The Importance of Community in Choral Music

Today was really interesting.

My colleague David Weiller and I are in the midst of auditions for our choral ensemble that is travelling to Spain and Portugal this coming June. I am so very excited to be taking an ensemble to Europe for the first time! My first occasion to leave North America was as a newly graduated senior and member of the Nordic Choir. I have been fortunate to have been abroad for music and leisure since then, but I believe that one’s first ever adventure to another continent remains vivid and full of color in ways that successive trips and travels do not. So many of my mental photographs over the years have faded in vibrance with time. Yet, that European tour, over a decade ago now, seems to remain in like-new condition in the recesses of my memory. I enjoy reaching back into the album and remembering select moments from time to time, and they always fill me with happiness and appreciation.

I have had a handful of these nostalgic moments over the last few days. By happy coincidence I called an old classmate this afternoon whom I have not seen or spoken with in many years. It was great to hear his voice, even for a brief conversation. He had been an occasional roommate on our touring with the choir my senior year and was a part of that same European trip. He had no reason to do so, but when I told him who I was on the phone, he reacted with excitement in his voice: “I can’t believe I’m talking to you right now! How are you?!” Another member of that tour, the man who stood right next to me all of that year in the tenor section, had a birthday today, and his name popped up on Facebook this morning. I am reminded weekly of classmates and friends who were a part of this trip. It was the culminating event of a year of community and song at the end of an amazingly rewarding four-year choral career. It is amazing how quickly I can pick up conversation with these people when I see them. It’s sort of like that moment in the last Ocean’s movie, where there is some sort of agreement that everyone who’s shaken Sinatra’s hand has an unspoken obligation to treat the others with friendliness and cordiality. That’s what it’s like to sing and tour together in a special choir. It is a community that endures the passage of time and divergent pathways that life creates for us all. People who share song together over time develop an almost indecipherable intimacy that only shows itself long afterward. It is a spiritual interconnectedness for me and many others.

At UNLV we have opened this tour up to a diverse array of singers: our current undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, choral alumni, the amazing music teachers of the Clark County school district, and members of the exceptional community chorus, the Las Vegas Master Singers, which my colleague conducts and which is affiliated with our university. Our travelling ensemble is going to consist of singers ranging in age from late teens to early seventies, musicians all. David has made a point of asking each singer what interests him/her about this tour, and it is fascinating to hear the responses. The younger students are eager to experience a new part of the wide world, though there are older adults who also are excited at the prospect of leaving the country for the first time. The term “once in a lifetime” was used more than once. Some singers, now retired, were looking forward to travelling in a group, others were excited to sing in large cathedrals, experience Iberian culture and history, eat new foods, and have an adventure with other people of similar interests. It has become apparent that this tour will not be one of technical wizardry and tour de force production value that might make us seem impressive outside the walls of our city. Instead, this journey will be about creating a community through song and shared experience. I feel strongly that this is what has drawn so many of the auditioning singers to us this evening.

Case in point: the last person to audition this evening really drove home the enduring power of community. Erik, a tall, tan, and trim gentleman with spiky gray hair and a sharply trimmed goatee, sang with David over 25 years ago and had life-changing experiences touring and travelling as a member of the UNLV Chamber Chorale in the late 80s and early 90s. He recalled a memory of singing in a grand cathedral in rural Mexico and how that moment had stuck with him the rest of his life. In the years since he has spent a career working in city planning for the local government, gotten married, raised three wonderful children. He told us about his youngest daughter, just off to an excellent East Coast college on a softball scholarship, and how they had spent the last decade being travel team parents on the road every weekend for tournaments. His second daughter was getting married in their backyard in three weeks. Erik hadn’t sung in over a decade, even longer if he didn’t count the contemporary worship team at his church, and here he was, drawn in by an email sent to alumni encouraging them to come along with us, no guarantee of knowing a single person. He sang in a beautifully lyric baritone voice, sight-read a hymn, still using those skills from all those years ago. Then, Erik and David hugged and, on his way out the door, Erik said he “would love to be a part of a community again.” And it just struck me right in the deepest part of my heart.

I spend a lot of time visiting high schools and talking with students about how rewarding singing can be after they graduate. I like to say, “Music is great, but people are AWESOME.” And I mean it from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. Many students love their choir experience because they feel a sense of belonging, pride, tradition, and purpose. It’s not uncommon for high school students to eat lunch in the choir room, spend their before- and after-school hours there, often not singing at all but simply sharing in community with friends and classmates. Great music and the most successful ensembles and individual musicians I know understand the value of community within the greater context of the musical experience. Communities trust and support one another, challenge and uphold one another, honor one another’s efforts, and celebrate each other’s successes. I tell students at UNLV that, in the end, no one would rather have “he sang minor thirds really well” written in their obituary if he could have “he reached out and connected me to others through the wonderful gift of music” written there instead. That’s not to excuse them from being technically proficient and academically excellent, only to remind them why accumulating knowledge and ability is important in the first place. Music is the vehicle, skill and knowledge are the fuel, and people are the destination.

