Perception and Assumption: Does Authentic Anything Really Exist?

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Perception is a major aspect of a musician’s life.  We perceive sound, rhythm, and phrasing and relate it to all of the stimuli around us, from our fellow musicians on stage to the drone of an air handling unit.  Hopefully, our attention is focused and blended with those around us.  Often times it is not.  And we can get pretty fussy about the score and the notes that are within, claiming some sort of ultimate authority on the subject.  But doing so without regard to different options, interpretations, and traditions can create assumptions that may actually block creativity. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

“Our human species…is distinguished by the fact that the action-releasing mechanisms of its central nervous system are for the most part…”open.” They are susceptible to the influence of imprintings from the society in which the individual grows up.”  –Joseph Campbell, the Importance of Rites, 1964

Our music teachers, conductors, and the times in which we live all provide a large measure of our awareness and perception.  These people influence how we conceive and execute our music.  I am eternally grateful to the many teachers who told me what to listen to, who to listen to and who the authority was for a particular composer or style.  I am also thankful for the many friends and colleagues who have expanded my horizons with suggestions and ideas.  This, of course was determined for them by someone else and subsequently passed on to them.  Of course, personal likes also have something to do with it.  If we like something (for whatever reason) we are likely to seek out others who have the same interests.  This is how a style becomes codified.  Which is good.  It is also how style can become stagnant, which is not so good.

This idea that there is only one way or that a different way is inherently wrong is the bane of musical expression.  It represents an orthodoxy that is stifling.  Luckily we live in an age that allows for the shattering of this orthodoxy.  Recordings abound, both historical and current, proving that different is possible, if not preferable.  Scholarship and discussion are at an all-time high for all types of music: classical, popular and ethnic traditions.  And we can often have the freedom to experiment and grow by learning new instruments or trying cross-over styles different from our training. 

My colleague Pedro De Alcantara is in the middle of a series of Blogs regarding perception and music.  Here’s a memorable quote:

“When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, “Bach was Bach.” When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn’t Bach.” He’s . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.” Pedro de Alcantara

Pop on over to his site here. It’s worth a visit.

http://www.pedrodealcantara.com/blog/2013/2/9/reality-illusion-part-4-bach-dead-and-reborn.html

The awareness that there is more out there is extremely important to musicians at every stage.  It helps us to become “unstuck.” Healthy musicians are continuously evolving, an important aspect for honest expression.  Styles would not have changed, composers would not have created, and fundamentals would not have been altered had this not occurred.  And it occurs to me that we need reminding of this.
 
“God [is] not the exclusive property of any one tradition. The divine light [cannot] be confined to a single lamp, belonging to the East or the West, but enlightens all human beings.”
― Karen Armstrong

Copyright, 2013 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

The Rite Stuff

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“All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”—Cormac McCarthy, The Road

While our lives may no longer be closely tied to the same rituals that developed and defined world cultures, we remain drawn to a prescribed concept of order and meaning.  Often it is easy to identify: marriage, birth, death, or milestone career event.  But our lives are also filled with small rituals that we engage with on a daily basis. For myself, making morning coffee and taking daily dog walks number among those that are the important small rituals of my life.

As a musician, I also recognize many rituals of my craft, formal and otherwise.  Like every performer, there is a day for the first recital, new instrument, and winning an audition.  The little rituals also abound, and may include putting new strings on an instrument, rosining the bow, or mastering the next in a line of etudes.  These types of events can easily be taken for granted, yet provide meaning to the very fabric of a musician’s existence.

It is also worth remembering that every encounter with a piece of music is ritual.  The first experience with a major work can represent a journey, both in terms of the individual musician, and the collective participation of learning a new composition with colleagues.  Taking a piece from first reading to a concert can be analogous to the life journey.  It will contain celebratory moments, struggle, and triumph. 

“Only when we join together does this work have any meaning” – Ali Akbar Khan

As a conductor of a collegiate orchestra, perhaps I am more sensitive to this function of music.  Students certainly may behave and react differently than seasoned professionals when confronting the sublime or the unknown.  But there is something bigger and universal when we intersect the big pieces, the GIANTS of the repertoire.  The reason lies with the affect elicited from the listener and performer.  Those works represent BIG ritual.

It’s fairly easy to locate these pieces.  The composer names are often recognizable.  They are the great works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and many others.  They are the Ninth Symphony, The Resurrection Symphony, Ein Heldenleben, and the Pathetique (either Tchaikovsky’s or Beethoven’s).  The musician approaches these works with respect, care and a sense of awe.  Whether approached as a developing musician or an established veteran, the aim is clear.  The mission of performing these masterpieces is focused and reverent. 

That’s quite a preface for my journey these past 4 weeks, introducing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) to my students as well as the audience.  Interestingly it is a piece about ritual itself, set in an imagined pagan Russia.  But it also represents a major rite of passage for all orchestral musicians.  It is a work that does not come around often.  It is filled with seemingly insurmountable issues of instrumentation, rhythmic complexity and technical demands.  Yet the music speaks far beyond these surface issues, cuts to the core of human existence.  It is emotionally wired to the something deep at the center of human experience.

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”—Joseph Campbell

Taking on overwhelming odds, facing an uncertain outcome, and challenging oneself to the very limit is how the Hero’s Journey is often described.  Undertaking these tasks as a musician defines what it means to live as an artist.  By taking on the adventure, accepting the risks and completing the task, we return with something to share.  A story for the tribe: a concert for an audience.  A ritual worthy of every musician. 

And now, the gory details:

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring Turns 100: A joint celebration with the University of Utah Philharmonia and the Utah State University Symphony.

Two performances:

Tuesday, 2/12 7:30 p.m. Kingsbury Hall on the U of U Campus, Sergio Bernal, conductor Also featuring Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with Keenan Reesor, piano

Saturday, 2/23 7:30 p.m. Kent Concert Hall on the USU Campus Robert Baldwin, conductor. Also featuring the Bloch’s Concerto Grosso #1.

 

Copyright 2013, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

 

Honoring Musicians No Matter the Circumstance

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Stories of atrocities are so commonplace now in the daily news that we become desensitized to them.  The recent rash of violence in the African country of Mali has dominated the world news, even as French troops appeared on the scene to attempt to restore order.  While the tragedy on the human scale is shocking, the affront on art, literature and free expression also takes its toll on the human psyche.

Like many, I was appalled to hear stories of the burning of historic manuscripts, artwork and cracking down on artistic expression of all kinds.  Unfortunately, this is echoed in fundamentalist regimes across the globe.  And while this concept is rooted in the misguided beliefs of the perpetrators, the toll is more than local.  It most certainly is also an attack on the heritage of an entire civilization and the legacy of human history.

I value artifacts and materials from all cultures.  Indeed, they have the potential to teach me something about myself, even when the culture is completely foreign.  I learn something every time I encounter a folk tale, religious text, or work of art.  And as a musician, I have the unique opportunity and responsibility to foster the preservation of our heritage.

This is why I was very happy to hear of an organization that celebrates the freedom of musical expression and fights censorship of music around the world.  They have given their annual award to the Festival au Désert’ in Mali. According to today’s press release:

“The Freemuse Award 2013 is given to ‘Festival au Désert’, which in spite of extreme Islamists’ attempts to silence all music in Mali, defends freedom of musical expression and struggles to continue keeping music alive in the region”, says Marie Korpe, Executive Director, Freemuse.

Here is more information on the award and Freemuse:

http://www.freemuse.org/sw49734.asp

Organizations such as this make me proud to be a musician, and I add my congratulations to Manny Ansar and the Festival au Désert’.   And to my brother and sister performers in Mali and around the world, I offer the words of Schiller, via Beethoven:

Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds! Joy! Joy!

Copyright 2013. Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat

Photo from Freemuse Website: http://www.freemuse.org/sw305.asp