some more thoughts on the death of concert music

In the past few days, a little vortex in the collective unconsciousness opened above my head, and a gyre of synchronicity came spinning down. Colleagues from around the country representing various academic institutions and performing arts organizations have been expressing their frustrations to me using a remarkably similar leitmotif.

Performers are frustrated that conductors are more concerned about the glory they may receive than they are about the music they perform. Academics are frustrated that decisions are made for reasons that serve their institutions reputations more than they serve the needs of the students. Arts organizations make artistic compromises to attract a wider audience. Universities are filled with bloated administrations that don’t really understand or care about music departments. Everyone complains about budget cuts.

I’ve addressed some of these issues before here. If you didn’t get the memo, our culture is changing. Serious music is no longer something that is valued by the culture at large. There are many people that are inventing interesting and practical solutions to some of these problems. I would like to take a moment to talk about some of the more personal and “impractical” solutions.

Some years ago, I was having a discussion with a younger composer friend. I said, “What is it, you want to be?” He responded, “I want to be a famous composer.” I said, “There isn’t such an animal in the bestiary anymore. Who is the most famous composer of orchestral music alive today in your opinion?” He said, “Corigliano.” I said, “OK. Let’s say I give you Corigliano. I happen to like his music. Do you know how many music majors have never heard of Corigliano? The most famous composer of orchestral music alive today is John Williams. Do you want to limit your harmonic vocabulary and write the kind of music that John Williams writes?” “No,” he said.

If, as I suggested, there isn’t such a thing as a famous composer (at least in the 19th century way that he was using the words), where should we turn for advice on how to live? In the past ten years, I have become increasingly interested in the analogies between monastic spirituality and what we do as professional musicians. There are some innate difficulties in the two paths because we practice something that is very public, and monks live in isolation. Nevertheless, I think the brothers have some good advice for us.

Thomas á Kempis says, “If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed by man.” Practically speaking, how do you practice a public profession and “desire to be unknown”? Here are my suggestions.

1. If you are in this business, you’d better be in it because you love music. My friend Tom Trenney says, “There are people in our profession who like being musicians more than they like music.” Tom is a wise man. There are some who can still get away with this attitude, but I can assure you that it is no way to live your life. You will always be placing your worth in the opinions of others. Others are a very fickle bunch.

2. If your focus is on making the best music you can with the people around you, you can actually get to a place where you are serving the music instead of thinking about what the music can do for you and your career. A better way to say this is that our model for the present age cannot be the 19th century. I personally love the early Romantics and what they were trying to accomplish, but those days are gone. Our models have to be the Baroque musicians who wrote music for their local city and fully expected that when they died, their music would be packed up in some room in the church and never played again. Cast off the weight of posterity. Write, sing, and play with the abandon and dedication of a kleinmeister.

3. Contemplate this passage from Thomas Merton often. "A publisher asked me to write something on 'The Secret of Success,' and I refused. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. ... If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves."

4. Part of what is special about what we do is that it is something that is intrinsically valuable and not valued by much of our culture. We are the prophetic voice calling the mass of trousered apes to seek out depth and meaning. You really shouldn’t get that upset when the monkey starts throwing his feces at you through the bars. Getting mad isn’t really going to convince him that what your doing is a better way to live.

5. Remember that we get to make music for a living. There are very few people on this planet that actually get to make some or all of their existence by assembling beautiful sounds. A bad day of making music must be so much better than a bad day of doing almost anything else.

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