Thursday night was the world premiere of UNTIL THE NIGHT COLLAPSES, performed by the Bowling Green State University Concert Band under the direction of Dr. Michael Thomas King. The piece is dedicated to the students, parents & staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS in Parkland, Florida, and their Director, Mr. Alex Kaminsky was in attendance, having spent the day talking with the BGSU students and Ohio music educators about his experiences with the recent shooting in Parkland. Commissioned by an incredible consortium of ten directors across the midwest, this was the first of many premiere performances coming up in the next few months, and it was a profoundly moving experience. I can't say thank you enough to the directors in addition to Dr. King and Dr. Bruce Moss who made this possible, including:
Dr. Michael Butler, Director of Bands - University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
Brad Davis, Director of Bands - Flushing High School Wind Ensemble
Brad Farynairz, Director of Bands - Woodhaven High School Bands
Russ Hilton, Director of Bands - L’Anse Creuse High School Bands
Bill Petersen, Director of Bands - Freeport High School Symphonic Band
James Ross, Director of Bands - East Kentwood High School Bands
Mark Stice, Director of Bands - Okemos High School Bands
John Szczerowski, Director of Bands - Grand Ledge High School Bands
David Uhrig, Director of Bands - Rochester High School Wind Ensemble
Alex made it clear that he and his students are embracing and living out the words of Leonard Bernstein, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." My hope is that this piece can in some way contribute to healing, and begin more conversations about our uniquely American problem. My deepest gratitude to Mr. Kaminsky for engaging with all of us with this work and beyond. I'm looking forward to hearing his ensemble perform in Chicago in a few weeks.
Dr. Michael Thomas King and Dr. Bruce Moss graciously invited me to visit Bowling Green State University this week, to spend time collaborating on several of my works for wind band. In my brief time there, several things made an impression on me: 1. BGSU is clearly a place where new music is respected, promoted and honored. 2. The quality of the ensembles and rehearsal atmosphere reflects a strong tradition and legacy of excellence. 3. Mike King is a legitimate PRO. In the short time I was on campus, I saw him rehearse the Academy Band, University Band, Concert Band, Wind Symphony and Marching Band, meet with students and colleagues, make time for score study and rehearsal prep, and still make it a priority to show Natalie and I around campus & town. He also planned our entire itinerary, and I stole a half-dozen rehearsal strategies from him too. I'm both incredibly proud of him and honored that he is doing such great with with BGSU and the wind band repertoire.
The University Band is programing THE RAPTOR RIDES THE WHALE and PRAYERS IN VILLEFRANCHE, and the Academy Band is doing a great job with RAPTOR as well. Mike is guest conducting the Concert Band, who will be performing the world premiere of UNTIL THE NIGHT COLLAPSES in a few weeks. It was just fantastic to work with Mike and the ensemble, creating a clear interpretation of the piece. It's a complex, heavy work that I think is the most important thing I've written, and Mike has really dedicated himself to crafting the performance. Bruce has invited Alex Kaminsky (DOB @ Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS in Parkland FL, to whom the piece is dedicated) to join us for the premiere, and I think it is going to be a deeply moving and meaningful event. I cannot possibly express my gratitude to Dr.'s Mike & Bruce, and to the consortium of directors who commissioned the work. Recordings from the BGSU ensembles coming soon!
The Midwest Clinic requires composers and publishers whose works are being performed to either advertise in the program or be an exhibitor with a booth. Jed Maus & the Keller MS Wind Ensemble are performing GRADIENTS (Woooooo!) and I def didn't want to be tied to a table in a booth... so here's my ad. (Credit Stice for the QR code idea.)
As with all technology, things began to fail on my 2009 Mac Pro tower, starting with the dedicated PCIe SSDs for streaming virtual instruments. I also couldn't run a current operating system, and there were so many bugs that I finally bit the bullet and migrated to a new machine.