Why Not Sing in American Latin?

I’ve had the opportunity to listen to almost one hundred choirs over the course of this year as a clinician, judge, conductor, and audience member. After the English language, the next language most frequently sung is Latin. Much fuss is made about how to actually pronounce Latin. The current trend of attempting to deliver a historically informed performance (as the composer would have heard and envisioned it) has found its way into the pronunciation discussion. Would Bach have heard a different dialect of church Latin than Charpentier? Latin did diverge into regional pronunciations influenced by the natural consonant and vowel sounds of the vernacular language in that area. This has been confirmed by research. This can be heard in contemporary recordings of European choirs. Yet, many of these same choirs frequently sing the Latin dialect of their home country, even if they are performing the work of a composer from somewhere else. The national/regional Latin dialect still wins out from time to time.

This brings us to Latin in American choral music. Inevitably, at every festival, a judge or clinician will approach a choir and chide (sometimes castigate) them regarding their Latin pronunciation. In the majority of cases the Latin is part of a contemporary choral work set by an American composer, followed by ars perfecta motets from Italy or Spain. The number one word that is pointed out is always, always “in”, which Americans pronounce [In] and every judge always wants to be pronounced [in]. After that there are several sounds that get brought to attention: is “excelsis” pronounced “eggshell-sees” or “eks-chell-sees” or “ek-sell-sees”? American choirs tend to pronounce this word the first way most frequently, which makes sense considering how those letters would be pronounced in American English. The same can be said of the more percussive consonance of t, c, and ch sounds, mixing of bright and dark vowels and modifying them as if they were in an American English word, etc.

I submit for your consideration: it’s time for the American choral academy to acknowledge that the United States has its own Latin dialect. Cultivated over generations of sacred and academic practice, it is an assimilation of the colors and quirks of American English. We are, after all, not Europeans, yet we exert enormous energy trying to be European in this regard. What then, is the “right” way to sing a Latin text set by a 21st century American composer? Must every American composer place a note in the music indicating the desired European dialect with which they envision their work to be pronounced? That seems like an unnecessary expectation to place on composers and choirs alike. Embracing an American Latin dialect would release conductors from the monotony and wasted rehearsal time of continually correcting ingrained pronunciations, allow composers writing for American audiences a chance to imagine sound colors more familiar to their singers, and get rid of the anxiety of taking a choir to festival and being judged uneducated or wrong because one didn’t choose the appropriate European dialect. Let’s claim American Latin as our own unique contribution to the choral vernacular. If everyone else can do it, so can we.

glɔriə ɪn ˈɛgˌʃɛl siz deɪ oʊ. ‘mɛrɪkə.

We Need A Minor League System for Musicians

The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell highlights a little-discussed gorilla in the corner of most high school and college music rooms: the overwhelming amount of practice it takes to become an elite performer in the world of professional music. Gladwell outlines a study by K. Anders Ericsson that tracked the practice habits of conservatory music students in Berlin’s Academy of Music. Their findings were illuminating: despite the music world’s love affair with the concept of the “genius”, “virtuoso”, and “talented” performer, Ericsson found that the greatest determining factor in the rate of improvement and eventual professional success of promising students was not their innate abilities. It was, in fact, their practice routine. The number of hours of practice per week inclined steadily from childhood through age 20, resulting in over 10,000 hours of practice logged by the time the students had graduated from college.

What’s more, Ericsson was able to extrapolate further on this “10,000 Hour Rule” to create a four-tiered strata of eventual professions for music students, based on their total number of practice hours. Student with 8,000 hours were considered “merely good”, and students with around 4,000 hours became teachers! Coincidentally, Ericsson also studied amateur pianists and found that they averaged only 2,000 hours of practice over the same period that “elite” professionals were logging five times that many. That no “naturally gifted” students were able to slacken their practice pace and still rise to the top of the brew should serve as a strong warning to aspiring professional performers, but it also has strong implications for aspiring professional music educators. The saying in baseball is that “the numbers don’t lie”, and Ericsson’s research indicates that the numbers here are, at least at first, overwhelming. For students, however, it might and should come as something of an inspiration. It isn’t some unknown commodity of “talent” that determines whether you make it to the top: it’s a matter of consistent practice.

