Thursday, October 9, 2008

Usefulness of Art (in America)

"Words may show a man's wit but actions his meaning." (Benjamin Franklin)

Having had over one year to ponder the request, John McCain finally issued a statement outlining his platform on Arts in America (at a whopping four sentences long). By contrast, Barack Obama issued a much more comprehensive platform about one year ago, outlining 8 areas he would address as president.

The results...

McCain's arts statement:
"John McCain believes that arts education can play a vital role fostering creativity and expression. He is a strong believer in empowering local school districts to establish priorities based on the needs of local schools and school districts. Schools receiving federal funds for education must be held accountable for providing a quality education in basic subjects critical to ensuring students are prepared to compete and succeed in the global economy. Where these local priorities allow, he believes investing in arts education can play a role in nurturing the creativity of expression so vital to the health of our cultural life and providing a means of creative expression for young people."

Obama platform:

"Reinvest in Arts Education: To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children's creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. Unfortunately, many school districts are cutting instructional time for art and music education. Barack Obama believes that the arts should
be a central part of effective teaching and learning. The Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts recently said "The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society." To support greater arts education, Obama will: (read more)

John McCain's statement shows such a disregard for the arts as an entity worthy of governmental support, that it's futile to be shocked by it, or even react to it. It doesn't address arts funding, only a meager argument for the continuation of (state-level) arts education funding in schools. Obama's statement is something one can react to...

What concerns me most about Obama's statement is a need to talk about art in any other context than what it actual is, namely the act of painting pictures, organizing sounds, taking photographs, aestheticizing movements of the body, or writing words (something Obama deeply understands, as Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker said, "he's a lawyer by profession, but a writer by calling").

Many subjects are taboo in contemporary political discourse, one rarely hears either candidate mentioning the poor, Progressives are as taboo a subject in this election as transvestites, cheese-eaters, or former members of the Black Panthers, as they are all clumped into a conglomerate of the effete coastal liberals. Art as an entity unto itself is not a discussion in American politics. Only when it can be translated into economic terms:

According to the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, the organization that first requested the policy statements from both candidates, artists and art-related nonprofits generate about $166.2 billion in revenue per year and $12.6 billion in annual taxes. That makes those employed or interested in the creative economy a possibly powerful voting bloc with which which to reckon.

or into offering a supplement to childrens' education:

To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children's creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. (Obama Platform)

can artistic activity be politically worthy of discussion.

Historically speaking, Americans are a pragmatic people with a low level of tolerance for artistic fancies, for art that serves no definable purpose other than enlivening the recipient. Art in America has most often been associated with the emasculated and over-refined, a by-product of rotted-out and disintegrating European civilization. Art needs to be useful to be justifiable.
"Art is man's expression of his joy in labor". (Henry Kissinger). "To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts." (Henry David Thoreau)

A question among many of my artist friends and colleagues is whether art actually needs be discussed in a political context, or supported by governmental agencies. I say: "yes. Yes. YES. It does." Artists in America spend too much of their time justifying their very existence. That often takes the wind out of the sail for spending time on strengthening and deepening their messages, views, visions and techniques. I've lived long enough in a society that has a long history of and commitment to public funding for the arts (on a national level- Germany, as well as local- Berlin) , and think this model of state sponsorship of the arts, when not abused, is necessary in keeping arts on the radar-system of contemporary culture, and helping artists earn a societal respect and recognition for their work in relation to the energy, thought, reflection and sacrifice they put into it.

It comes back to a terribly unrelenting thought I inevitably encounter whenever I step foot in the US, namely "Am I doing something with my life that is contributing to society?" This thought mysteriously vanishes when I get back to Berlin. There are certain professions that I would count as essential to the livelihood of society- farmers, doctors, trash collectors, mid-wives, and undertakers among others. As for the rest of us, we belong to a not-absolutely-essential-to-the-functioning-of-society collective. Who's to say that a person who thrills us by a gripping use of the human body in urgently telling a story has less societal worth than a guy who sells ads for millions of dollars subliminally convincing people to buy stuff they don't actually need?

To end with, two fun quotes by the lovable but sometimes exasperating curmudgeon, Mark Twain, on Art:

Twain described JMW Turner's Slavers Throwing Overboard as a "a tortoiseshell cat having a fit in a plate of tomatoes."

"It is a gratification to me to know that I am ignorant of art, and ignorant also of surgery. Because people who understand art find nothing in pictures but blemishes, and surgeons and anatomists see no beautiful women in all their lives, but only a ghastly stack of bones with Latin names to them, and a network of nerves and muscles and tissues."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Honest Sounds

A good definition of practicing would be simply «looking for Honest Sounds».

When the finger meets the key in the right way, one that corresponds exactly to the desired mental image of the sound, an unmistakable certainty arises that this sound is the one that justifies the intention. This might only happen only after years of effort (as in my case of the first chords in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau), perpetually admitting that the tones aren’t at this particular point really speaking, but always trying to get closer to their essence - an immensely frustrating and hair-splitting process. I’ve been enjoying a small breakthrough in being able to realize a certain intention that I’ve been looking for for a long time. This kind of breakthrough always brings with it a certain euphoria and is a wonderful vindication of all of the baffling effort that goes into the seemingly autistic attempt at spending a lifetime getting the keys to go down in just the right way.

