Archive for February, 2006

“Innovate as a last resort.”

– Charles Eames

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My wife is a member of a local Toastmaster’s chapter, and recently served as an evaluator, critiquing other members’ speeches. She decided to approach the evaluations as if she were critiquing musical performances. She used musical terminology (explaining unfamiliar terms, of course) and held the speakers to the highest performance standards she would expect from professional musicians.

Her feedback was revelatory for the rest of the group. They hung on every word, because everything she was telling them made perfect sense, and because they had never thought about things in quite that way before.

We musicians can forget sometimes how astonishing our most basic skills are. Instead, we lament all the things music can’t accomplish compared to other art forms. We should take pride in the unique powers of music, our most elusive form of communication, that can only be experienced, not explained. What pursuit develops greater sensitivity to every gradation of sound, to the subtlest adjustments in the passage of time? The world has so much to learn from us! If only we could articulate our sensitivities more clearly, more often, more emphatically – and without apology.

A world of better listeners would certainly be an improvement, in every way.

Maybe we need to find a new name for ourselves besides Musicians, something that conveys the extraordinary powers we have developed, something with a mythical ring to it, a name that would command the highest cultural esteem.

The Guardians of Sound and Time?

Well, you get the idea.

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For Presidents Day, I’m excerpting a speech John F. Kennedy made at Amherst College to eulogize Robert Frost, which Atlantic Monthlyran a few months after he died, and again last month.It is too easy, upon reading this, to bemoan the deterioration of our political scene over the last four decades, so I’ll forego making comparisons to current, or even recent, presidents. Truth be told, we tend to get the leaders we deserve.What strikes me most is how much the fall of Modernism has taken a toll on public perception of the arts. In the intervening years, Modernism has been pilloried relentlessly for being inaccessible, and a lot of the criticism was just, but reading this speech makes me regret that we also tossed out some of the aspirations art was commonly held to in the high Modern era.

I guess when you are drowning in bathwater, it’s a bit tough to save all the babies.

In any case, here is JFK, a month before his assassination.

Poetry and Power

by John Fitzgerald Kennedy

This day, devoted to the memory of Robert Frost, offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians as well as by others and even by poets. For Robert Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

In America our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honor a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit; not to our political beliefs but to our insight; not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension.

In honoring Robert Frost we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant.

The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.

He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.

“I have been,” he wrote, “one acquainted with the night.” And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair.

At bottom he held a deep faith in the spirit of man. And it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself.

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet, in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.

I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, “There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.”

In free society art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man””the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

I look forward to a great future for America — a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.

I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our national environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.

I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.

And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

And I look forward to a world which will be safe, not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.


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I have wanted to write about this idea for a long time. The recent discussion on the Forum page makes me think this is as good a time as any.

How should we fund the arts? Currently the arts in this country have three principal sources for funding: government support, private donations and ticket/sales receipts. In an ideal situation, all three of these sources would be seen as valid components to building a healthy culture. The problem is finding the right balance.

But that question is for another day. Right now I’m confining myself to one facet of the problem: how can federal support for the arts be funded more consistently and with greater benefit to the general taxpayer?

As currently structured, the National Endowment for the Arts relies on the good graces of politicians to vote for its budget every year. In other words, it’s not an endowment, it’s a line item. As many musicians are painfully aware, it’s very difficult to run any enterprise if you can’t plan more than one year in advance. Next year might be business as usual; the year after, your budget might be cut in half.

The solution? Turn the NEA into a real endowment.

Here’s a plan: Quintuple the NEA budget for five years. Over the course of those five years, invest 4/5 of the budget.

Then, after the five years are up, eliminate arts funding from the annual federal budget, and let the NEA operate off of the income from its investments.

Downside – From what we’ve been told, quintupling the budget would be way too costly – we can hardly afford the budget we have. But it’s really not as difficult as it sounds. We don’t even have to touch the 450 billion dollar defense budget, which of course is being spent very wisely.

Here’s what you would have to do: ask every US citizen to contribute $1.65 a year for five years. That’s all it would take. After that, the tax bite would be zilch.

Upside -
- NEA budget would be stabilized and predictable, relatively speaking, for the long term, and reflect the general health of the economy.
- NEA resources that are currently employed in making the annual case for survival could be put to running the NEA more effectively. As someone who is annually involved in the process of making that case on a state level, I can testify that it’s a huge drain of resources that could otherwise be spent on art.
- The endowment fund (roughly 2.4 billion) could be invested in the national economy, which would help everyone.
- After five years, the NEA would no longer be portrayed (falsely, but effectively, in my opinion) as a burden on taxpayers.
- People who are so inclined could always make tax-deductible gifts to the NEA endowment, so that it could grow through private support over time.

Again, this isn’t meant to solve all of the problems of arts funding, just one nagging difficulty. I figure there must be some legal reason why this plan won’t work, and this blog is the best place for me to find out. If you know of a reason why it isn’t possible, please let me know in the comment box below. I’m not so interested in philosophizing about the benefits and drawbacks to federal funding – with which we are all familiar — as I am in learning about any legal obstacles that might exist. I figure even if this is politically impossible in the USA, it might be made to work elsewhere.

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This year, as I’ve reported before, our composition department is focusing on interdisciplinary collaborations. Back in November, we gave the students the assignment of putting together a collaborative performance with some other art form on the first Saturday of February. We gave them no guidelines, no rules, and no assistance – this was all supposed to happen on their initiative, in addition to the work they were doing for composition lessons. All we did was provide a space and a block of time for rehearsal and performance.

The results were evidenced last Saturday. As might be expected, some composers hatched grandiose plans and others played it safe. One composer collaborated with a filmmaker on a brief documentary. One took a painting as inspiration for a flute and cello duo. Two others created electronic pieces that were choreographed by dance students. One enlisted the assistance of actors and designers in a political performance piece. And one joined forces with lighting designers, took over a room for an entire day and created a light and sound installation.

As I try to remind the students as often as possible, artistic success or failure while in school is not so important. Their primary responsibility is to learn. If a student puts on an artistically successful performance, but learns nothing from it, I consider it a failure. On the other hand, if a student tries something new that doesn’t work, it is a success to the degree that the student learns something to be applied in future efforts.

Having said that, I think all of the students involved learned something and, for the most part, what they learned was in direct proportion to how much they invested in the process. We’re discussing the results and assessing what was accomplished. I’m looking forward to repeating this experiment on a regular basis in the future.

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We have Jan Radzynski here this week for the premiere of his cello sonata. He passed on a story his teacher, Krzysztof Penderecki, told him. On Penderecki’s last visit to China, he was asked to meet with local composers in Beijing to talk about his music. This kind of request is, of course, not unusual, and he agreed without hesitation.

When the time for the meeting arrived, he was ushered into a room, which turned out to be a huge theater.

There were 3000 people seated in the theater.

All from Beijing.

All composers.

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“We are living today in a culture of information. I use the word “culture” in its anthropological sense; the information-culture has in practice no place for cultural heritages of any kind. It stimulates calculation but consistently discourages reflection. Thus it substitutes information (and misinformation) for knowledge or wisdom. This is alarming, yet it’s a culture that sooner or later will spin out of control; it will not endure.”

– John Berger

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