I'm a big fan of buying slightly older equipment, as the depreciation is so crazy after a year or so. After way too much consideration, I went with a 2017 iMac Quad-Core 4.2 GHz with 64GB Ram (maxed out). It has a 500GB SSD boot drive dedicated to OS and Apps. My 3TB Raid Data drive is connected via Thunderbolt 3 and housed in a OWC enclosure along with the 2TB Backup Time Machine. I took those drive directly out of the old Mac Pro and plugged them into the enclosure... and it all worked. Just a little bit terrifying to move precious data like that.
I'll definitely be starting a Smartypig for a new machine in about seven years, my guess is that by then, everything will be SSDs. The only downside to this move was losing my ability to write for a few weeks, and pushing back the planned release of HORROR VACUI, but whatevs.
It was a real pleasure to hear the WMU Wind Symphony perform ASYLUM today, with my friend and mentor Scott Boerma conducting. Scott has been someone I have looked up to since undergrad, having performed his arrangements & compositions at MSU and in drum corps. When I was finishing my graduate degree at Michigan, Scott was on my thesis defense panel, and his masters thesis was a component of mine. He is a consummate musician, and an incredibly warm and charismatic leader and person. I was absolutely honored to hear his interpretation of my work.
The musicianship of the WMU Wind Symphony is just ridiculous. They programmed David Blon's transcription of Jennifer Higdon's "Machine," the Holst "First Suite" conducted by WMU Emeritus DOB Robert Spradling, "Aspen Jubilee" by Ron Nelson, and Paul Dooley's INSANELY COOL work "Masks and Machines" along side "ASYLUM" and nailed everything. A huge thank you and congrats goes out to Scott and all of the fine musicians who performed today.
A few weekends ago I had the incredible experience of visiting the Interlochen Arts Camp to work with Kevin Sedatole and the World Youth Wind Symphony on "ASYLUM." This opportunity was uniquely special for me, having spent two summers as an Interlochen camper in high school. It was there that I made the decision to follow a career path in music, and being back there decades later as a guest composer was incredibly rewarding.
The calibre of these young musicians is just unreal, and their nuanced performance reflected it. They responded to Kevin's expressive interpretation immediately and with a depth that I was not expecting. While I was impressed by their technical and ensemble clarity, I was even more affected by how musical and emotive their playing was. It reminded me of why I wanted to be there as a teenager, and how I felt like I had found my tribe. Natalie got some great shots from the rehearsal (below the video) too.
It was great to spend some time with Kevin making music, and sharing my inspiration for the piece with the kids. It was also fantastic to briefly visit with Mike Kaufman, Matthew Schlomer and Jennifer Jolley at rehearsal. My friend James Gross came up from Blue Lake for the gig, as well as the MSU graduate conducting "Rat Pack" Branden Steinmetz, Travis Higa, Tyler Austin and Hunter Kopcyznski. Great to see Steve Davis as well, he puts together an unbelievable experience for the WYWS every summer. The spirit and intention of the place is alive and well; It continues to draw people near who deeply love and value music and art. I was absolutely honored to be part of it all once again. A HUGE thank you to Kevin for the invitation and moving performance!
A few weeks late with this post, but what a fantastic experience this was! Chris Takis and James Gross recently invited me to visit and hear their outstanding ensembles. Grosse Pointe South HS is one of several institutions this year who have invited me to participate in a mini-residency (programming several of my works with different ensembles), and I couldn't be more honored. The bands, under the baton of my friend and fellow MSU Spartan Marching Band alum Chris Takis programmed GRADIENTS, ALCATRAZ and they were part of the commissioning consortium for THE RAPTOR RIDES THE WHALE. I got to work for a bit with their percussionists and they were full of enthusiasm for the special effects. On the orchestra side, my friend James Gross programmed PRAYERS IN VILLEFRANCHE and it was just lovely. It was the first performance of the strings only arrangement of the work, and they did a beautiful job.
Aside from living the dream of composing music and hearing it performed well, the best part of wearing the composer hat is being able to re-connect with friends and colleagues, and make new connections in the process. Ensemble music brings people together in the best way, working together to bring a common vision to life. No competition, no ratings, simply the active, collaborative creation of new art with people who share a passion for music. Thanks Chris & James!
Wednesday night I visited the BHHS orchestra rehearsal and worked with them on RUSHLIGHT, which will premiere in a few weeks. Scott Wolf has done a fabulous job preparing these fine student musicians, and it was a pleasure to help them contour their performance and interpretation of the work, and to talk about the inspiration for the piece. Thank you again to Alan Posner, Scott Wolf and everyone in the Bloomfield Hills community who supported this commission to honor Bob Ambrose and Dave Reed. I'm excited for May 20!
Yesterday I visited a rehearsal at Lake Fenton Middle School with my good friend and fellow Spartan Bone Sean Spicer. Sean is absolutely killing it at LFMS along with Ryan Gonder (another very good friend and fellow Spartan Bone... whatup with Spartan Bones and amazing music educators?) and the word that I left the rehearsal with was "authenticity." They're doing everything right, scheduling, teaching, creating culture with their band program. I'm super proud to have these guys in my backyard (literally) and very grateful that Sean joined the GRADIENTS consortium last summer. It was a treat to guest conduct at the concert last night too. THANK YOU Sean!
I had an incredible day visiting the concert ensembles at Grand Ledge HS under the baton of John Szczerowski. GLHS is one of several institutions this year who have invited me to participate in a mini-residency (programming several of my works with different ensembles), and their program is, in a word, exemplary. John is honoring the rich tradition at GLHS of producing high calibre ensembles and programming quality literature, and I was honored to hear three of my pieces among them today, GRADIENTS, CONSPIRACY THEORIES, and THE RAPTOR RIDES THE WHALE, of which they are members of the commissioning consortium. It was a blast to hear his groups perform my pieces and have a chance to take them through some interpretive turns. As I expected, these groups were well prepared (HUGE Kudos to Tavia Zerman!!!) and focused. They take music-making very, very seriously, but were not afraid to have fun with it either. John has also commissioned me to compose a fanfare for his top group, and CLUTCH will be in collaborative development over the next year. GLHS will perform my music on May 9th and 14th, 2018. Don't miss it!
The second of two visits to GRADIENTS Commissioning ensembles today was to Leslie High School, under the superb direction of Jake Greenwood. Jake is a fellow Spartan (dang if MSU doesn't churn out the exceptional music educators...) and has been at Leslie for 8 years. I was honestly blown away by their execution of this piece today. The Leslie HS Band was a joy to conduct, we spent the entire clinic working on advanced musical concepts, playing with the musical interpretation of 'Gradient', which we were able to do because their performance was nearly flawless (and I'm picky). Not only did they nail the piece, they were SILENT and focused throughout warmup and during our work together. This group is disciplined, talented and well-coached. Nothing but positive things going on in Leslie and there is a lot to be proud of. Congrats to Jake and the ensemble, and THANK YOU for supporting the production of this work!
(Bonus: Jake emailed last week asking if there was anything I needed for today's clinic, to which I sarcastically replied "nothing beyond the requisite bottle of Möet on ice, a selection of silk robes from which I will choose one to wear during the clinic, and a small chorus of sycophants to nod in agreement with my every word." They called my bluff. I love Band kids.)
The first of two visits to GRADIENTS Commissioning ensembles today was to Fowlerville Junior High School, under the direction of Josh Roltsch. Josh and Bill Vliek (Go Green my dudes) have done a great job with this program, and the 8th grade band has been working hard over the last few weeks on this piece. It was clear to me that these kids are engaged and that the program is well staffed & supported. I'm very thankful that instrumental music is so important to Fowlerville, and that Josh jumped on the opportunity to support the production of the new work. Nice work Gladiators!
I’m very excited to share that I have received an ASCAP Plus Award for 2017! The ASCAP Plus Awards program rewards ASCAP writer members of children's music, concert music, jazz and musical theatre with a value beyond the scope of performance surveys (those who make a contribution to the music scene but make less than $25,000 per year in royalties from performances.)
The Plus Awards are generally small awards, but they are prestigious and highly competitive. This is my first award and it is quite an honor. The award covers work created and performed in 2016 which included CONSPIRACY THEORIES, PRAYERS IN VILLEFRANCHE, SOUTHEAST BY NORTHWEST and THE BIRDS.
Thanks to Maestro Arnaud Caumeil of the Conservatoire de Limonest, the many directors and colleagues who programmed these works, as well as the Fenton Community Orchestra for their countless performances and enduring support!
Through its annual ASCAP Plus Awards program, ASCAP compensates those writers whose works are substantially performed in venues and media outside its surveys. An independent panel reviews the applications and makes cash awards to deserving members as well as writers whose works have a unique prestige value.
Last weekend I had the incredible pleasure of hearing three of my works for wind band performed at the Michigan Music Conference in Grand Rapids. Heather Wiggins and her incredible 7th and 8th graders performed "GRADIENTS" and sounded fantastic. The Warren Mott HS Wind Ensemble under the direction of Erik Miller performed "ALCATRAZ" and I was invited to guest conduct. Truly thrilling. Finally, the Okemos HS Symphonic Wind Ensemble performed "ASYLUM" with excellence. It was very fulfilling to hear my music played so well, and in such an incredible venue. I also enjoyed watching how excited the kids were to perform at the conference, they knew that it was a big deal, and that the audience was mostly music educators. The conference was a blast, it was awesome to reconnect with dozens of my colleagues and friends from across the state, and make new ones at the same time. I also really enjoyed David & Holly Thornton's session, as well as Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser who is always a meaningful speaker.
Yesterday the Warren Mott HS Wind Ensemble held an all day rehearsal in preparation for their upcoming performance at the Michigan Music Conference in Grand Rapids in January. Erik Miller invited me to come by and give my insights and performance notes for ALCATRAZ, and it was an absolute blast to work with this very fine ensemble. When I arrived, Doug Bianchi was rehearsing John Mackey's "This Cruel Moon" with the group, and wow did they sound just fantastic (the piece is rad too). I can't overstate how incredibly well this group plays together, how developed their ensemble sound is, and several soloists were particularly impressive as well. Erik's group is certainly an exemplar of the kind of sophisticated music making that happens in our public schools, and they're going to kill at the MMC. Also, these kids are funny and cool, and spent their entire Saturday working to get better at the thing they love. My kind of people. Thanks again Erik & Co., and I can't wait for the January gig!!!
I had a great time this past Monday visiting the Parker Middle School band program in Howell, MI, under the direction of my friend (and fellow Spartan Band Alumni) Jeff Stimson. Parker MS is one of eight ensembles around the country who collaborated to commission the piece, and the first that I've had the chance to visit in person. The kids were awesome, enthusiastic, focused and well prepared, and it was great to see such a thriving energetic middle school program! I know they will kill it at their concert tomorrow night, and I look forward to working with them again! Thanks Patriots!
I truly enjoyed every moment of working with Dr. David Thornton and the fantastic MSU Symphony Band throughout October, in preparation for the concert this past Tuesday. The attention to detail and effort to realize my music as I had intended was always present, and I don't know if there is anything more fun than playing with sound in a space like the Wharton Center. Most of all, I was so pleased that many of the musicians took the time to express to me how much they enjoyed the work, or that it meant something special to them. I feel like ASYLUM, while programmatically referring to the Traverse City State Hospital, can also point to the broader scope of mental illnesses, many of which touch our lives everyday. It can be a deeply personal piece for the listener and performer alike, reminding us that while the realities we deal with are sometimes difficult and challenging, there will always be help if we seek it out.
I also enjoyed talking music with Dr. Kevin Sedatole and Prof. Gary Green, as well as Branden Steinmetz and many very talented graduate conducting students. Michigan State never ceases to provide opportunities to work with world-class musicians. Go Green!
Back to back ASYLUM rehearsals today, first at Okemos HS and then at Michigan State with the Symphony Band and their new director Dr. David Thornton. My dear friend and mentor John Madden had programmed the work prior to his retirement, and I'm so pleased that David liked the piece and invited me to come work with the group today in preparation for the October 24 performance at Wharton. The musicianship of the players in this ensemble is unreal, hyper-nuanced phrasing, very expressive interpretation. It was an absolute honor to have my music performed so well, and especially emotional for me having played in the Symphony Band at MSU 20 years ago. (yikes) It was magic to be back in 120, where I spent so many hours learning from John Madden, Dave Catron and John Whitwell, alongside so many of my good friends and fellow music students. I was overwhelmed with the entire day, and being back on campus where so much of who I am as a musician was encouraged and developed. I even got to grab a coffee with a few of my former Fenton Band students who are currently in the Spartan Marching Band, and I'm so happy that they are having the positively life-changing experience that I had at MSU. If you're in the area on October 24, come out and hear ASYLUM played with incredible passion and beauty.
I'm absolutely thrilled for my music to be performed again by my good friend Mark Stice and his RIDICULOUSLY skilled Symphonic Wind Ensemble at Okemos HS. I got to spend the morning visiting with Mark and his group, hearing them work through the piece, and sharing my motivations behind it. These kids really get it, they were listening intently as I was explaining how Dr. Munson tried to implement the "Beauty is Therapy" philosophy at the Northern Michigan Asylum, and how we can apply that concept not only to the music, but to how we are compassionate to each other in our everyday lives. I'm beyond excited for their performance of ASYLUM at the 2018 Michigan Music Conference in Grand Rapids on January 26th! Thanks again Mark!
It was so much fun to make a trip yesterday to visit Imlay City HS and work with Scott Pries and the Wind Ensemble. A great group of kids and fantastic musicians. We had a wonderful time talking about sonic story-telling, and they really brought the piece to life. Scott is doing an outstanding job with these young musicians, it is thrilling for me to get new ears on this piece every time I hear it programmed by a different ensemble. Congrats and break a leg at the concert next week!
It was my great honor yesterday to have my music (CONSPIRACY THEORIES) programmed alongside Steven Bryant's works at the Western Michigan University Spring Conference on Wind & Percussion Music. THANK YOU to Dave larzelere and the East Lansing HS Symphonic Band for an outstanding performance, and to Scott Boerma for conducting an incredible event. Bravo!
Recently someone asked me if I had seen the 2014 Oscar nominated film “Whiplash” directed by Damien Chazelle. I told them that yes, I had seen it, and that I have a deep, visceral hatred for it. Without fail, people are SHOCKED to learn that I, a musician and music educator, would dislike the film, and they ask me why I so strongly hate it. I am usually equally shocked that they enjoyed it. My hatred is so overwhelming that I am usually inarticulate in my explanation, so here are my calm, cogent thoughts about this movie.
First, I can applaud the aesthetic beauty of the film. The cinematography, color, shot composition, editing, etc. are fantastic and I really enjoyed the immersive way that the ultra-close-ups pull you into the scene, and how the highly stylized lighting and color grading supported the overall characterization of Jazz. Even the performances I can admit were outstanding, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller have insane chemistry and the tension is legit. Many other aspects of the film as a “film” were also excellent.
The root of my hatred is in the writing. The basic premise or “take away” from the film is that (Andrew) the student became a successful musician as a direct result of the fascist, sadistic, and cruel teaching methods of his homophobic, manipulative terrible-person of a teacher (Fletcher). Fletcher yells, demeans, insults, physically slaps his student, throws a chair at him, and uses private details about his students’ personal life to embarrass him publicly. He also psychologically manipulates his student, uses him for his own advance, curses at him, intentionally sets him up to fail, undermines him, coerces him to injure himself, and flat out bullies him.
Fletcher is THE WORST TEACHER IN THE HISTORY OF FICTIONAL TEACHERS. He makes the teacher from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory look like a pedagogical genius. Class dismissed.
About 30 minutes into the movie I was thinking “oh man, is this going to be INCREDIBLE when this kid (Andrew) finds the courage to stick up for himself, and brings down this colossal ass of a teacher.” I truly thought that was where it was headed; surely this “best picture” nominee couldn’t be as predictable and trite as a “Jazz version” of some cliché sports movie where the “tough coach” pushes the “cocky but gifted” young athlete to achieve greatness… oh wait that’s exactly what happens. Class un-dismissed.
