One of my Chatter collaborators recently encouraged a musician to go onstage in jeans. “I don’t think you should have to wear special clothes to play classical music,” he said. At the time, my reaction was measured. I do like the performance ritual around classical music, and concert dress is part of that. But actually he was right, and I’m ready to go a step further: I don’t think you should have to be a special person to play classical music.
I have long hated the idea of “talent.” I remember hearing a pianist perform some flashy Chopin and seeing an audience member in front of me shaking her head, evidently in astonished disbelief at the abilities of the performer. I don’t want to be “impressed” by music. I don’t want music that makes me shake my head; I want music that makes me nod it. I don’t want to feel separation from the performer; I want to feel affinity, joy, recognition. I want communion.
My early antipathy to classical music exceptionalism was grounded in personal insecurity. I was not a prodigy, so I leaned toward philosophies that did not emphasize early or inborn talent. This was a survival strategy. I have also argued that talent does not exist, and I tend to stand by those arguments. But either way, the truth is that talent is boring. I’m interested in work. Talent tends toward safety and talent wants to be acknowledged. I care about what people do, not how they rate. Now my hatred of “talent” is political. We can no longer afford a musical culture based on invisible subjective hierarchies. I care about what people do. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. It doesn’t matter who your teachers were or what they thought about you. Music belongs to all of us. Go out and do something.
I don’t usually post articles here, and I don’t know if these are real, but Chuck Jones’ nine rules for writing Road Runner / Coyote cartoons are too good. Number three is especially poignant, in light of Andrew’s tweet mentioned above. I’ve always had an inexplicable fondness for these cartoons, since well before I fell for the Southwest, developed a love for canines, heard Hejira or read Rebecca Solnit. Some versions of Jones’ list contain a rule number ten: “The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.” I hope so.
Whenever I finish a tour, I find myself thinking back on it like the cut scenes that sometimes play over movie credits. I see a medley of fragments: of people and experiences, lines and laughs, weird food and bad sleep, sometimes a free beer or unexpected falafel. When Andrew and I arrived at Project Project in Omaha, our hosts were drinking Miller Lites, prepping the space for the show, and blasting All Things Considered over the PA. In Fort Worth, we played at a house gallery whose owner was embroiled in a legal fight with the city over whether the shopping cart hanging from a tree in his front yard was art, or hazardous storage. In Chicago, we heard about a cigar smoking race where the competition is who can smoke their cigar the slowest.
This of course squeezes out the boredom, discomfort, and disappointment. But actually I remember all of that well enough. The blessing is the people you visit, seeing slices of their lives, catching up for a few moments and flitting on; the blessing is also the bored moments of rolling countryside and rolling patterns of thought. This is where ideas come from. Andrew’s tweet says it all: “It’s tight how on tour you can plan multiple future tours and threaten to quit music entirely forever in the same sentence.” That’s the fertile dynamic right there. On the one hand, ideas are limitless and possibility is infinite. On the other, one day it will be over, and we don’t know when that day is coming. Both of these things are true. Look closely, at both at the same time.
All over the country, art scenes are being held together by the effort, good will, and personal investment of a small number of hard-working individuals. These are the people who produce, present, promote. We imagine them working in concert but often they work alone. “Scenes” are just people, one by one by one.
Time does not exist.
In 2019 all live music is experimental.
Sometimes people want to know whether I think I’m a better or worse pianist than such-and-such a person. I have a friend who likes to grow vegetables. Do people ask him to compare himself to other gardeners?
My old neighborhood coffee shop, Royal Coffee, is closing. The experiences described by the interviewees are representative. It was the first place I went on the first day I spent in Rogers Park in 2009. Ben and I used to meet there in the mornings and invent games of chance, work on compositions, complain about residency and contest applications. I was sitting at Royal when I took a deep breath and bought my first plane tickets to Guatemala. Two good friends of mine had their engagement photos taken there, and the owners gave them a cake for their wedding. There’s a photo of a bunch of us on the patio on the first warm day of the spring. Sometimes we met there amidst crisis, but mostly we met there on normal days when we didn’t have somewhere else to be.
My time in Chicago was a crisis of public space. I needed a place to go. I lived one block from a park with an enormous beach, but it is usually cold in Chicago. I wish we didn’t rely so heavily on private, commercial spaces for indoor gathering. It places so much pressure on individual business owners, and the reliance on their personal good will means a lack of continuity (see the article’s recitation of recent business closings in the neighborhood).
Before I moved to Rogers Park I briefly lived in Lakeview. I liked a place called Noble Tree, a three-story coffee shop. Each floor had a different vibe; it got quieter as you climbed the stairs. One time we were there with our laptops when a friend looked up at our silent table and said, “we’re just hanging out in a house with a bunch of strangers.” I didn’t stay long in that neighborhood. Noble Tree closed a year or two later.
I think from now on, whenever I hear or see the word “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurial” in any context whatsoever, I’m just going to scream as loud as I can for about five to ten seconds. That should help.
Three Augusts ago I walked through the doors of UNM’s music building to start another Master’s degree. I was about ten minutes early for the first entrance exam, and I walked into the classroom and walked right out again. It was the closest thing I’ve had in my adult life to a panic attack. At the time I could only articulate it like this: it was unbearable to walk into a room of fresh Master’s students and look in their eyes and see that they hadn’t yet been forced to confront the fact that they are completely and totally fucked.
Three years later, I am prepared to explain this differently.
The deeply unnatural thing about music school is that it is predicated on criticism. Your teacher’s job is to fill the hour with ideas about what’s wrong with your music. They are paid to care, or pretend as much, and to provide critique. If you look up to them, you might see this as a skill worth developing, and you too might begin to value and practice criticism.
As soon as you leave music school, you will never be in this situation again. As soon as you walk out those doors, the default position is that no one knows who you are and no one gives a shit about your music. No one is going to expend brain power critiquing it, and no one wants to hear your critiques either. Actually the situation is the reverse: now you have to do something music school never prepared you for, and I don’t mean operating Quickbooks. You have to come up with reasons for people to care.
You will find at times that you yourself have joined the group of people who do not care, and you will be forced to conjure reasons to keep yourself in the game, too.
They might not want to admit it, but this truth breaks a lot of young musicians’ hearts, and it’s why a lot of them quit within a few years, or end up back in the institution. For those of us who believe that a life in music is not necessarily the same as a life in music school, the road is a cold and bumpy one.
When one performance is described as “more musical” than another, I’m reminded of the encouragement to “just be yourself.” Is it possible to behave otherwise? Can any music be unmusical?
A piano teacher once told me I wasn’t Horowitz. Good to know: I’ll add him to the list. To date I have also determined that I am not Robert Oppenheimer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Jim Davis, the cartoonist of Garfield. Recent studies as to whether I am Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, thirtieth president of these United States) are within the margin of error.
Addendum to Word 63, on Bob Dylan: it would be appropriately Shakespearean to describe the current phase of his career not as a third act but as a fifth.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues