What your sex life has to do with building a satisfying performing career

I'm really glad Alex Temple wrote her most recent post on NewMusicBox. Alex is a fascinating artist and thinker, who is constantly bringing fresh ways of thinking to our field. I'm also really glad that she's linking to Amanda's article on "public failure" and other contemporary vocal phenomena, which didn't get enough attention when it was first published. This is such rich territory for all of us to think about. I love to see my colleagues shedding light on previously unarticulated dynamics about power, gender, agency, etc. 

Collaboration involves great trust and intimacy, and it is not a stretch to talk about it using the language of sexual consent. Having read the article, many thoughts come to mind. For fun, I'm going to extend this analogy about sex, calling upon all the feminist sex education literature my mother gave me as a teenager. Because, how often do we get to use this analogy in a legitimate public forum? I mean, when am I ever going to title a blog post like this again? (Thanks, Alex.) 

Because I'm primarily a performer, I'm going to focus mainly on what I think performers can do to get clear about their own boundaries and desires. Composers can, and should, have their own discussion about how to establish healthy relationships with composers, communicate well, and respect individual desires.

As a sexual partner and as a performer, you have to know your own body and your own desires. Good sex requires knowing your own body and your own preferences, right? Well, in certain ways, the same applies when you enter into a performance situation. In order to give full consent, you (as a performer) have to know a little bit about your desires and tastes. You have to KNOW what you like and what you want.  

A lot of players don't know what they want or where their boundaries are, because this simply isn't a part of our training. Players (and to a certain extent, singers) are encouraged to think of themselves as blank canvasses, onto which any number of visions can be projected. As students, we perform repertoire from a wide range of styles and historical periods; early in our careers, we take what performances we can get. Because of this, we're bad at developing our own tastes, curating our own canon, and discovering what really turns us on as performing artists.

In my experience, music schools don't prepare us to do this kind of artistic self-exploration. After all, we're all going to win orchestra jobs and play whatever the music director chooses, right? Sigh. So as young players, we end in the position of receiving a lot of "incoming material" from composers that we don't have a lot of connection to. And then a composer tries to make us try some uncomfortable new stuff? And we just met him yesterday? No wonder we're not in the mood.

It's taken me, as a performer, a long time to figure out that I'm not interested in "playing everything." That I have tastes, desires, strengths and weaknesses, and I'm less happy when I'm just playing whatever happens to be placed on my stand. As any good sex educator will tell you, you're responsible for your own orgasm. As a performer, we're responsible for our own experience. And if it doesn't feel good, we don't have to do it. (Except of course for those times that we can't opt out ... which is probably relatively often ... given how concerts typically work.)

If the relationship is good enough, you're more willing to try something new. If you have a good relationship with your collaborator, you can venture into places you wouldn't have otherwise gone. When Sam first suggested we lay my violin flat on a table for MIMIC, I didn't like the idea. I thought it would suppress my agency as a performer and render some of my skills meaningless. "If we do that, you don't need me to play this piece. Anyone could do it," I whined. But I was wrong. I ended up really loving transforming my instrument in this way, and I gained a whole new palate of sound possibilities. The "don't knock it til you've tried it" adage held true. Discomfort isn't always bad. But without well-established rapport and trust, such risks are less palatable for performers.

Certain work conditions create trust and rapport; others don't. The reason I was comfortable taking a major technical leap in MIMIC was that I had a chance to get to know, and trust, Sam as a friend and artist over a long period of time. As cellist and interdisciplinary artist Lia Kohl pointed out on my Facebook page just yesterday, a lot of the problematic power dynamics in contemporary music have to do with how pieces of music get created. Many people are moving away from the "put a score on your stand; meet the composer ten stressful days later; perform in a cold sweat" model, and for good reason. That model leads to "non-consensual" performances by its very nature.

You have to be know how to say no. There's a little voice in your head that knows the truth. No, I don't want to play this piece; honestly no, I don't like that person's music; no, I'm not interested in spending 20 hours doing XYZ as a performer. Playing music you don't really want to play is like getting in bed with ... you get the picture.

It's fun to say YES! There's consent, and then there's ENTHUSIASTIC consent. Most sex educators will tell you it's the latter that you want. As performers, we should ask ourselves if this piece or collaboration draws a HELL YES from us. Imagine a career built of HELL YES pieces and collaborations! It would be a life's work to discern what that means, and to achieve it in practical terms, but it's an exciting prospect.


On a slightly different topic: 

Macho language about performance is not neutral. The two artists in Alex's article who expressing a willingness to be dominated ("we like to punish people"; "I love the idea of being willfully compromised for art") are the two men she interviewed. The three people quoted as NOT being wild about this are the three women she interviewed. Oh boy. Small sample sizes, I know, but they say a lot. It's presumably more fun to play the "I'm being dominated! But just for a little while!" game when your power feels relatively assured. 

Personally, I join the ranks of those who find a sentence like "We like to punish people" alienating. I don't mean to call out this one person; it's extraordinary how commonplace such language is in contemporary music. He slayed it! They killed it! It was burning! They were on fire!  She destroyed it! That piece is a beast! A bear! Brutal! Punishing! I'm sorry, are we raping & pillaging or playing a concert? In my experience, this value system leads to certain kinds of works getting privileged over others. Soft dynamics? Triads? Feelings? Narrative? What are you, some kind of pussy?

[Highly relevant to this discussion is Claire Vaye Watkins' article "On Pandering, or: How to Write Like a Man", which is currently tearing up the literary internet. I'll have more on this essay later.]