Semantics and scrappiness

Well, I've made it to the final round. Four bloggers still standing. All classical music bloggers. I'm not surprised we're the last ones left - we're scrappy. Music may still be a big part of our society, but classical music has become such a specialty genre (remember when big record labels used to give tons of classical artists their own recording contracts?) that in order to stay afloat, we classical musicians don't just have to learn to swim, we have to Michael Phelps it all the way. So here goes - outta my way - I'm going for the gold!

The final question the Spring for Music folks have chosen is quite a doozey:

"Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does saving them mean?"

I got docked some points in the last entry by Judge #1 for mentioning Nicki Minaj's Grammy performance without much back story, and in hindsight, it did seem kind of random thrown into that post. But the thing is, when I watched her performance, it had a strong effect on me. It was my first time watching the actual Grammy broadcast in ages. I had spent the afternoon watching the webcast of the Classical Grammys - they put the classical nominees in a whole other theater and don't give them any actual TV time, but at least they are watchable somewhere. Anyway, I was really interested in the proceedings because two friends of mine, Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein, were nominees for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for the recording of their Opera Elmer Gantry. I happen to be extremely well acquainted with that opera because I sang in the world premiere in 2007, and knowing both the story of how the opera finally came to fruition, and loving the composition itself, I was really rooting for them.

The short version of their journey (sorry, I know I can be long winded - you should see my agony when trying to compose a tweet) is that after they originally composed the opera, the company slated to perform it changed hands and the new management had other ideas. Bob and Herschel then spent 17 years - SEVENTEEN!!- trying to get someone else to produce it with no luck (here's the whole story in more detail from a New York Times article), until Nashville Opera finally agreed, which led to more sucessful performances, a recording, and this Grammy, which by the way, they ended up winning! The opera is based on the 1927 novel of the same name, which tells the story of a conniving fake Evangelist, and his religious adventures and romantic exploits. It suited itself perfectly to an operatic retelling, and the premiere, when it finally did happen, was an enormous success. And it never would have happened if the composer and the librettist hadn't been scrappy classical musicians who were determined to keep going even in spite of seemilngly insurmountable odds.

So, after I watched the webcast of the Classical Grammys, and cried tears of joy when Bob and Herschel were finally recognized on a national stage for their achievement, I figured I would just go ahead and watch the regular Grammys on TV. Why not? Let's see what the kids are into these days, I figured. After I spent the first hour shouting at the TV (Chris Brown is back? When did that happen?) we came to the grand finale, the Nicki Minaj version of a rapping religious exorcism. I actually hadn't heard of her before that moment and I was personally just plain confused by what was happening on the Grammy stage. I knew she was trying to be shocking and unique - and in fact, there was something vaguely operatic about the performance - all the crazy costumes and sets and singing and dancing, and even the whole idea of "concept" music making. But the thing that made me mad was that literally millions of people were watching this spectacle, compared with the tens (lets be honest here) of people who tuned into the Classical Grammy webcast, and even if they did, there was no excerpt played from the Best Contemporary Classical Composition anyway. All these people were watching an artistic opinion being expressed about the part religion plays in society, complete with singing, dancing and acting, but they had no opportunity whatsoever to even know that there existed another Grammy nominee that was tackling the same topic in a totally different way. I wanted the audience to have the chance to be moved to tears. Or to be scratching their heads in confusion (as I happened to be at her performance). I wanted them to have a choice. Both Minaj and the Gantry composers had overcome various adversities in order to express their message (Minaj made it from Trinidad to the U.S., studied clarinet and drama in high school, and found her way from back-up singing to stardom - no easy feat) . Both deserved to be seen and heard.

Minaj's performance was definitely an artistic one, and the fact that I'm still talking about it means that she obviously had a point of view. And even though I didn't really "get it" I would never suggest that the art she was creating that night is in any way inferior to any opera or other form of classical music making, dance, or visual art (all art is subjective, after all). But the difference between what she's creating, and what my friends Bob and Herschel created is that she currently has this enormous national audience - even international, because pop music and movies are the two biggest artistic exports from the U.S., while my opera composing buddies had to spend 17 years schlepping around their fantastic (grammy winning - did I mention that?) piece of art in order to finally get somebody to show it to people, and even then it was limited to the 2500 people or so who were seeing it in Nashville. A lot of the audiences watching Nicki Minaj probably think they would have no interest in watching Elmer Gantry because it's an opera, I just happen to think they don't have any idea what they're missing.

