 15, after playing concertmaster in a side-by-side performance with the LA phil under someone whose music i should "check out." Note the look of Abject disdain on my face.

Here I am, at 15, after playing concertmaster in a side-by-side performance with the LA phil under someone whose music i should "check out." Note the look of Abject disdain on my face.

I have played several of Salonen's works under his baton with his former orchestra (the LA Phil). More generally speaking: I've been a professional violinist at a high level in a cultural capital for over a decade. My home city -- Los Angeles -- has deservedly made headlines recently for being a center for new music. As a result, I've played my fair share of it -- for smaller series and festivals and larger institutions alike. This is to say nothing of my work commissioning, programming, rehearsing, artistic directing, preparing lectures about, marketing, teaching, recording, and applying for grants in support of new music as co-director of Salastina. 

Salastina is not exclusively devoted to new music. We make no such a claim. While the generation of new art is intrinsic to what we do, it's not our sole purpose. Yes, it's incumbent on me to keep up with what's going on with new music. But it is not the single focus of my artistic life. 

Do I know it all? Of course not. That being said: it's safe to say I've "done my homework." So where does this presumption of ignorance come from?

I'm inclined to think my opinions have little to do with it. If you're allergic to pine, it's only natural that you'd miss the forest for the trees -- especially if someone's annoyingly waving the needles in your face. (Hi.)

It's really not about me

As a presenter, I am looking for something to speak to me above and beyond most. Why else would I want anyone else to listen? Out of obligation? 

My life is full of that as it is. As a professional musician, I give whatever's in front of me my best shot. That's not a question of taste; it's a question of integrity. Yes, I am extremely lucky to do what I love for a living. But sometimes, it's just a job, like anything else.

Being a musician is not always about playing what I love. As a member of the LA Chamber Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony, I have zero say over the music we play -- new or old. (For that matter, I have little say over how we play it.) I am required to bring my skills to everything we perform at my highest level. Whether I like it or not is irrelevant. 

Playing ambient whole notes and repetitive, simplistic background music in the studios can be mind-numbing work. (At best, it can also be a ton of fun.) My enjoyment doesn't matter. I am called upon to summon the stamina and concentration to produce as beautiful and clean a tone as I can. In the context of film scoring, it's not only not all about me -- it's also not all about the music. After all: the music serves the picture. 

While touring Europe with the Divan Consort, a California-based contemporary chamber music ensemble, I gave my all to loads of new music I didn't personally care for. No one -- not audiences, not the other members of the ensemble, and certainly not the composers -- needed to know whether or not I really liked each and every piece we played. In this kind of context, the best you can do is go with it, having faith that it's for an important cause.

While there are some masterpieces I truly never tire of playing, others can grow a little stale. The great soloists come to mind. How many hundreds of times have they played the standard concerti, each time trying to discover something new? This question of artistic integrity is essentially a question of commitment. Playing (or teaching) the same repertoire over and over again is not unlike being married. Both are all about the beauty and challenges of finding new things to love about, and new ways to relate to, someone you know very intimately. 

In any situation, it's my job as an artist to find the beauty in whatever's put in front of me. To serve as an open channel between the composer and the audience. It can be rather Zen to get over yourself -- your nerves, your mood, your artistic preferences. As a musician, I am always pushing myself to get to that place. 

But some pieces make it easier to tap into inspiration than others. Sometimes, you've got to dig pretty deep to find it. Sometimes, it can't be found at all. That's when all you can do is bring your skills to bear as best you can.

Far more often than not, it doesn't matter. I don't have a choice. 

It's not about you, either

Contrary to what one reader asserted, I do not "blame composers" for the above-mentioned demands of my profession. 

I will, however, cop to having expectations. Like all classically-trained musicians, I grew up on a steady diet of masterpieces that have stood the test of time. By definition, new music hasn't yet reaped the benefits of passing through posterity's filter. That being the case, I am entirely unapologetic about using my own when I am in a position to do so. 

The author of NewMusicBox's rebuttal wrote the following:

"While the author claims to “love and respect” composition, and to be a champion of contemporary music, the entirety of the article is an explication of what a single concert programmer expects contemporary music to do for her."

95% of my income comes from contexts in which I have no say over what I play. Last week, during a dinner break at one such gig, I was speaking with Amy Tatum, a friend and colleague. She spoke to the importance of making time to perform works we are truly passionate about. This crucial soul-feeding makes us better at our job the rest of the time. It keeps our inspiration muscle toned. Why else did I start Salastina?

So, yes: when it comes to programming any music for Salastina concerts -- including new music -- I unequivocally, unapologetically expect it to do something for me. 

A few New Music USA readers assumed that my post itself was directed at composers. This is an understandable personalization. Nowhere did I make any pleas, or give any instructions, to composers. (This entry, on the other hand, is addressed in part to those upset by my post.)

Just because I loathe Schubert's 9th doesn't mean he shouldn't have written it. Just because I hate minuet/trio movements doesn't mean they aren't a reflection of the time in which they were written. Just because Bach's contemporaries didn't stand a relative chance doesn't mean Vivaldi, Telemann, and Leclair -- or any number of those whose names have been forgotten, if never remembered -- shouldn't have bothered. 

Likewise: just because I'm not Deborah Borda doesn't mean I shouldn't run a nonprofit music series in Los Angeles. Just because I'm not Alex Ross doesn't mean I shouldn't write about music. Just because I'm not Itzhak Perlman doesn't mean I shouldn't play the violin. 

So just because composers might (correctly) assume that their writing style wouldn't speak to me should by no means disincentivize them. Who knows? I might like one piece, and not another. Who cares? There's a good chance somebody will like it enough to play it.

I might even be required to give it my all someday in a different musical context. As a professional, I can tell you I will. 

You do you; I'll do me

To conclude on a high note: here's another story I'll keep anonymous.

At Chapman University last year, I had the privilege of teaching a senior composition major. He was a star of the department, and is now enrolled in graduate school at a wonderful university. I was, and am, very fond of him. Proud, too.

He was studying violin with me, having played the instrument since he was a child. His playing was advanced.

He was full of enthusiasm for the craft of composition, the role of music in society, and the development of his own musical voice. He even introduced me to a few composers I hadn't heard of before. While his taste certainly preferred more "challenging" works than mine does, there were plenty of things we geeked out over together. 

Not a single lesson went by without him letting me know how little he'd been sleeping. (Two to four hours a night was not unusual.) I would implore him to take better care of himself -- while doing my best to conceal my amusement at his not-so-subtle plea for pathos and, more poignantly, respect. 

For his senior project, he decided to write solo violin caprices. We spent our lesson time going over both his musical choices and his notation. We also worked on how he could play his own pieces better. And I told him how I would interpret them if they were to land on my stand.

A good proportion of our lessons, though, were spent talking about music. One of the more memorable conversations we shared occurred when he asked me for feedback on one of his pieces. I sensed an endearing need to know if I liked it. Eventually, he came right out and asked: "Would you ever play this on a Salastina concert?"

My answer -- which I suspect he knew -- was no. But instead of telling him so, I said: "why are you asking me that?"

Our conversation evolved from there into whether or not that sort of thing really matters. How as human beings, we can't help but care what other people think; but as artists, we are obliged to follow the direction our voices carry us. And if something is genuinely speaking to us, there's a chance it'll speak to others. The best all of us can do is cultivate the former in order to achieve the latter. 

Who knows? If the right piece by my former student comes along, Salastina will leap at the chance to play it. What matters: he's up in grad school, doing his thing in earnest.

And I'm down here, doing mine.