The Dialect of the Soul

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“It’s rare that I ever meet a musician who doesn’t agree that music is a language. But it’s very rare to meet a musician that really treats it like one.”–Victor Wooten

The concept of music as a universal language has been hotly debated.  And while I believe music is universal to the human species, the sense of everyone understanding music with the same musical meaning is a stretch.  I do think there is some validity to the concept, however.  Music has been written to describe love, war, struggle, triumph, comedic events–you name it.  African drumming can describe a conversation in great detail.  Balinese music can accompany dance with deep meaning and tradition.  An orchestral tone poem can reach deep into the individual and collective soul.  Music functions as language if we allow it.  And as musicians, it is a great responsibility to keep speaking with intention.

 I once read a great description of all of the world’s artistic traditions as beautiful stained glass windows in a huge, many-chambered building.  This building has many doors from which to enter and many individual rooms.  Some rooms are larger and their windows influence the subsequent building of other rooms, each with their own window.  Some windows shine brightly, focusing light from above in a myriad of color.  Others are dim, but still have reflections and refractions of remembered light.  Still others are boarded up and dark, perhaps awaiting rediscovery and repair, allowing light to illuminate the window once again.

It’s a great metaphor for all of the world’s musical traditions.  And like language, each can be a unique expression, a dialect of the soul.  Also like language, we can study a tradition totally outside our own and gain insight and even expertise.  This helps us to see details and meaning at a deeper level.  It may even change our own unique way of speaking and understanding.

Sit and study the light of each window you encounter

The only problem I have with this concept is that everyone seems to be stuck in their individual room, reluctant to peek around the corner, to explore other traditions.  What if we ventured down the hallway to another room?  What if we were to pick up another instrument, from another tradition?  What if we were to open our ears as well as our minds?  Rarely do we stop and listen to something that is different.  And when we venture into the unknown, we generally don’t pause long enough to ponder before moving on to the next tune of the queue.  

When I think of musicians who are totally committed to their performance, their message reaches beyond boundaries of genre.  I can hear meaning in the work of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Bob Spano.  I am intrigued by Ravi Shankar, Nigel Kennedy, and Chris Thiele.  They are artists with something to say, something to share, regardless of training, complexity of their music, or potential audience.  But I must stop and regard what I am hearing.  If not, it simply goes into the mix of the noise of life.  But when I listen with open attention their dialect becomes quite clear. 

“How should those who know of God meet and part?

The way an old musician greets his beloved instrument,

And will take special care as a great artist always does

To enhance the final note of each performance.”—Hafiz, 14th century

So what are you afraid of?  Venture into another room.  Peer with wonder at the windows.  Let the sound of light bathe your soul.  Better yet, just pick up that harmonica, didgeridoo, or sitar and make some music!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

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Iron Chef Concerts

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Like a good smorgasbord, choices sit tantalizingly ready to heap onto the plate.  But be careful.  Too much of one helping does not leave room for something else.  Oops, do these things really go together?  Oh no, my pudding has run into the mashed potatoes…

Programming concerts is one of my favorite things to do.  And most frustrating, like those Sudoku puzzles with both numbers and letters.  So many options!  I spend each spring choosing music for a variety of concerts.  I am blessed with many opportunities to conduct different ensembles, each with a different raison d’etre.

To be sure, for my educationally based ensembles at the University of Utah there is a curricular element.  Even in a 4-year program, students won’t play all of the music they will encounter in the profession, but they had better get a good helping of Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc.  It is exciting to conduct masterworks that the students are encountering for the first time.  The energy they bring to the music is contagious, and their first encounter with a major work can be magical.

For Salt Lake Symphony, the process is a bit different.  Certainly I want to choose music that highlights the ensemble.  But as volunteer musicians (and darn good ones at that), the musicians are an integral part of the programming activity.  They give me a list (of biblical proportions) that takes some time to whittle down.  Then, it is up to me to put together concerts that have coherence for the audience as well as serve as good repertoire for the orchestra.

Oh, yeah, the audience–the entire point of performing music.   This is where creativity comes into the process.  A good program is like the perfect multi-course meal.  It needs balance, variety and diversity.  (But it need not look like a Happy Meal, and it better not taste like one!).   This is where it gets fun.  Like the contestants on Iron Chef, each conductor can have a different creative vision for a concert or entire season.  The possibilities are almost endless.  A few basic ingredients can be transformed in a myriad of ways.

Musicians want to play (and audiences want to hear) the music that they love.  But it has been my experience that most of us have a very narrow definition of what we like.  It is a challenge, and a fun one at that, to find ways to introduce new tastes into a concert.  Maybe it is only an appetizer, but sometimes it can be a main course.  I think the key is to program with respect.  Once everyone sees commitment to the presentation, it seems to go down very well.

James Dixon, one of my conducting teachers, once advised:

“Never conduct something you don’t believe in.”

Like a good chef, the musician who is dedicated to quality, commitment, vision, and presentation, can transform the ingredients into a fine “auditory dining experience.“  Bon appetit!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Hanging by a Thread

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Imagine for a moment a thread stretching from the past; a link to some bygone time as you begin to play a piece of music.   Perhaps it is spirit of J. S. Bach, hovering above and guiding your fingers as you play a suite.   Now imagine a thread going FORWARD from you into the future.  Linking your performance with musicians of the future, choices of audiences, decisions of publishers, concerts of tomorrow. Both scenarios are pure fantasy, of course.  But they also have a very real place in our artistic tradition, especially the world of classical music.  Our imaginations are a powerful thing.  Imagination can create reality.

The moment a composer completes a piece of music it is already locked in the past.   This applies for a piece composed 250 years ago or one where the ink is still drying. The premiere performance is still in the future, and it can only occur in the present.  At that premiere, each note sounds and then is quickly relegated to the past.  Each passing movement is a memory, only remembered through the ingenuity of the composer and the skill of the performer.

When we approach a piece of music we are re-creating the composer’s intentions. But we are also creating it for that particular moment.  While we study, refer, and compare, nothing we actually do exists in the past.  We practice and plan in the present.  That future big concert can only happen in the present; it’s particular present.  The act of performing is a wholly present experience.

This is the problem of linear thinking in music.  We are apt to think of ourselves as part of some great family tree, emanating from a musical source and branching out to infinity.  Certainly there are influences, innovators and teachers.  It is a great way to look at our tradition and offers much for our learning.  But it can also cause us to only see what someone else has told us.  This merely points to what we have been exposed to.  We have to be willing to jump from branch to branch.  We have to sometimes risk jumping to another tree entirely. (Or maybe there are no trees…)

The great composers have won the test of time.  They rightfully hold a place of success, craftsmanship and veneration.  Will their music stand for centuries? Will we be playing their music in 500 years?  Perhaps.  I tend to think so, but that is not my concern.  My concern is more about performing their music now, today, because it speaks to me.   And that is so powerful a feeling that I simply must share it with an audience.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

A Matter of Perspective

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We tend to think of classical music as “old.”. After all, much of the orchestral repertoire was written  100, 200, or even 300 years ago.  This was my assumption as our troupe, the Utah Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra, arrived in Britain last week.  Certainly, we were playing some “old” music on the tour, works by Handel and Geminiani being the oldest pieces.  Piazolla, Gershwin, and Joplin were the more recent selections. Grieg fell right in the middle.

Any concept I had of old was immediately dashed as we entered the churches for our concerts.  Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge was 15th century.  St. Nicholas Church, Potterspury, 13th century. St. Mary’s, Chalgrove,  11th century. By comparison, the music written in the 1730s was positively modern!  Even the “old”  Baroque music was closer to our own century when compared to the era of two of the churches.  It didn’t stop there.  We drove down remnants of Roman Roads, and saw Roman ruins.  A trip to the British Museum put time into even deeper perspective as we gazed upon artifacts from ancient Greece, and  Egypt.

This journey back in time became a reminder of the great responsibility we have as musicians.  We are stewards of the past, charged with keeping the sounds of bygone eras alive (even relatively recent ones).  We must study, reflect and ultimately present the great music of the past.  In this way, the musician becomes a conduit much like an ancient edifice, only presented aurally for modern observers to reflect and find meaning.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Perpetual Students

“I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
~ Douglas Adams ~

I had an incredible opportunity to attend some master classes while in London this past week.  We attended a chamber music master class with Gyorgy Pauk at at the Royal Academy of Music and a solo master class with some Guildhall students and Nikolaj Znaider at LSO St. Luke’s.  The Utah Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra also played a session with Ian Brown, a respected British conductor and chamber musician.  Sharing these events with my students made it all the more meaningful.  I think we all came away impressed and enriched,  but more importantly, better informed about our own playing and musicianship.

Most evident was that, while impressive playing was at every corner, there was always something more to work on.   Just when you think the participants are doing pretty well, the master teacher will point out a new layer of details. Accents, articulations, dynamics, all have multiple layers of possibility.  It’s not just loud, it’s a certain kind of loud. It’s not just short, it is an articulation that must define the surrounding notes. All in order to better express the phrase.  And once you reach that level, there is yet another deeper, richer layer to discover.

I am convinced that we need to constantly reset our musical assumptions in order to assure that we are achieving and communicating as much as we possibly can.  Attending and participating in these types of classes is one way to achieve this.  Nikolaj Znaider had a good sentiment that he shared with the students:

“We are all students.  I just have been a student for a little longer than you have.”

This is why we must travel to hear music, see concerts and attend master classes.  Sometimes we travel across the globe. Other times it’s just a trip across town or a short walk down the hall. The distance doesn’t really matter, but the effort to attend, participate, and learn definitely does . It is commitment to our art and ourselves.  Even though we may be jet-lagged by the travel or overwhelmed with our own busyness, the experience informs us about our individual journey.  Though we are essentially seeing, hearing, and experiencing the same things that we do at home, making the effort to go somewhere makes it visceral and translates it for our own personal journey.  No matter the distance, it may be easy or arduous.  But in the end, it promises to point us in the direction we need to look.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Common Ground

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Shakespeare’s plays have never gone out of fashion.   Handel’s Messiah is still performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times every year in the U.S.  Irish bands and Scottish pipe groups still thrive in their niche market.  The Mini Cooper design with the Union Jack on the roof…well…Yeah, Baby!

You may have noticed how much from a relatively small part of the world (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales) is still influential in America.  Despite all that strife with the Revolution and War of 1812, we seem to get along quite well with the Brits.  It’s not just a matter of language, although that undoubtedly helps.  Undeniably, we have a shared cultural history, too.  And what we can learn from each other is still exciting and filled with possibility.  We feel our cultural roots tugging us back across the Atlantic, while at the same time our relatively youthful energy and optimism attracts attention from the other side of the pond.

Almost all of our American music has strong ties to the Isles.  Yes, the Beatles invaded, but only after Elvis and Rock ‘n Roll hit their shores first.  The early European settlers in this country also brought their music along with them.  The English, Welsh, Scottish, and later Irish, immigrants brought their distinct music to the New World.  Settling often in remote areas, this music developed of it’s own accord, blending with influences from the music of African slaves or French Quebecois/Cajun to become our American folk music traditions.  Country music, Rock n’ Roll, and even some jazz traditions can be traced to this region (Appalachia and the South in the U.S.). Even in the classical realm, Copland’s “very American” Hoedown from Rodeo is easily traced through Appalachia back to Celtic areas of Britain and Ireland (as the fiddle tune, Bonaparte’s Retreat).  I’ll even go so far to posit that J.P. Sousa may not have had nearly the impact on our Independence Day celebrations without the British band tradition that inspired his music.

Early American history is rife with stories of settlements of Puritans, Quakers and aristocratic land-owners, along with their transplanted Anglo culture. But we also see important settlements of Moravians in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Germans in South Carolina and Ohio.  These settlements valued music of the German/Czech tradition and imported professional ensembles and composers to our shores long before we tried to do it as an American public.  In fact, I consider American transplants John Antes and Johann Peter to be equals to any of the “lesser” composers of the Classical era in Europe.  But their music stayed somewhat isolated.  The Anglo roots propagated.

We remain fascinated by the music, stories, novels, and history set in the British Isles.  King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth (I and II) make for great reading and films.  I find it interesting that we are connected with eras and personalities that we never experienced.  Downton Abbey is a current hit in North America, a region of the world that never really lived through life in Edwardian England.  In music, I find that when one really delves into Elgar’s Enigma Variations, it is as if you were in a parlor in 1899 along with Sir Edward and his friends.  We have nostalgia for something we’ve lost, or never had to begin with.

Perhaps it is language, roots, or constant media bombardment.  But whatever the reason, we are truly connected across the pond.  Count me in as an Anglophile!

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin