Grains of Sand

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When I was a boy, I remember a playground leader, a bully of sorts, throwing sand in my face. It stung my eyes. It made me feel powerless, angry, and afraid. It made me feel small. But I’ll allow the benefit of the doubt to that bully of my past, just as I will the present-day makers of callous remarks and actions during our pandemic predicament. Like all bullies, they are likely expressing their fear through lashing out with controlling behaviors. But like the playground tormentors of the past, when fear overpowers rational thought and compassion, it becomes a dangerous, insidious threat. It must be called out and challenged.

Last week I was angry; as angry as I’ve been since this all started. It was not because of something said or done by a neighbor or even leader of the free world (as per usual), but by a callous remark made by a Lt. Governor in a state I don’t even live in. It soon exploded into a string of people supporting that assertion; basically, that people should go back to work and chance getting the virus for the good of the economy. (I should know better than to read the comment threads on posts by now…). In a veiled attempt to hide their fears under the rallying cry of “save the Republic,” they calculate the economy as worthier than individual lives.  For some reason, I found this insistence, expressed as an infringement of Constitutional and capitalist rights, more annoying that the idiots participating in reprehensible, dangerous, and unlawful behavior (posted online with the hashtag #coronaviruschallenge). But both provoke my ire for many of the same reasons.

“If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Charles Dickens wrote the above words (in A Christmas Carol), but these insensitive challengers paraphrased it to shocking effect last week. Beware friends: There are still those among us who would decide our fate for us.

What was proposed — basically that we end the social distancing and business restrictions and ask all Americans, especially those most at risk, to take their chances for good of the economy and younger generations — was akin to considering a handful of sand expendable. The economy trumps lives; therefore, no lives matter.

I wish these people no ill will. They have the right to express their opinion. I do hope, however, that they pay the price if they’ve broken the law (e.g. those coronavirus challengers/Darwin award nominees/Florida pastors who hold services, etc.). I support their right to free speech, including the right to express unsavory ideas. These people used the platforms afforded them by society and position in our social order. Some, like the Lt. Governor of Texas, a state official, is a leader by default. In times like these, he gets a bigger platform. Now please allow me to take my, somewhat smaller, soapbox.

The planet is burning. The suggestion that we throw a handful of sand into the bonfire would produce the expected results. Nothing of consequence except lost sand.

People are like sand. Let’s remember that sand is special, individually and collectively. Sand is composed of pieces and particles of organisms, past and present. It is an imprint of a vast ecosystem that forms a foundation for a self-perpetuating ecology all its own. Now, there’s a metaphor worth considering as we stroll down the beach; appropriately socially-distanced, of course.

William Blake said it much better, and more succinctly than I:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

Blake’s poetic metaphor provides us an opportunity. What if we were to consider each person as non-expendable? What if we honor each grain of sand as part of the ecosystem of our collective experience? What if every flower was afforded the worth and dignity of every other? What if every human soul was worth saving, allowed to live a life they were meant to live, taking their part in the ecosystem? What if we are all part of a “symphony of sand” being perpetually composed?

I lean toward these kinds of metaphors; these types of hopes. Too altruistic? Perhaps. I doubt my words will dissuade those who already have decided and judged the fate of others. The misinformed remarks and callous actions of those who are lashing out are nothing more than veiled comments about their own personal fears and the things that initiate them. Certainly, we all are looking to explain away the things that irritate us—that ultimately scare us. We’d rather expel them than find a way to value them in our quest to move forward. But if we accept, rather than reject our abrasive fears, we might yet build something valuable, as an oyster does a pearl. I propose we consider the notion that what vexes us might actually be of practical use for moving forward.

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” ~ Federico Fellini

There were many things that irritated us long before this pandemic began, just as there will certainly be afterward. That fact of human behavior is unlikely to change. But if we consider the pandemic itself as an irritant, let us also ponder what can be made from our struggles with them. If age or infirmities are a problem, let us consider how might we address it through compassion. Let us consider what use it could be for us. What pearls might we make? What jewels might we gather from the work of others? What value might we assign the lives of others?

Creative and credible solutions will come from the struggles we face. Let’s allow these grains of sand, a sand dune’s worth of grains, to define our lives. Rather than tossing a handful, or a truckload, away onto a forest fire of unlimited acreage, let’s each develop our own pearls, and combine them with those of others into a treasure trove for the collective good of our era. “Collective good,” meaning everyone is included. Our actions today will determine whether or not we are worth anything later, on (or off) “the half-shell.”

These pearls, like small opaque crystal balls, hold the answers. Let us struggle as necessary to pen and revise our own stories, symphonies, and operas. Together we string together the masterpiece: our collective human destiny.

Pandemic Copyright, 3-31-2020, Robert Baldwin

 

Photo credit: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1558604/David-McCord-A-handful-of-sand-is-an-anthology-of-the-universe

 

Silver Linings

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Ah, yes, a life in the arts! There’s nothing quite like it.

Dealing with rejection is part of the gig. It is something I talk with about with my students quite often. All those involved in creative endeavors experience it, and it never completely goes away. Coming to grips with it is necessary for survival in the field.

I am certainly not immune. Yesterday I was thrilled to receive news of the recent publication of a poem. Exciting! Today, I received a rejection letter for a big prize in poetry (which was, admittedly, a real long shot, as those things always are). But though not a winner, the letter was embedded with some good news:

“We’d like you to know that your poems advanced to the second round of the contest.”

Hey, that’s good! Hmmmm. Or is it? What if they tell everyone that … wait a minute, just HOW Many rounds were there in this competition? What exactly does this MEAN?

So, yeah. A life in the arts also involves healthy doses of doubt, skepticism, sarcasm, and yes, glimpses of progress and hope. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. If they try, they’re not telling you the truth. I am eternally grateful for the many wise teachers and colleagues who helped me understand this over the years.

C’est la vie. Onward. Upwards. They’re the only directions worth traveling anyways. I’ve got scores to prepare and some great writing ideas percolating. Here’s what’s been going through my head:

“Once upon a midnight dreary…” oh, wait…

“The closest kin of the moon, the creeping cat…” arghhh

“Every Who down in Whoville…”

That’s the ticket! Oh, wait…

 

Copyright photo and text, 2019 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

 

 

Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues

What follows is my post-season letter to the Salt Lake Symphony as well as a poem inspired by a recent performance. I’ve no idea why in one stanza the format is off, and since I cannot seem to correct it, let’s just call it poetic license!

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Dear SLS Colleagues;

It’s been a week since our epic concert featuring Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It’s taken me at least this long to come down off that cloud we built together by performing this epic work. I thank you not only for that concert, but for a most satisfying 43rd season of the Salt Lake Symphony, my 14th year as your music director and conductor.

I never get the chance to thank each of you personally, but please allow this letter to serve as a substitute for doing so. Our performance last week was likely one of the best this orchestra has ever played. Of course, Mahler’s music helped to elevate the performance (pun intended). But your hard work on the concert, this season, and throughout your lives has paid great dividends, both for us and our audience. I have rarely been involved in a concert where patrons and musicians have been abuzz a week after the performance. Modern life rarely affords us that opportunity. The fact that it is still so present in our minds is a testament to our dedication and perseverance, and the art we created last Thursday.

Communities NEED ensembles like the Salt Lake Symphony. Together we make a difference in the cultural life of Salt Lake City. We sometimes forget this, being legitimately overshadowed by an outstanding orchestra that gets more publicity and public attention (you know, that big downtown orchestra, across the street from that big downtown choir and orchestra). But what we provide is equally vital to the community. In you, the community sees the intrinsic value of music, the love one puts into it, and the sacrifice required to make great art. To be an amateur musician requires no apology nor explanation. In fact we embody the root of the word “amateur” from the French, meaning “lover of.” Your love of music, music-making and for each other shines within the walls of Libby Gardner Hall and beyond. I have no doubt we will continue to do so.

Many of you also know that I am an amateur of sorts. Not in music, for that is my profession, but in poetry. Last night I sat down in an attempt to fend off the blues that often follows a great performance. It seemed the natural form in which to create a new poem, my gift to you. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great summer. I’ll see many of you in July for our Abravanel concerts!

Rob

Robert Baldwin Music Director, Salt Lake Symphony

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Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues
by Robert Baldwin

Last week we had a concert, a very grand affair;
Last week I gave a downbeat, a thousand notes went flying in the air;
The orchestra was hot, and the choir they sang with flair.

 

We played about Death, Life, and After, too;

The Reaper made a visit, but Baby, watcha gonna do?

Oh, children resurrect, that’s how you keep on staying true.

 

Mr. Mahler was a poet, a bard of words and sound;
Mr. Mahler, such a poet, in Vienna was the best around;
When he’s played in Salt Lake City, we done nearly gone and raised him from the ground.

Now the clapping it’s all over, and we’ve taken our final bow;
Mr. Mahler’s finished speaking, left the audience entranced in the Now;
We provided fertile ground, and he simply used us as the plough.

It might seem kinda strange, using Mahler and the blues;
A form not yet invented, but today it’s just last week’s news;
How else I’m gonna tell ya, that we rocked the roof, and stood ’em in the pews?

Now I’ve got a long, long summer, no Mahler in any week;
Not for next year either, but my season–it ain’t so bleak;
Thanks to Maestro Gustav, my paddle’s now finally got a creek.

You might think I’d be lonely, now that all is silent here;
It might be just that only a note or two is left for my ear;
But I got the Mahler memory, to carry me throughout the year.

5/22/19

Copyright, 2019, Robert Baldwin

 

From the Shore to the Depths

Benjamin Britten scares me. Don’t misunderstand, I’m sure he was a pleasant chap. And yes, he’s dead, so I suppose if he showed up in my living room today it would be a bit frightening. More to the point, it’s his music that gives me pause, makes me question reality. Britten’s music also entices, begging me to enter…

What I find in his music is sometimes so individual, so personal, that I am reticent to look deeply at first. It’s like entering another’s thoughts, someone who understands life much differently than I do. It forces me to ask, “Am I supposed to be here?” Britten’s art is a dark tunnel, where what awaits us is contradictory, containing both certainty and doubt; mystery and truth; beauty and terror.

He’s the Kafka of 20th Century music, in my opinion. And like that great writer, once you allow yourself to be open to his message, things will happen. The rusty cogs turn revealing glimpses of mist-enshrouding things you may or may not want to see. Wondrous things. Terrifying things. Meaningful things. But look you must. This is the musical star stuff that can be perspective-changing.

But first you have to dive in and wrestle with the notes, for revelation does not come without some major effort.

“As Gregor awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an eighth note…” (not Kafka, but still Kafka-like)

This is a rather long-winded way of saying that I’m really looking forward to conducting Britten’s Four Sea Interludes with SLS for the March 16th concert. It’ll be my first trip with this trippy music. Also on the program: Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony and Peter Boyer’s Festivities. Nature abounds, but the program defines human nature as well. Hope you can join us!

http://saltlakesymphony.org/welcome.php

Copyright 2019. Robert Baldwin

SLS March poster

Keep Going

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I had an interesting discussion with a group of students recently. The basic topic of discussion was this: “How long do you wait to ‘make it in the field’ before throwing in the towel? And similarly, how do you know when you’ve made it?”

To answer the question I relayed a true conversation I had with TV and film composer Mike Post in 1985 at a summer festival. When asked essentially the same question, he replied: “If it means that much to you, you must work hard, make contacts. and wait long as it takes. If you need to eat peanut butter sandwiches for years, you must do so if working in this field means that much to you.”
Sage advice. (I ate a lot of PBJ back in the day, BTW).
Another wise tidbit comes from the great cellist Janos Starker, who I had the privilege to hear speak in 2000: “Remember, there are many needs for musicians and teachers in every place in America. Do not delude yourself into thinking that you only are a success in this field if you work in New York, Boston, or Chicago.”
More sage advice. (I’ve worked in many places, none of which are the fabled places of success).
In truth, the students were shocked to learn that I’ve been rejected for most job applications I’ve submitted, (probably over a hundred, actually). Yet I’m still happily engaged in a career in the arts. In my relatively recent side-pursuit of writing, I’ve received more rejections than acceptances by a 3:1 margin. Yet I’ve still had a small number or works published, with increasing frequency. (If not in major literary journals, or “apex publications,”  at least they HAVE been published).

The importance of what we do is in the doing of it, or as the great writer Ursula Le Guin writes:

“Practice is an interesting word. We think of practicing as beginner’s stuff, playing scales, basic exercises. But the practice of an art is the doing of that art—it is the art.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

What we should learn from all our practice is that it is not about “perfection,” as the saying goes, but about perseverance. We must continue to do what we do, and we will likely learn and grow as much, if not more, from our mistakes, rejections, and less-than-perfect performances.

So, the lesson I’ve imparted, and learned myself, is basically this:

Keep Going.
If you build it, they will come…eventually
And,
We are all on a unique path that follows its own timeline. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Keep Going.
Hit the scores, practice the technique, dig deeper into your soul than ever before. Do your art every day you possibly can.
Network without the expectation of immediate return, say YES to opportunities; say NO to being used.
Keep Going

P.S. I also told the student who said he needed to make $200K per year right out of college in order to support his family that a career in the arts may not be the best choice for him, if that was truly his priority. Sorry, there are also deal breakers.

 

Copyright 2018, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Image source: https://weheartit.com/entry/231170553

 

The Spice and a Slice of Utah Life

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I am happy to report that my poem, Spice of Life was featured in the July-August – Issue 3 of Utah Life magazine. This is a fantastic new publication that is worthy of a subscription if you like reading about Utah out-of-doors activities, and history in good essays, articles and poetry. Issue 3 is on newsstands now. Here’s the link to the magazine.

https://utahlifemag.com/

Spice of Life-Utah Life

 

Copyright, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Images used with permission from the editors at Utah Life magazine.

Earworm of the Day

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Traveling down memory lane to one of the most haunting songs I know. When I was a kid, I remember hearing ELP’s “Lucky Man” for the first time, getting wrapped up in it, and then being blown away when the last verse hit:

A bullet had found him
His blood ran as he cried
No money could save him
So he laid down and he died

Historical fact: the song was almost not recorded. (From Wikipedia): “On the last day of recording their debut album, Emerson, Lake & Palmer discovered they were short of satisfying the label’s contract requirement of 21 minutes of music per album side, and therefore needed one more song. Greg Lake began playing “Lucky Man”, a song he had written when he was 12 years old.”

12 freaking years old? Such depth….and that Moog synth – first time EVER used in a piece of popular music. And the arc and lyrics of the song. Amazing.

I am not sure there will be another creative team quite the same as Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer in popular music. Please help me understand if I am missing some creative genius on the current popular music scene. I highly doubt it. (I’m speaking of true compositional ingenuity, not a creative performer. There are plenty of those).

Much of ELP’s music is masterful, and I’ll add that “Karn Evil 9” from the album, “Brain Salad Surgery” is a true masterpiece that belongs in any discussion of the most important compositions in any genre of the second half of the 20th century. So there. And you thought I only listened to Bach.

Copyright, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Image from Wikipedia, courtesy Island Records.