I was speaking to a friend about the quality of her education. I have to admit that this time around I have no concern for this quality, in the abstract. I was abstract enough during my first master’s degree. This time—again, I don’t want to be crass, but I see it as vocational school. I want to learn collaborative piano like I’m training to be a master electrician. I want everything to work. My goal is not any Platonic ideal of musical accomplishment but only that the lights turn on when someone flips the switch.
If anything, I wish my education as a composer had been more technical. I may not have been entirely in the mood for this during my first master’s degree, when I was spending a lot of time sitting at coffee shops writing esoteric plays with titles like Equinox. (It took place at a drilling station in futuristic ANWR, and the main characters, Smitty and Anchorage, conversed at night with their younger selves.) What I got, mainly, was ideas and exposure. That isn’t nothing. I met some real musicians, and got to spend serious time with them. But what I really stand behind as an educational model is what I got in Paris with the European American Musical Alliance. This program bases its approach on that of Nadia Boulanger, who very rarely looked at her students’ original music, but rather schooled them all day long on hard-core musicianship exercises. You want to write music? Great, write music. You want to learn composition? Okay, you’re going to learn to sight-sing; you’re going to read Bach chorales in open score; you’re going to practice realizing figured bass lines in four parts with good voice leading. Then go home and write some music if you want. At least you'll know a thing or two about proper wiring.
As a mystical counterpoint to this pragmatism: still, sometimes, when I’m onstage playing, and usually when I’m not expecting it, I catch a glimpse of someone in the corner of my eye: the spirit of music that has accompanied me all this time, still there, smiling, up in the catwalks.
I learned years ago that getting along musically and getting along personally are not separate concerns. Here’s something I’ve learned more recently about chamber music: two people, always, is a relationship. Add a third, and you’ve got yourself a band. This doesn’t make the dynamics less complicated. But it can make them less intense.
I like Brahms. I do. Just, not for me. For me Brahms is like a really excellent pair of vintage thrift-store jeans that simply don’t fit.
I’m beginning to suspect if there might actually be something irreconcilable between me and German Romanticism. I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably related to my total lack of any relationship with the orchestra and its repertoire. I don’t really understand the orchestra as a method of social organization, and I don’t really understand it as a musical entity, either. A lot of nineteenth-century European music came from the piano. But the orchestra might be even more fundamental. Maybe if I went and spent a year or two just listening to orchestra music, maybe then I could play Brahms.
When I was in high-school physics, my friends and I were assigned to make a bridge out of paper and glue. This was a sort of competition. Whichever bridge held the most weight would win. Our bridge barely held the container which was to hold the weights. We knew we were doomed; we added a flag at the top that read “F = ma,” so we’d at least get one point for knowing a basic equation. We were all liberal arts majors in the making. I am no engineer.
This is why I resist, at times, metaphors of “material” and “structure” in music. I don’t want music to be like engineering, a thing I am so thoroughly and essentially bad at. Here’s what I want music to be like: I want music to be like cooking. Like going to the farmers market and buying some beautiful vegetables, and cooking an elaborate dinner, and pouring some wine, and sharing it with friends, and laughing.
I’ve improved my sight reading. Now it’s my responsibility to use that skill for good, and not for evil.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the fact that I ended up studying classical music had almost nothing to do with music, and almost everything to do with performing conditions—with how, and where, the music was presented.
My demands are simple. I want mystery, ambiguity, and subtlety. And I want to be able to hear.
Ideally, I would also prefer that a few members of the audience are there for reasons beyond a vague sense of professional obligation. This used to be more important to me, but I've come to accept that human motivations are complicated and frankly none of my business. I'll play for whoever is there. That's what we do.
About John Prine Covers.
Listen: what you want in a folk song is, you want it to sound at once like it’s incredibly durable and it’s been sitting out back in the sun and the rain for decades, if not centuries, and nothing could ever break it; and at the same time you want it to sound like it’s so fragile that it might crumble into dust in your hands and then blow away with the breeze, never to be reconstructed, never to be heard again on this earth.
My all-time favorite songwriting compliment is still Elvis Costello, on Dylan’s Basement Tapes: “I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he’d just found them under a stone.”
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