No Symphony for Columbus

columbus-lostAs classical musicians, we are faced with the legacy of colonialism almost every day. Our historic musical instruments often contain materials from colonized rain forests and the animals therein (ebony, ivory, pernambuco), and the music itself was often financed with revenues from subjugated lands and peoples. Indeed the very music we hold as our foundation (Handel, Mozart, Lully, Bach) can be seen as the result of an aristocracy bent of gaining territory and subjugating a populace. That’s rather awkward, indeed.

Luckily, most of the composers we hold in esteem were mere employees of a system, even if there is an occasional loudmouth like Richard Wagner who taints his chance of sainthood with racist views. If we can excuse their employment situation when they give us monumental works, we realize that great art extends beyond the reach of unpleasant realities. Yet for the most part, classical musicians are left with the uncomfortable understanding that something good emerged from dubious aristocratic and colonial-era policies.

Luckily with art, it is easy to see beyond the regimes that supported it financially. In fact we can easily come to the conclusion, that great music, literature and art actually transcended the otherwise questionable era of human greed and expansion. While the House of Hanover is left with a dubious legacy, the music of Handel lives on in glory. It would take and several political revolutions, and a Beethoven, to change this paradigm.

There comes a time in every musician’s life where one should question such things, and come to grips with them. The pernambuco wood that makes up my bow, the ivory that adorns older bows and pianos, are relics of an embarrassing past. Yet great music also came from such products. Amazingly, a decision based on possessiveness and control also resulted in great art. Most musicians I know today shun the destruction of the rain forest and wildlife. We have moved on to better choices in the making of our music. We have kept what was good from the past and discarded the undesirable baggage. We have learned to move on.

Which brings me to the real subject of today’s post.

Columbus Day is a sorry excuse for a federal holiday. Last night I witnessed the local Boy Scouts bedecking the neighborhood with U.S. flags. I will not be flying a flag to celebrate Columbus Day. Here are a few reasons:

Today’s national holiday has NOTHING to do with the history of the United States of America. Columbus “discovered” an island in the Bahamas in 1492. In his four voyages, he never reached either continent of the Americas. He died thinking he had sailed to Asia. More time elapsed between 1492 and 1776, than the span from 1776 to the present, 2015. (284 years elapsed between Columbus’s first landing and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s only been 239 years from 1776 until today). In fact, the very founding of the United States of America is based on overthrowing the colonialism that Columbus helped initiate.

Columbus wrote in his diary and later reported to the King and Queen of Spain that the natives would be easily subjugated and exploited. Here are some highlights:

“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”

“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”

I concede that Columbus’s voyages are an important point in history, something that changed the course of the entire world. But the collateral damage he created in the lives of millions must be denounced. It led to an economy based on extermination of indigenous peoples and the African slave trade. While it is true we live on the other side of that history, I cannot condone celebrating such events. I make the choice to not celebrate such things.

Columbus Day became an official U.S. holiday in April of 1934, the result of pressure by the Knights of Columbus and New York Italian leaders. It was touted as a way to celebrate Italian-American heritage. But by the 1970s, when I remember getting Columbus Day off from school, Italian heritage was never mentioned. Instead we learned a fantasy about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. We did not learn that Columbus had the native people killed, raped, maimed and sold into bondage. Rather, Columbus Day was promoted as the first of a line of great explorations, something that predicted the space race that dominated my childhood.

Sadly, 1492 had been appropriated long before it was declared a federal holiday. Columbus Day has often been a ruse to promote specific agendas. During the 400th anniversary in 1892, Columbus Day celebrations were used to teach ideals of patriotism–ideas such as such as citizenship, loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress–all things that the colonization of the Americas hardly espoused.

There are some solutions offered to this thorny problem, namely creating an official Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day to replace Columbus Day. Certainly, celebrating Italian-American heritage is a good thing. So is the honoring of indigenous people. But neither of these groups should use Columbus Day as a reason to celebrate. They deserve their own days, separated from the carnage and tyranny of the explorer and colonial governor. We have found a way to do this with our great art. We should also do it for others without the deception and lies.

