About a week and a half ago, there was a lively thread on the Facebook page of composer Matt Marks. To launch the conversation, Matt wrote:
So like, ok: I know hundreds (if not thousands) of musicians who focus almost-exclusively on new music, to the point where it's practically become a distinct sub-discipline from *classical music*, as different a set of skills, study, and practice as classical and jazz.
Q. Where is the point where this sub-discipline should just break off and become its own independent field of study?
Q. What institutions already have programs where students can major in this field of study, particularly at the undergrad level?
Q. How can we make this more of a thing?
This line of inquiry was unexpectedly emotional for me. To be honest, I rarely think about—rarely let myself think about—just how different "new music" and "classical music" can be from each other. After all, I live on the fault lines between the two, so I spend a good bit of mental energy trying to smooth things over. In Chicago, I could do a Saturday night show at Constellation singing an excerpt from Dave Reminick's pizza delivery musical (fee: $0), and then do a Sunday matinee of Beethoven 8 for a white-haired audience as part of an orchestra whose dress code discourages women from wearing pants (week's work: $750). The first event felt exciting, life-affirming and full of possibility; the second had its moments, but was overall a little hard to get through.
Making a living! La la la, it's all music!! trilled my inner optimist. After all, I was supposed to be able to do both ... right? Isn't classical music—warts and all—my training, my lineage, my home?
For the past week, I've been preparing for an audition, and I'm working up the opening of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for the occasion. When I played it through recently for my wife Susan, it was relatively clean, but it also felt embarrassing and artistically wrong. "Playing this music feels like being in drag," I suddenly blurted out. "Like, I feel like I should be wearing a bow tie, and it should be 1945." (Just to be clear, I don't enjoy being in drag.)
"Do you also feel like you should be an old white man?" Susan suggested.
My god—when had this happened to me? My soul-deep discomforts with classical music's canon, institutions, norms and expectations were actually coming out in my performance. The arpeggios were in tune, but you could smell my skepticism and discomfort.
Shit! I thought to myself. When did I become aesthetically incapable of putting on the costume of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto? And what the hell did this mean for my future as a gigging musician, aka Person Who Makes It Sound Good No Matter What It Is? What's gonna happen now—I stop playing music that "doesn't feel right"?!
On the train later, I scribbled in my journal to try to make sense of things. There were so many possible explanations for my discomfort. I jotted them down:
1. Maybe as I'm growing closer to my true self, it's getting harder to fake interest in repertoire I don't love?
2. Maybe as a bona fide queer woman, it's getting harder to cheer for the all-male canon and my limbs are refusing to cooperate any longer?
3. Maybe the more I learn about and care for the world around me, the more I am drawn towards artwork made by my fellow living beings—and the less enthusiasm I can muster for museum pieces and the conservative institutions that surround them?
While these reasons are all very clear and compelling in my own heart, each artist has their own set of values. For me, Matt's post launched an essential inner dialogue about how my training and economic circumstances connect with that truly matters to me aesthetically. The post, and the discussion that followed, allowed me to see that the artistic separation I'd been feeling was painful. I think it's important to keep in mind that:
1. It's all well and good to "stick it to the man" and abandon classical music. But as players, our arts economy rewards us for staying in touch with our "classical roots." A lot of the stable, decent-paying work is in orchestras, playing standard repertoire. There's a financial cost to rejecting the conservative canon. This meme pretty well sums things up:
2. The norm for "being a good musician" pretty much means, as I mentioned above, making anything sound good—in three rehearsals. Matt shared a quote from Brian Ferneyhough, quoted via Jeff Trevino, that sums up the problem beautifully:
"In general, one encounters two distinct types of performer; one that might be termed the "gig" musician - the player who, in a couple of rehearsals, is justly proud of producing a "professional" realization of just about anything. Often, such individuals are required to interpret vastly different styles in close juxtaposition and have, in consequence, developed a technique of rapid reading and standardized, averaged-out presentation in order to maximalize effectivity for the vast majority of works and contexts. ... It seems to me no contradiction in terms to presuppose a species of interpreter for whom a lengthy and intense involvement with the artistic and technical demands and assumptions of a particular composer or group of composers would be an essential prerequisite for adequate performance activity. That's the performer who's willing to spend six months or so really trying to penetrate to the roots of a style, to focus in on the mental development of the composer during the act of creation so as to be able to actively counterpoint this against his own personal learning and reproduction dynamic. It's true that, over a couple of decades now, I have developed a significant relationship of this sort with a number of soloists and ensembles. It would be a mistake, though, to concentrate overly on the quasi-virtuoso aspect of this: the spiritual relationship is always more important."
I'm sharing all of this in hopes of having a discussion with my fellow performers who have grappled with this conundrum.
For the record: playing Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Haydn, Schubert, and many other composers does NOT feel terrible/like a 1940's costume that I don't want to wear. And also for the record: hell yeah, I'm still taking that audition. I've gotta make sure all this "revolutionary" sentiment isn't just a grandiose manifestation of my fear of failure. Also, I need the money.