Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
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Posts tagged “Commentary”

Last June, an extraordinary thunderstorm ripped through my fair city, leaving half a million without power and downing an astonishing number of beautiful old trees.

On my daily walk to the coffee shop, a tall tree lay across 34th Street, door-sized chunks of sidewalk split like a drawbridge over the gaping hole where its dangling roots once ran. The top of its canopy, previously the domain of birds, insects, and exceptionally brave squirrels, was half-flattened against the asphalt just shy of the yellow center line. I walked up to it, and touched my finger to leaves that had never before felt human hands. They were still firm and green, and remained so for many days.

When a tree falls, it lives on long after its death is sealed.

Watching the Minnesota Orchestra, I cannot shake the feeling that this tree fell many months ago, and we are now watching it die slowly on the asphalt. The roots are in the air. The trunk is horizontal. Neither hard-headed problem solving nor gracious diplomacy nor righteous indignation can undo what is done. I am an optimist, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but today my heart tells me that there is nothing for us to do but grieve.

Tucked into today’s encouraging tidbits of news about the Twin Cities orchestras is one telling detail. The MN Orchestra board wants to restore the organization’s mission statement to its former proper state (they removed the word “orchestra” last year, if you can believe it), but “with two changes to emphasize community service and financial stability.” In that proposal is laid bare the philosophical chasm that originally lead to this fiasco.

The words “financial stability” do not belong in any arts organization’s mission statement. Financial stability is a means, not an end. The music is the mission.

During hurricane Sandy, I tweeted (yes, I have a Twitter account; can you believe it?) about how wonderful it is that pianos still work when the power is out. Turns out that while I was thinking it, one In the Hands listener was living it. I will let him tell his story in his own words:

Since we last emailed.... we were hit with Hurricane Sandy. (I live in Jersey City NJ just outside of NYC). If you followed the news... we were basically in a war zone out here without power, heat, phone, internet for a week... with miliatary coming in and out with trucks, water and food. We have two cats who basically became our personal heaters at night.

As the lockout of Minnesota’s two world-class orchestras continues, I’ve given a lot of thought to the dilemma. A credible outside perspective is hard to find, and we’re left in a “he said / she said” back and forth between management and musicians. Listening to it all, I believe them both on their key points: yes, an organization that is drawing heavily from its endowment cannot last — and yes, the proposed cuts would be an artistic kneecapping for the orchestras.

I’ve thought hard, and I’ve made up my mind. To accept the financial status quo is to doom the orchestras to a slow death — but to accept the proposed cuts is to kill them now. I wish the orchestras could last forever in their current state. But if that cannot be, if it comes right down to it and we are truly forced to choose, the orchestras should draw down their endowments. I’d rather have 10 more years of great music than 100 years of mediocrity.

Last weekend, I lead a session at MinneBar in which I talked about my experiences producing In the Hands, my sense of the past relationships between art and society, and my wishes for the future. The audience joined in, and it was a very interesting 40 minutes of discussion.

Tim Wilson has very kindly made an audio recording of the session available on They Savvy Technologist. He did a good job of capturing a very interactive session with only a single mic in a noisy room. Well done!

If any of you want to follow along with the session, here are slightly cleaned up versions of the two “idea map” diagrams you’ll hear me producing on my Powerbook during the session:

Note that these are rough, still in process, and entirely up for discussion. I’m still figuring all of this out, along with the rest of the world!

It was a pleasure doing the session, and a pleasure attending the conference. I’m grateful to all who planned and sponsored it! If there’s a BarCamp in your area, I highly recommend checking it out.

Last night in tango class, Florencia was trying to impress upon us leaders the importance of learning to follow as well, so we know what the dance feels like to the followers, and so we have a chance to feel what the really good leaders do. You can’t just learn by watching, she explains, because so much of what’s in the body’s motion isn’t apparent to the eye. “Sometimes, you’ll see somebody dancing and they look really good, but then you dance with them and ugh!” — she screws up her face — “it feels terrible!” Conversely, many of the most wonderful tangos for the people dancing them are so small and subtle that they look almost like nothing to an observer. Her moral: “Don’t worry about dancing so it looks good from the outside. Learn to dance so that it feels good from the inside.” It’s true: dancing doesn’t feel like it looks; it is a totally different experience inside that embrace.

The obvious embrace in music, one that also doesn’t feel how it looks, is between the performer and the instrument. But there’s a second embrace, much less obvious but no less important, between the listener and the music. Alone with a recording, in a musician’s living room, even in a concert hall full of people, each of us has our own private, direct experience of the music. It’s not even an embrace between the performer and the listener; it’s the listener and the sound of the music, the idea of the music. It’s not about the performer; the performer’s ego gets in the way of that connection. Ultimately, the musician has to fade into the background of the experience, and allow that embrace between the listener and the music.

A whole lot of the culture of the classical music world these days revolves around music that sounds good from the outside. I want to play music that feels good from the inside.