Friday, February 27, 2009

A Contemplation on Music

Friends,
There are many reasons and ideas why I play and continue to make music my living, and my life. I ask myself daily and continue the search for what makes it continue and satisfy me...

The thoughts contained within the posted speech below contains many of those reasons.

Ultimately, the artists in us all will eventually articulate the "inarticulate speech of the heart" for the rest of the world-at-large, through the eternal portal of musical understanding. That is where we will save the world, and grow.

please enjoy,
cj

thanks to Janice Scroggins for sharing, as she always does : )

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A Contemplation on Music


This was the welcome address to parents of the incoming freshman class at Boston
Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of the
music division at Boston Conservatory.




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
concentration camp.

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
repertoire.

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 recreation, 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 organize 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 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 can't with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber's heart-wrenchingly 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 explanation.

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 hi
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 thepiece.

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 relationship>
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 2:00 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 8:00 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."

2 Comments:

Blogger community said...

Profound and fascinating. Thankyou for the post Carlton.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Roy said...

Thanks. This link was passed from a fantastic piano player, to his even more fantastic daughter (an artist in NYC), to her boyfriend (luckily that's me). Very touching. Thanks for putting this out there.

6:25 PM  

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