A book that is almost always present on my horizon in regard to piano playing is «Zen in the Art of Archery». A lot of pianists have found meaning in this book, most notably Claudio Arrau, the teacher of my teacher Stephen Drury, who emphatically recommended the book. The book is concerned with the attempt of the German author, Eugene Herrigel, to learn about Zen through the practice of Archery. One part of the book I remember vividly is a struggle with the concept of not releasing the bow in order that the arrow fly off assuredly in the right direction, but instead being released by the bow at the ideal moment. The author struggled with this concept for months, maybe years, getting to a point of frustration where he concluded that he must have an imperfect concept of what his instructor meant by release, and settling for a comfortable solution of a certain wrist movement that might correspond to the instructor’s cryptic wishes, morphing the seemingly mystical concept into mere technique. He is satisfied by his clever solution, presenting it back to the instructor who watches in silence and then goes to sit on the ground with his back to the student, indicating that he was fundamentally disappointed and that the student should not try to trick him, and that he should promptly leave and not continue with his studies.

The first chords of the Debussy require a «hammerless» piano, an impossibility ; it’s an imperative that the sound comes from keys that are not struck, but released. It’s this concept that’s so infuriating not only for me, but also many of my colleagues who use this piece as an entry-point into a higher plane of pianistic sound. Any given technique (low wrist, flat fingers, for example) doesn’t go far enough into realizing what’s required for this kind of sound. I first started working on this while living in Paris, I was renting a practice room in a cavernous basement of a 16th-century building on the left-bank, five minutes from Notre Dame. The piano there was a Pleyel, a French manufacturer of which Debussy owned an upright (it was given as a gift by the company) but which Debussy never had a real affinity for (he loved the German brand Bl├╝thner). This environment was sufficiently inspiring to get me started on a seven year on-and-off quest that is by no means exhausted in finding the «hammerless piano», it's a kind of mystical concept that I believe has a technical - so physical - solution, but the solution has to be a good one, not cheap-n-easy.

I’m intrigued by a level of deep involvement into a certain inquiry, where a seemingly mystical concept meets a technical or physical realization. This is an elusive search, one is just as often on haplessly meandering false paths as on a path with a potential for authentic meaning. The flutist Marcel Moyse used to emphatically urge Peter Serkin (another of my teachers) to play his leading tones in a Mozart Sonata sharper (meaning, higher), something that is very possible on the flute, but absurdly impossible on the piano, unless one is very adept at whipping out a tuning wrench at the exact right moment. Moyse was asking for something that required more than a good intention, he was asking for a suspension of disbelief. This level of musicianship is where it gets interesting.

Working for « honest sounds » means constantly being present in the fullest sense, having the idea, and trying to meet it with the fingers, on a micro and macro level, in any given piece. It’s treating physically impossible intentions (hammerless piano, sharper leading-tone) as real potentials that can be met through honest and persistent searching.


In a fractuous and specialized world, having a foot in several musical orientations is a complicated game. I spend my days somewhere between classical and contemporary music.(that orientation being further splintered by a fondness for many divergent streams of contemporary music) I’ve started adding free-improvisation to this mix and even imagined for a short while that I could add jazz as well, until I had to admit to myself that I’m indelibly imprinted by my early pianistic training and will never lose the «accent» of a «BachMozartBeethovenSchubertSchumannChopinLiszt- BrahmsDebussy-centric» education.
I’ve recently been disturbed by how little cross-fertilization there is between my colleagues who play standard repertoire and those who play new music, not to mention the jazzers I know who aren’t into the new music people or the classical people. Several decades ago, the Grateful Dead was listening to Stockhausen, Miles Davis (through Teo Macero) was into Varese, Yoko Ono was into Cage, Bill Evans was into Debussy, Ligeti was into African drumming, Eric Dolphy into Jimi Hendrix, Horowitz was into Art Tatum and invited him to dinner (although legend has it that his butler opened the door, saw an unkempt black man and closed it immediately).
People are saying that the Internet culture (through MySpace, Itunes, and YouTube) is eradicating stylistic boundaries between different types of music. This may be true in a passively receptive arena, in which listeners are starting to be more open to experiencing a wider range of music, but I’m not convinced that it’s making a big difference in musicians’ openness to exploring and participating in various streams of music. The exceptions to this are usually heavily marketed « cross-over » projects, in which a certain famous opera singer warbles their way through the American Songbook, or a certain pop-hunk gives Italian arias a go.
« Cross-over » projects are usually a pure marketing endeavour, hoping to appeal to admirers of two different stylistic genres, thereby doubling the income for the venture. Usually, the outcome is painfully lesser than the sum of its parts, as its aim is not to find a connection point between the genres that would expand the concept and meaning of each part, but to appeal equally to listeners who’s allegiance is firmly entrenched in a given direction, hoping that these listeners will, through an ephemeral attempt at adventurousness, be swayed into purchasing something that will most certainly disappoint them in their expectations. It’s usually an insult to the kind of intellectual and musical curiosity that led people like Miles Davis to embrace Woodstock culture, Menuhin to be enriched by Ravi Shankar, the oud player Ravi Abou Khalil to mesh with jazz music, and the perennial cross-over guru Charles Ives to ride a wave of perfect symbiosis between the most divergent musical elements ; ragtime, folk, classical, band, church, orchestral, and purely cacophonous.

I’m looking for contemporary Ivesian figures who in the post-racial, post-femisist, post-modern era aren’t encumbered by old musical ghettos, but yet seek out a meaningful and earnestly-intentioned approach to artistic osmosis.