Charge to the Graduating Classes
Delivered at Westminster Choir College’s 81st Commencement
May 15, 2010
By Christian Carey
President Rozanski, Provost Steven, Dean Annis, distinguished faculty and administrators, members of our campus community, most-welcome guests, and students of the graduating classes: I’m honored to be addressing you today. I found out about this speaking opportunity in a somewhat roundabout fashion. A few weeks ago I was asked by the college’s Director of External Affairs, Anne Sears, for a bio to put in the commencement program, to supply those in attendance with a bit more information about the speaker giving the charge at commencement. After picking my jaw up off the ground, I quickly emailed Anne back to ask if she was sure – really sure – that I’d been selected for this distinction. After being reassured by her that yes, I had indeed been asked to speak to you today; I felt humbled and more than a bit intimidated at being accorded this privilege and responsibility.
Shortly thereafter, I realized that the way this invitation came about was actually a serendipitous event, as it provided an excellent starting point – and not too bad of an anecdote – with which to begin my speech. One of my favorite English poems is “Surprised by Joy” by William Wordsworth, not only because it in itself is a beautiful work, but because its title has so often described experiences I’ve had throughout my life; in particular, my life in the arts.
Wordsworth’s poem begins: “Surprised by Joy, impatient as the wind…” and we can certainly identify with that impatience: particularly while waiting to receive our diploma! In the hectic postmillennial culture in which we find ourselves, it often seems as if patience is no longer prized as a virtue. Instead, we frequently are bombarded with media messages that prize fast results and instant gratification. You and I both know that this is not the path the graduates today have chosen. They have worked long and hard for their degrees, cultivating discipline, technique, and musicality. These are the skill sets and values that your teachers at Westminster Choir College have instilled in you. And you are fortunate indeed to have received this training, as it will help to sustain you in the challenging career paths you have chosen.
For no one who is in the arts for the long haul can expect the meteoric rise of Miley Cyrus, Susan Boyle, or David Archuleta to be the norm in our field. For every ‘American Idol’ winner there are countless musicians out there who are cultivating their artistry in relative obscurity. They do so not because they are waiting for ‘their fifteen minutes of fame,’ but because of their love of and respect for music. They may not gain that quick flash of ephemeral stardom, but we should never mistake this brief dalliance with fame and fortune for the only satisfying pathway in the arts. Please note that these truths may need to be communicated to our friends and family members who are non-musicians more than once: and that’s okay! But we cannot allow the clatter and glitz of our whirlwind fast media culture to distract us from our artistic goals, from our creative work. Thus, in our lives in music, patience, as well as persistence and perseverance, must be our bywords and indeed our virtues as each of us carves out their own path.
There will doubtless be naysayers who attempt to sully our path as well. I was reminded of this by a recent article in The New York Times, which profiled the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Composition, Jennifer Higdon. As your music history professor Sharon Mirchandani will tell you, Higdon began her career not as a composer, but as a flutist. In fact, Sharon accompanied Higdon’s undergraduate flute recital at Bowling Green State University! It was only later on that she realized that her true calling was to be a composer. Please take note of this graduates – sometimes paths diverge from our initial expectations – this too is okay! (I received my Bachelor of Music degree in Voice – now I am a college music theory professor – that’s quite a divergence!)
Higdon caught up with and indeed moved past the rest of the pack very quickly. Her piece the Blue Cathedral is now the most often performed American orchestral work written in the past twenty-five years. Her Violin Concerto garnered her the Pulitzer Prize, and its recording will be released on the Deutsche Grammophon label this Fall, with the world-class violinist Hilary Hahn performing as soloist. But as a woman who began to pursue a career in composition later than her peers, Higdon experienced a great deal of discrimination, even heckling, as she forged a formidable voice and this significant career as a composer. She even had the unpleasant experience of being told by male composers that “the only reason she was successful was because she was a woman.” Imagine facing down that kind of ignorant behavior!
Higdon was kind enough to share her formula for dealing with irrational criticism. She says, “Everyone runs into naysayers, but if you love something enough and feel passionately enough, you just go on ahead, walk right round the person saying it, proceed down the road and don’t look back.” My father, to whom we’ll return later, often shared a Latin phrase that speaks to this as well: “Illegitimi non carborundem.” Loosely translated, it means: “Don’t let the bastards get you down!”The awareness that the artist’s path is long, without a specific ‘arrival point,’ but that it can be filled with many surprising joys, has never been more apparent to me than it was in December 2005, when I interviewed the American composer Elliott Carter as he neared his 97th birthday. Carter was then, as he is to this day at 101, busily composing, fulfilling multiple commissions for major orchestras and world class performers. Carter has dealt with his critics a bit differently than Higdon – he’s simply outlived them!