Elmer Gantry with Keith Phares and Vale Rideout, Nashville Opera

And so when people say art needs saving, I don't think they mean pop music or the movie industry (which is definitely art, no matter how snobby you wanna be about it). I think what they mean is that more people in today's society need to be exposed to other art forms as well, so that we can encourage more diverse and creative thinking among our general population. People tend to praise artists like Minaj and Lady Gaga because they are so unique and creative in their presentation. But Gaga and Minaj have nothing on some experimental theater groups, or the wacky quacky Regie opera productions, or some modern dance companies that use movement in new and astounding ways. So "save" probably isn't the best word - I would say a better word would be "expand." Let's expand the average citizen's knowledge about the existence of all the different art forms with the justification that more exposure to creativity usually leads to a more open mind, and allows for a better dialogue on a variety of subjects. And with all the conflict we have in the world today, I'd say creating any outlet for dialogue is a very valuable thing.

Georgia Jarman in English National Opera's The Tales of HoffmanLady Gaga at Grammys





How we expand people's exposure to more art forms is a whole additional blog post (and I did have a few ideas about it in my last post - mostly education, education, education). But there is one topic that is hugely important and unignorable because it is exemplified beautifully by this very competition for which I'm composing this post. Digital technology and social media are tools that should not to be ignored as very potent ways of getting people to pay attention to otherwise marginalized art forms and artistic organizations. A friend of mine who is an English musician living in London had never heard of Spring for Music, but became aquainted with the Festival as a result of going to the website and religiously voting for yours truly in this competition. "But what an intriguing idea for a festival!" He told me "I would totally come if I were in New York!" Now, he happens to be a classical musician himself, but I doubt that every single person who has gone to the S4M website as a result of this competition has that same pedigree, and even if only a small number of people say to themselves "$25 tickets for a concert at Carnegie Hall? I've never been to a symphony concert before, but this sounds really interesting," this competition has done its job. Not to mention all of the arts bloggers and writers who are enflaming the twittersphere and comingling with information about the competition, and therefore the festival itself. It's a brilliant PR move - and one that will actually have some positive consequences not just for the festival, but for the potential audiences, both new and old. Just showing people what's available to them is often half the battle.

So I think we need to look at our vocabulary choices when attempting to promote any form or art. If we swap out "save the arts" for "expand peoples exposure to all types of art," it gives us an entirely more positive and concrete mission on which to focus. When we say we need to "save" symphony music performances, not only does it diminish the participation of the people already actively engaged in loving that type of music, it suggests that there may be a time when people will no longer perform Mozart and will only perform Moby. My instincts tell me that we don't have to fear any kind of crazy dystopian future in which Mozart won't exist, but I do think we need to be constantly vigilant about making sure that as many people as possible are aware that Wolfgang can be one of the many choices on our ipods. And we classical music bloggers are doing our ever loving best to get the word out.

After I found out that I'd passed on to the next round in this competition this morning, I called my parents to let them know, and to tell them what the next question I was answering was. Being a very independent thinker, I didn't want their input, but my mom, being a painter, sculptor and potter herself, couldn't help but weigh in just before she hung up, with, "Don't forget, the arts are irrepressible!!" She has a point. The arts will never need saving, because throughout history, we have proven that we need creativity in order to survive our own humanity and to help understand our own mortality. Art seems to stick around as part of the human condition, and no matter how the society evolves or devolves, creativity remains. Art is irrepressible - we know because it has been created in even the most horrendous and repressed conditions, like the concentration camp in Terezin, whose prisoners produced inumerable pieces of art, including a complete opera; Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which is still being performed in opera houses today. Art is not something that can ever be repressed because within every human being exists the ability to create. We don't need to save art because art saves us. This, at least, can give us some hope for the future.

Thanks Mom.

Voting begins Monday, and this is the final round, so I really need your support if you read my blog. You can vote every day, Monday through Thursday, so please vote early and vote often as the say. Click here or here, and select Trying to Remain Operational and click vote. I was knocked into 4th place at the last minute by ONE VOTE, so yes, every vote counts! Thank you!!