Italian-Americans should celebrate their heritage with the music of Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini and Respighi. The art of Michelangelo and the literature of Dante is more fitting for praise than a colonial governor who maintained his rule through slavery, torture and dismemberment of native peoples. Similarly, indigenous people should have their own day, not stained by the legacy and resentment of Columbus Day. Their culture, music, food, language, dance, and religion, stands on its own and deserves many days of honor for what it continues to give the world.

According to Wikipedia, Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota are U.S. states that do not recognize Columbus Day. I urge United States federal government to join their leadership on the issue. It’s time to discard the fantasy and embrace the people and cultures who continue to contribute to this country and world.

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

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Columbus Day, legacy, history, America, music, classical music, indigenous, colonialism

The Night the Lights Went Out On Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovksy's_signatureThe principal horn player had finished his solo with aplomb and the orchestra effortlessly elided into the new theme. All were inspired by the direction in which the second movement was headed. This followed an electrifying first movement, then a pregnant pause between movements that held the audience expectantly poised for more. Then, 31 bars into the glorious second movement, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony came to a grinding halt.

The concert was going better than expected, the orchestra was tight, the emotional swells more effective than they ever had been in rehearsal and the adrenaline was pumping. Then the lights went out. Literally. The concert had experienced a force majeur. The technology we rely upon had failed.

Special kudos go to the double bass section who completed their phrase in the dark. After the few seconds (that felt much longer) the emergency lights went up, and following an appropriate pause to see if it was all going to self-correct, I decided I must leave the stage to find out what was happening. The audience remained silent, not wanting to leave the emotional tracks we had so thoroughly established. Though now they were also expectantly poised in another way.

It became apparent the problem was campus-wide and not likely to be soon fixed, so we cancelled the remainder of the performance, promising a return evening. The audience sighed. The air had been let out of the balloon.

We had been doing an excellent job of bringing out Tchaikovsky’s expectations and surprises in the score. I espouse much of Leonard B. Meyer’s theories in preparing a score. His Emotion and Meaning in Music is required reading for my conducting students. One of the basic tenets of his theory is that our emotional response to music is based on the careful manipulation of consistency (expected style) with careful balance of delay or surprise in those expectations. Basically stated, our emotional response to music is based on the unexpected.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is an extremely well-composed piece, with a loose program revolving around a fate-motive that appears in different guises, some obvious, some hidden—all surprises in terms of expectations. Even his chord choices in the symphony’s introduction are a study in the effectiveness of changing expectations. The problem was a power outage was not part of the performance. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not performance art, nor even like those of his countryman Alexander Scriabin where visual colors are integrated to certain compositions. The power outage was unexpected on all levels of our expected experience.

Musicians deal with technology failures on a fairly regular basis. Reeds that split, valves that stick, strings that break are all part of the orchestral experience. But a power outage goes beyond the ability of the musicians to address or fix. The musical surprise and resolution that awaited both the musicians on the stage and the audience was taken away, ironically by the chance of fate. To say it was a let down is an understatement.

This unexpected surprise did not have a deep emotional effect until much later in the evening. Once the adrenaline of the evening and lighting failure wore off, the emotional ride bottomed out. To be sure, musicians experience this as a normal part of performing. But the interruption of the music created an unusual lack of resolution and deep emotional morass that many have reported feeling, both musicians and audience alike.

For most events, audience would leave saying, “Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.” But this does not happen with great music. Immediately, and for the past several days, there have been inquiries from all corners about when will the concert be rescheduled. When will we finish Tchaikovsky’s symphony?

That Tchaikovsky wrote a piece that demands completion is explicit of his genius as a composer and a validation of the greatness of this particular piece of music. Like a well-crafted story we simply must follow it to the conclusion, through the many transitions and cadences, to the final exclamation point. Amazingly, this is the case even if you do not know the programmatic element of the music and significance of the fate theme. It works with or without the program because it provides a narrative that can be followed on a deeper level. Descriptive words can help explain, but they are not necessary for understanding and meaning.

“In ‘pure’ instrumental music, the strategies chosen by composers to create unity were responsive to the tenets of Romanticism…Even in the absence of an explicit program, motivic continuity created a kind of narrative coherence. Like the chief character in a novel, the ‘fortunes’ of the main motive–its development, variation, and encounters with other ‘protagonists’–served as a source of constancy throughout the unfolding of the musical process.” Meyer: Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (1989)

The good news is that we will indeed finish the story. And I am pleased to report that the concert will be rescheduled. The Utah Phil’s Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot will be Thursday, November 5th at 7:30 p.m. at Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Since every concert is different, the thrill ride we were on will undoubtedly be slightly different, too. But the spirit will remain. And we will finish Tchaikovsky’s Unfinished Symphony. Once more with feeling!