It is understood by many parents and students that ensemble music courses, from the elementary level to post-secondary, are more than a laboratory environment for learning music skills. Music ensembles are frequently thought of as an expressive and creative outlet (though, frequently, creativity has little to do with it), a social bubble and community of caring classmates, an environment for students to display leadership skills, and, in some avenues, an opportunity to engage in a type of competitive environment most frequently found in youth athletics. Parents and the greater public, and, increasingly, students themselves, wish ensemble music experiences to contain a degree of entertainment value that they find in popular and consumer music. With tight budgets and cultural disregard and disrespect for the arts so common that it has become an assumed matter of course, schools, where {by the far the greatest degree of traditional and contemporary music education and training is taking place}, favor quantity over quality when gauging the worthiness of arts courses to even exist.

How, then, can any music educator be counted upon to ensure students get anywhere close to the number of practice hours they need to be competitive for a future in the profession? Even an ensemble that meets one hour a day for an entire school year only provides 180 hours of rehearsal time, 1,260 total if you track 6th thru 12th grade. Most teachers are lucky to meet 30 minutes three times per week, and that time is not necessarily focused on individual achievement and growth. Too often, music educators at the secondary level are trapped by the “y’all come” nature of their ensemble, forced to spend the majority of their efforts on bringing less knowledgeable or less motivated students up to snuff and praying that the ambitious students figure it out on their own. Even then, a motivated self-starter who practices on his/her own one hour a day all school year for seven years would log 2,030 hours of practice. Combined with the generous hour of daily rehearsal over that same time period, the number of hours logged isn’t quite a third of the necessary hours needed to make the 10,000 hour barrier. Going into college, such a student would need to practice four hours and thirty-six minutes per day, seven days a week, for four straight years to make it to exactly 10,000 hours.

What the professional and academic music scene needs is a farm system, a minor leagues of music, so to speak. I’m not talking about placing professional symphonies and opera companies in every small town in America, more the system of improvement and growth that a minor league system represents.

Take professional baseball in the United States. Players who show promise during their high school careers are drafted or signed to “professional” contracts with a team affiliated with a major parent, usually an MLB team. These minor league teams are located in cities large and small across the country and are split into strata from “rookie” teams composed entirely of newly signed players to the “A teams” classified as A, AA, and AAA, each of which represents a progression in skill and development of the player. Finally, players on the AAA teams serve as a sort of reserve squad for their parent MLB franchise, and players on the bubble of professional readiness for the major league roster frequently bounce between these two levels until they either earn a regular spot on the big team or settle into a less prestigious role. It is not uncommon for a newly signed prospect to spend five to seven years in the minor league farm system before he is ready to play in the “big leagues”. While players are on this developmental journey, they receive individualized instruction to improve their own skills. Position coaches specialize in the detailed skills of fielding, pitching, hitting, and catching. Managers bring all of these skills and talents together to create a stronger team and teach the players how to contribute their unique gifts to the greater good of the players around them. Experienced players teach rookies important shortcuts and advice from their personal experience, and strength and conditioning coaches work on the fundamentals of general athleticism to ensure that players can continue moving forward free from injury. Together, this system provides young players with the necessary 10,000 hours in a constructive, strategic, and purpose-driven environment.

There are already several parallels between the music academy and the baseball farm system. Position coaches are like studio teachers, focusing on the specific skills of the chosen instrument. Managers are akin to ensemble directors, bringing everyone’s talents together to make an ensembe, cast, or company. Graduate students assume the position of veterans, providing insights from experience, and music theory, pedagogy, ear training, and musicology provide fundamental, core knowledge of music that informs and improves student practice and performance in every genre. One could think of music majors on scholarship as a sort of “drafted” prospect, one who shows promise in high school and whose potential warrants a financial investment on the part of the university. In this way, there is sort of a farm system in place for developing musicians. However, where the musical academy falls short of professional baseball is in the connections, networks, and agreements between the different parts. High schools and universities rarely coordinate curriculum and expectations for promising musicians beyond state or regional music standards that are inconsistently adhered to or assessed. As a result, a student may spend 10 or more years in college trying to get to 10,000 hours, frequently paying thousands of dollars with few, if any, professional engagements during that time. Beginning minor donleague don’t make much, but it’s at least an incentive for developing players to stick with it until they’ve gotten to the highest level.