One of the most insulting things to watch is how completely incompetent this teacher is. I (or ANY decent music educator) could have solved the “issues” that Andrew was struggling with in about five minutes. Want to play faster right now? Lower your stick heights, play quieter, make smaller movements. Want to play faster later? Use your metronome, go slow, adjust your grip/technique, gradually speed up and stop trying to be Buddy Rich. Etc. Etc. Notice the lack of physical violence or chair throwing. Fletcher’s “teaching techniques” exist because he has no pedagogical skills, no tools in his toolbox, no patience, no empathy, and no love for people or music. He’s basically a sociopath, using people to get what he wants, even pretending to have emotions (when he learns of the death of a former student) to trick his students into thinking that he cares about them.
Again, if all of this character development was done to setup the premise that Fletcher was a horrible person and terrible teacher, then I think it could have been a spectacular moment when Andrew has a musical triumph or breakthrough (as result of his own hard-work) and demonstrates to everyone that he achieved IN SPITE of his abusive teacher. Paradoxically, when Andrew has his big musical breakthrough, it is portrayed as justification for all of the horrible abuse he went through, validating Fletcher’s behavior. Class re-dismissed.
OK so he’s a terrible teacher and a bad person. Does that make it a “bad movie?” No. What makes it a bad movie is that it disrespects music educators. It demeans us. It reduces what we love, what we have devoted our lives to, down to bullying. And it says that not only is that OK, but that’s how you get it done at the highest levels. It’s BS.
It is deeply false to suggest that artistic greatness is achieved through fear or coercion. It is equally false that students who are terrified of their teachers can somehow grow into the best versions of themselves. Every effective teacher knows that students can only learn in an environment that is comfortable and controlled. The kind of motivation that leads to greatness is INTRINSIC, and cannot extrinsically come out of fear. Andrew is intrinsically motivated, he WANTS to be great. NOTHING that Fletcher does helps Andrew achieve. I would NEVER behave in this way, not only because I would get fired and likely sued, but because it just DOESN’T WORK. Ever. Even if it did work, nobody would want to join my band because ensemble music is about people, and playing TOGETHER, and the joy of working toward a common goal. It is about creativity and expression, NOT fear. To grow, you must make failure your friend, and learn from it, not live in terror of making a mistake. Especially in Jazz, where improvisation is central to the art form! The students in Fletcher’s Jazz Band are terrified. They take NO RISKS, show NO JOY, NO CREATIVITY. They are basically machines, who play like robots programmed by their control freak professor.
Watch two minutes of any rehearsal at any top university or conservatory. You will see empathy, humanity, self-discipline (not totalitarianism), enthusiasm, determination, and joy. You will see respected (not feared) teachers helping (intrinsically) motivated students to achieve greatness. You won’t see chairs flying, vulgar insulting language and most certainly you won’t see blood. I have been lucky enough to have been the student of many of these outstanding educators, and never once did they demean me or put me down. They often challenged me, and pushed me through encouragement or by reminding me how very capable I was, but never ever tried to manipulate me or use my talent and energy for their gain.
I think that I could have LOVED this movie. I think I could have argued that it was one of the best “music” movies that had even been made… if, at the “big competition” (which is also BS), right when Andrew realized that Fletcher was trying to screw him yet again by calling a chart he was unprepared to play, Andrew stood up, dropped his sticks and walked out.
And the whole band followed.
Because how you treat people will always be more important than achieving “greatness.” So yes, I hated "Whiplash," because when you love something like making music with people, and devote your life to it, and anything (a movie, a person, a secretary of education) insults what you love, it bothers you.
Yesterday I had the honor of guest conducting the East Lansing HS Symphonic Band, under the direction of my good friend Dave Larzelere. This incredible group of young musicians will be premiering the piece in April at the Western Michigan University Spring Conference for Winds & Percussion, and I got to spend some time in rehearsal yesterday fine tuning the piece. They really are an exceptional ensemble across the board, with a particularly creative percussion section. Thanks for all of your hard work and hospitality! I'm excited for April 13!
This essay was written by Karl Paulnack, the Music Department head at Boston Conservatory, based on his speech that he gives to the parents of incoming freshman. I’m posting it here for my own reference, and to so that I may easily these brilliant thoughts about music, and share them often:
“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.
And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.
From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.
I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship bet ween invisible internal objects.
I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.
What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”