Monday, March 16, 2009
What follows is long, a welcoming address to new students at Boston Conservatory of Music last fall. I don't think there's any question that there's a massive shift going on in he arts in the U.S. and probably world-wide, although the culture in Europe, Asia, parts of Latin America and Australia still appears to include far more of the so called high arts in the consciousness of the general population than here.
Certainly, cutting arts classes out of the curricula of so many thousands of schools across the country has has had a devastating effect on the development of new audiences and has also led to the false and destructive myth that the arts are somehow "elitist" and not something that good, right-thinking American kids should be interested in. The welcoming speaker in the welcoming talk (sent to me by a colleague) addresses this particular issue.
"One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would
not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn't be appreciated. I
had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math,
and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an
engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I
still remember my mother's remark when I announced my decision to
apply to music school—she said, "you're WASTING your SAT scores." On
some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the
value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they
listened to classical music all the time. They just weren't really
clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit,
because we live in a society that puts music in the "arts and
entertainment" section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind
your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to
do with entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of entertainment. Let
me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient
Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music
and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as
the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external
objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between
invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the
big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping
us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some
examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the
Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier
Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the
war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of
1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper
and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp,
a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his
quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in
January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison
camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration
camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy
writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day
to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape
torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we
have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn't just this
one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a
place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare
necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow,
essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope,
without commerce, without rec reation, without basic respect, but they
were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the
human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of
the ways in which we say, "I am alive, and my life has meaning."
On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I
reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the
world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as
was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking
about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and
put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat
there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't this completely
irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this
city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I
here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a
piano player right now? I was completely lost.
And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey
of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and
in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the
piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.
At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble.
We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't
shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized
activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People
sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang "We Shall Overcome".
Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public
event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at
Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized
public expression of grief, our first communal response to that
historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that
life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery
was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.
From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is
not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would
have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from
leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass
time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the
ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express
feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with
our hearts when we cannot with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber's heartwrenchingly beautiful piece
Adagio for Strings. If you don't know it by that name, then some of
you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver
Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that
piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your
heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn't
know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at
what's really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.
I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely
no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have
been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And
something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up
with all kinds of emotions, and then there's some musical moment where
the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute
or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn't
good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry
at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The
Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of
ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we
feel even when we can't talk about it. Can you imagine watching
Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music?
What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET
so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the
same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music
stripped out, it wouldn't happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the
understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.
I'll give you one more example, the story of the most important
concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a
thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I
thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed
playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St.
Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music
critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most
important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in
Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We
began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland's Sonata, which was written
during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland's, a
young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our
audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing
them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began
the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later
in the program and to just come out and play the music without
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near
the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later
met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70's, it was clear from his
buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a
good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd
that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of
that particular piece, but it wasn't the first time I've heard crying
in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to
talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the
circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its
dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience
became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly
figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage
afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: "During World War II, I was a pilot, and I
was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team's planes was
hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but
the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned
across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the
pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing
that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but
during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to
me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn't
understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out
to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost
pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do
that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?"
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships
between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important
work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help
him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their
memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his
friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.
What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman
class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I
will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student
practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because
you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz
into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life.
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your
concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is
overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again
will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a
musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies.
I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a
firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of
therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor,
physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they
get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with
ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music;
I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness
on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual
understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come
from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even
expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem
to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a
future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of
how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it
will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the
concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones
who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."
for sharing that amazingly insightful speech. ... how lucky those students are to have him as their teacher and mentor!
I thought this speech was lovely. It made me think and I hope to reflect on it soon at my own blog. thankyou for posting it.
Probably no culture values music higher than the African and that is not generally appreciated enough.