Utah Philharmonia Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot: Thursday, November 5. 7:30 p.m.


Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Music, Pepper, and The True Spice of Life


For me, it all began to sink in with the lack of a spice. As a fan of Mediterranean cuisine, and Middle Eastern food in general, I was searching a local specialty market for Aleppo pepper to complete the ingredients for a recipe. When I asked the proprietor for help, a nice gentleman originally from Lebanon, I was met with one of those hard stares that laid my Western cluelessness bare.

“You’ve heard what’s happening in Syria, no?” he asked.

The question was rhetorical. I needn’t answer and he pressed no further. We both knew that Aleppo is in Syria, in one of the bitterest zones of the ongoing civil war. I merely nodded and checked out with the exotic spices whose import was not yet affected by death and destruction.

“The only thing that I have come to find more astonishing than the human propensity for destruction is the immeasurable capacity that humanity has to rebuild; the limitless potential to recreate ourselves anew in the face of what seems to be utter ruin. It is particularly in these dark phases that we look to our culture, our arts, the stories of our elders and the songs of our bards with the hope that they can inspire us with the courage to continue on our journey and, eventually, rebuild something even stronger than what we had cherished in the past. We have seen it time and again from Lisbon to Tokyo and Beirut to Berlin. We have picked up the pieces, no matter how small, and rebuilt.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

The price of war is not something that musicians and other artists generally are allowed time to deal with until the aftermath. Only afterwards come the poignant remembrances and long odes to what was lost. We are very good at remembering and producing art that helps put life in perspective, even the most horrific events. Art helps us continue.

The reality in an ongoing war zone is quite different; namely that the artists, musicians, dancers and writers are not unlike any other segment of the population when it comes to day-to-day survival. Once valued for their contributions, perhaps even idolized, a war-torn country offers few immunities. There’s little time to compose a masterpiece when you are starving and running from bullets.

There is also a deeper cultural and historical cost to war as well. Many in the west are unaware of the rich tradition of art, poetry, dance and music that existed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The cities of Aleppo and Damascus were once heralded as cultural magnets. So were Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo. Musicians, poets, visual artists and dancers would travel great distances to soak up the culture, learn traditions rooted in ancient times, and perhaps meet one of their artistic idols.

“But music is made up of the energy of sound and the ideas of the human mind. Those things cannot be killed as easily as human flesh or destroyed as easily as buildings. Even the combined terror of Daesh’s (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) barbarism and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs cannot obliterate the ancient culture embodied in the Syrian spirit.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

The very fact that the arts are a threat speaks of their importance and resilience. The ARTS are sometimes seen as a dangerous thing to those in power, especially to those who lack tolerance and humanity. The deep message, emotional power, and transcendent experience are strangely antithetical to fundamentalists and dictators. Plus, things like music bring people together in a common purpose and brotherhood. This is why the arts are a threat to despots. This is why they try to control them. This is why they decide to destroy them.

Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz has written a very fine essay regarding the loss of music in Aleppo, published earlier this week in Gulf News. I am pleased to recommend this link for our further understanding and compassion:

The immensity of the Syrian crisis is finally being covered in the media, although perhaps not with the urgency the situation deserves. But there appears to be a sliver of hope now for many thousands of people, a chance to continue life without daily strife. A chance to remember the ancient culture and its importance on all our lives with, refugee and host alike.

“This is the special greatness of art: It embodies the spirit of our immediate storytelling identity, but also the uniquely human ability to look beyond the ephemeral present and cast our souls into something that is timeless and eternal.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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Danger: Learning Ahead!

11892276_10153305961961144_3684635102753878591_nWith the start of another year just days away, it made me nostalgic to notice my first music dictionary on the shelf last night. My private teacher in high school, Mr. Vernon Ashcraft, had stressed the importance of taking a music dictionary along to college. I was very lucky to have a teacher in my youth who instilled the importance of knowing terms, composers, and music history. Although I would soon graduate to more lengthy tomes, encyclopedias and indices, this little book represents the gateway. I often browsed through the book, each entry leading to an exploration through the pages and a journey across the ages.
I wax nostalgic not because the pages are yellowed, nor the binding cracked. (Although a little at the price: Wow, $1.95!). Rather, It is the remembered thrill of learning, something that lies ahead for all students who are open and inquisitive.