Having written my doctoral dissertation on his music, I was aware of his astounding vitality and continued productivity, but seeing him in person truly astounded me. Carter described the creative life this way: “When I’m out here in the physical world, I’m an old man, with all of the infirmities and challenges that come with living a very long life. But when I’m composing, I’m transported to another world, where its stimulating, very pleasant, and always engaging. Every night, my nurse has to drag me away from my writing desk!” Rather than rest on his laurels, rehashing the tried and true, Carter tries to approach each piece afresh. As I asked him about things he was working on over and over again he said, ”I’ve never tried that before and I thought it might be interesting to write a piece incorporating it.” He waited until age 94 to compose his first opera and at 101 years of age is still trying new things!
Elliott Carter supplies me with inspiration and a sense of the patience and long view that a life in the arts – notice I’m not calling it a career, but a life – requires. Another of my mentors, one with whom I was fortunate to study, was the composer Lukas Foss, who passed away just last year. I first met Lukas and took a lesson with him when I was still in my teens, but worked with him more extensively as a graduate student at Boston University. At BU, Lukas would frequently pass by the students at work in the lounge area of the music building, poring over scores or correcting parts. He’d peer over the composers’ shoulders, playfully make faux sweeping comments:”Too diatonic! Put in more dynamics! Where’s this phrase going?” On the way back from the beverage machine, Lukas would often pass along an extra cup of cocoa or coffee.
The last time I saw Lukas was in 2004. The Music Festival of the Hamptons had programmed Mourning Madrid, my piece for live locomotive and orchestra. Lukas was a fixture of the festival: advising on the programming, conducting, and appearing as a piano soloist. In a conversation after the Hamptons concert, I thanked Lukas for his generosity at our first meeting, when he’d listened to a tape of an early piece of mine for string quartet. Even though there were glaring shortcomings in the music, he cared enough about the fragile confidence of a fledgling composer to give words of encouragement that would inspire me to go on. As he would so often in the future, Lukas had told me to “keep writing.”
In parting, he said with a smile, “Remember what I told you? I was right.”
Lukas taught me that even the most gifted of us is responsible to share our artistry with others with a sense of compassion, commitment, and in a spirit of dedicated service.
Since returning to Westminster in 2007, I’ve been repeatedly supplied joyful surprises and also sudden jolts of the less pleasant variety – alas, life cannot be counted on for one without sometimes experiencing the other. This juxtaposition was set in stark contrast this past summer, when, as many of you know, my wife and I got married August 1st, only to have my father pass away just a week after our wedding. But even in the midst of the grief I felt at losing a parent were surprising joys. Many of these came by way of teaching colleagues and students, past and present. Within days of my father’s passing, countless hugs were dispensed, orchids arrived on our doorstep, and we received many beautiful cards of condolence – as well as many notes on my Facebook Wall. Some of you, bearing in mind our family’s beloved Labrador retriever Humphrey, made donations to the Guide Dog Foundation in my father’s memory. I was deeply touched and remain most grateful.
Each of these gestures reminded me that I was a part of a caring and supportive campus community. As commencement’s conclusion nears, your thoughts today may be about your life after Westminster. But I hope that you will remember that you remain a part of this community. Indeed, this will be a touchstone and wellspring for friendships, support, and encouragement for the rest of your lives. After all, we musicians must stick together!
I’ll close with a quote from my father, who, like all good Irish cops, shared many anecdotes, witticisms, and one-liners that I cherish along with his memory. But the one that has remained with me, throughout the many joyful surprises and moments of adversity I’ve experienced, is from my driving lessons with him as a teenager. Having been trained in the high speed pursuit of hardened criminals, teaching a trepidatious sixteen year-old to merge onto the Belt Parkway must have been child’s play for my Dad. But he was an excellent teacher, and always served as a calming presence, even during my attempts to Parallel Park. His mantra for driving, which he repeated over and over, was “always keep your sights high.”
Its a quote I’ve repeated to myself often, both on snowy drives and in the hurly-burly of pursuing artistic dreams. It applies equally to those about to embark on their post-graduate lives: “Always keep your sights high.”