Recommended Reading: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

41scrfT+X3L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_There are not many books that I would recommend everyone read, for there are indeed different strokes for different folks, but this is definitely book I would recommend to everyone on the planet. Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life stands alone as a book, but is also a support text for her visionary Charter for Compassion. Go to for more info. The very idea of setting out a 12-step program like those used in Alcoholics Anonymous points to the very real need that we must first realize “we have a problem” in the world. Armstrong not only identifies the problems caused by a lack of compassion, she also sets out a very logical plan to address this on a personal, community, national and global level. That she does so by concisely using examples from throughout history and across all faith and cultural traditions points to the only obvious solution available to us: living in compassion. I’ve rarely read a more intelligent and lucid approach that capably speaks to every person and every culture. This is a book I will read and refer to again and again. It is not a book to read and place on the shelf, but rather a book to live by, an attempt to shift the weight of intolerance towards the concept of compassion and understanding. Armstrong acknowledges that the path ahead will be difficult. It is not a rosy, feel good approach.The charge is to engage in a radical way of thinking, one supported throughout our shared human history by sages, poets, philosophers, playwrights, and enlightened leaders. It is a challenge for each of us to do our part, and as Gandhi urged, to be the change we wish to see in the world. I for one am thankful to Karen Armstrong for presenting this in an intelligent, thought-provoking book, and it is my honor to recommend it to readers everywhere.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Orcas Islands Chamber Music Festival

2015-May-14-web-sliderI’m heading to the great Pacific Northwest to do a couple of classes and preconcert lecture for the Orcas Islands Chamber Music Festival this weekend.  Talking about music is a lot like writing about music, just no need to spell check! If you find yourself in the region, come check out this fantastic summer festival in an unforgettable setting!

The Lions of Childhood

Today’s blog entry is a departure from the usual posts about music.  But not really.  Musicians often have passions that are informed by compassion for others.  Now you know one of mine.

cecilthelionAslan. Elsa. The Lions Club International, Snagglepuss, Lippy the Lion. MGM. The Wizard of Oz.
Here’s an idea. Think of all the lions from your childhood: in literature, movies, cartoons, corporate logos, sports teams. The image is ubiquitous for a reason. The life of a big cat, and lions in particular, stand for something integral to the human psyche, as a mythic, yet LIVING symbol. It helps define our social group, concepts of strength, family, struggle and success. In many ways, the lion is a reflection of ourselves.

People have been the cause of many extinctions. Some by direct actions; some by changing the ecology. We wiped out the Passenger Pigeon in recent times, and probably the Mastodon and Wooly Mammoth in prehistoric times. Humans pushed the lion out of Europe and most of Asia. People almost wiped out the American Bison and beaver because of greed, but then the ECONOMICS changed. People almost wiped out the American Bald Eagle due to DDT usage, but realized in enough time for CHANGE to be made. But there is little doubt that our species exerts great pressure on the world.

But we humans also have a kernel of understanding, or at least the potential for it– knowing that PRESERVATION extends beyond our own species and individual self-interests. While civilization had always pressed against the wild, we as a species have also gained deep meaning from it. Cave paintings from far in the past show our interaction with nature. Religious stories and metaphors we still value today include every manner of animal: reptiles, primates, insects, amphibians, fish, whales, birds, etc. And big cats, notably lions.

OK. Now imagine yourself traveling 150-200+ years into the future. Children may read these works containing lions (or other animals) and see these images as no longer living. They may hear more than one movement of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals as fossils. They may need reminding that a lion was once a real thing, like a dinosaur or saber-toothed cat. Or a thing mythologized, like a dragon–something belonging to the past, not the present.

It’s not a far putt from where we are today. Does that bother you? It does me.
Now, think of doing something about it, stopping the slaughter and reversing the trend. We’ve done it before for some species. We’ve failed to save others. Will we choose to at least try? I, for one, know on which side of the line to stand.

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.