High schools need to start taking seriously what it means to prepare students for the next level. There is a reason why there are always one or two high schools in every state that send a disproportionate amount of promising young athletes on scholarship to collegiate athletics: their coaches, parents, and institutions decided that preparing students for every possible future in athletics, including professional sports, was going to be a goal and priority of their program. Therefore, these stakeholders invested the resources necessary to give their student-athletes the skills they need to make the jump to the next level.

Likewise, universities need to become more proactive in creating partnerships with professional, semi-professional, and amateur ensembles, artist programs, and institutions in their community and greater region, working to provide these organizations with future contributors and leaders. Performers should be moving out into these organizations as a natural extension of their university experience. There will always be a “major league” level of music performance. The Met isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These major organizations should reach out to others in a formal capacity. This doesn’t mean that the organization would have to have an inclusive partnership with a “feeder” program, but having a strong, mutual understanding of the skills and experiences desired by the bigger fish can only help the smaller fish to swim faster and stronger.

A farm system of interconnected curricula, expectations, and mutual respect and understanding is a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Ensemble music in secondary school isn’t going to change overnight. Nor is the societal value of academy music and music education. However, if the United States wishes to bring more students to the 10,000 hour threshold, it needs a better process than the wild west system it is currently saddled with. Middle and high schools (which should already, but often aren’t, be aligned with each other on curriculum) should work to align their curriculum with the needs of their local and regional post-secondary institutions. Those institutions should, in turn, partner with area professional and semi-professional organizations to provide graduates with a stepping stone into the professional music world. From there, less formal relationships and understandings can be made on a broader range of needs between these local/regional organizations and their “major league” counterparts.

The result of this system should bear fruit at all levels: increased competition at the highest echelons of the profession will move it forward. Increased awareness of, and participation in, regional music organizations will increase civic awareness and community engagement and support for local institutions. Universities can demonstrate their commitment to lifelong learning and increased practice time after students walk out the door while also receiving more students who possess the prioritized requirements of their music schools. Finally, and most importantly, secondary music programs can build bridges into the professional world, adding legitimacy to arts education through increased student participation after graduation and heightened academic and artistic integrity for students throughout their seven years of middle and high school music.

Let’s play ball!

 

Performing Bach Passions for Musical Muggles

I love the Passion settings of Bach.

I love to listen to them during Holy Week.

I don’t know who first called Bach the “fifth evangelist”, but I couldn’t agree more. His large, dramatic settings are inspiring and profound. They are deep examinations of the varying relationship Christians have with Christ. What’s more, the themes of the work are still incredibly relevant to what Christians face today.

However, not a single one of my American music muggle friends (non-music folk) listens to these works, if they’ve ever heard of them.

Even the churchgoers would have little chance of hearing them, as they are usually not performed in church anymore, having been moved to the concert hall as museum pieces. Most modern American performances of these phenomenal works are incompatible with today’s average American music listener, for a variety of reasons:

  1. The musical texture doesn’t make sense to them
  2. It’s in a language (German) they don’t understand
  3. The instrumentation, melody, and rhythms aren’t as easily internalized as the run-of-the-mill pop song
  4. It’s LONG AS HELL with no breaks or just one intermission
  5. It’s entirely “presentational”, with no room or space for audiences to engage in the experience.

Would you be surprised to learn that none of these were impediments to audience understanding during Bach’s time?

The original performances (if we can call a worship service a performance) were in churches in Leipzig, Germany in the early 1700s. No concert hall, no large force of 200+ singers and players. Everyone spoke German, so it was in a language even the illiterate understood. Without the luxury of constant streaming music, aural memories caught repetitive themes more readily in complex textures. The entire Passion was designed to be part of a service, with a break for a sermon and hymns interspersed throughout the work for the congregation to stand and sing. They were participants in the greater experience. Throw in that church services frequently were longer than today’s 45-minute, home by Sunday kickoff affairs, and we can begin to understand why average, everyday German churchgoers in 1723 actually had much more to appreciate from Bach than audiences today.

So here’s the question: can we make Bach’s passions more relevant to today’s worshiper/audience member while still honoring the music and meaning of the original work? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Perform the work in English translation. There are some pretty good English translations out there of this work and other Bach masterpieces. Later in his career, Robert Shaw was a vocal proponent of this method of classical performance. If the original intention of Bach’s passions was for audiences to hear the story in their own language, then American audiences need to hear it in English. No more multi-page translation sheets or spending all of one’s time staring at a projector screen above the ensemble.
  2. Let the audience sing the chorales. Their purpose was to draw the congregation into the action. The work was never intended to have audiences sit and watch others for its entirety. Conductors need to give up control of the technical perfection of the chorales in exchange for facilitating more communal experiences. The purpose of dramatizing the Passion in the first place was to get people emotionally and spiritually involved in the story. Bonus: Letting the audience sing the chorales also gives the rest of the singers a chance to catch their breath!
  3. Bite size it even more. While most scholars believe that the Passions were meant to be performed in two halves with a sermon in the middle, the modern, 8-minute audience attention span is still going to be ill-served by this format. Why not place a few brief pauses in carefully selected locations? Read scripture, recite a poem, display relevant art or media, present movement and dance.
  4. Scale down the forces. Perhaps the only suggestion on this list that won’t make historical purists’ skin crawl, Bach never would have used 85 pieces and 100 singers. Too financially impractical and, frankly, not particularly intimate. I understand that beefing up the sound has its own dramatic advantages, but it also separates the audience from the individual performer, both physically and emotionally. What if there were no more than 40 musicians and fewer than 100 audience members?
  5. Don’t conduct it. Bach didn’t. You think you’re better than Bach? The truth is that conductors bring both an air of formality and a degree of separation between audience and performer. Someone has to cue, but ditch the penguin suit/formal concert gown and let the musicians take a little bit more personal responsibility. Contemporary audiences are also accustomed to watching performances across a variety of genres that don’t prominently feature the conductor.

This is a start. What other ideas do you have?

 

 

The Techno Jeep Revival of 2317

The Techno Jeep Revival of 2317

Why should we perform old music? Because it’s quality.

Will this jeep be featured onstage at Carnegie Hall some day?

There is almost zero chance that anything you make will still be in use 100 years from now. The percentage of creative output that survives beyond the memory of its maker is minuscule, which means that anything older than your grandparents still used for its intended purpose is well-constructed. Some houses, tools, furniture, clothing, books, etc. that were made before 1917 and still retain their functionality and/or aesthetic vitality increase in value

The same can be said of music. If a work is still performed one hundred years after it was written, chances are it is well-constructed. Construction in this instance refers not to physical durability but to a work’s ability to communicate the human experience beyond the culture and context in which it was created.

Have a listen.

Handel wrote Water Music, of which this video is the most familiar excerpt, three hundred years ago. It was first performed on a party barge carrying the King of England and his consort up the River Thames. People crammed into their own boats and crowded the riverbanks to take it in. It was such a hit that Handel and his company of 50 musicians played the entire work (which typically lasts an hour all told) three more times as the barge traveled back down the river to the royal palace, lasting until after midnight.

Watch this video.

Now let’s time travel three hundred years into the future to the year 2318. Music historians are sitting in a specially constructed bubble room in the underwater ruins of Mountain View, California at the hallowed Googleplex UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, they, along with hundreds of other historians from around the world, are sifting through brontobytes of ancient data stored on archaic supercomputers.

Of particular interest to musicologists in 2318 is the site YouTube. A poor graduate student researcher, by then being paid only in stalks of celery for her 78 hour work week, is searching through the system for video evidence of an ancient bacchanalia called the Electric Daisy Carnival. By pure coincidence she happens upon the video Techno Jeep, which she finds captivating. Unknown to music historians until now, Techno Jeep’s musical work represents the kind of obscure find that music historians relish. The student decides that she is going to create a written edition of this work so that her contemporary professional musicians can perform it for modern audiences.

Where does she begin?

Techno Jeep features seven instruments: steering wheel, seat adjuster, lock button, 1st and 2nd car door, car engine, ignition indicator, and jumper cables. There are no surviving late 1990s Jeep Grand Cherokees in 2318, though the blueprints of one are available through the Smithsonian digital archives. Should she go to the time and expense to have historical engineers physically recreate a replica using modern materials, or should she try to create approximate sounds using modern instruments and technology? Is it possible to honor the sound and scope of the original composition by using a 2274 Chevy Tahoe, for example? Perhaps she can just make a bunch of electronic versions of the instruments, like a futuristic version of a MIDI file.

The next consideration is performance forces. Is it important to have eight performers? With seven of the eight people in the video being male and the lone female not playing an instrument but assisting in recording the men play theirs, does the gender of each performer make for a more historically accurate depiction of musical paradigms in the early 21st century? Could this piece be performed with multiple people on each instrument, say, in an ensemble of fifty? Is the purity and nuance of the original lost when too many people are added beyond what was included in the original performance? Is there an exception for academic music ensembles? Would it be more engaging to an audience as a Pentatonix-style a cappella arrangement?

How should the work be visually presented to contemporary audiences? While most early 21st century scholars in the 24th century would agree that techno music was primarily performed in vile establishments of forsaken morality and forgotten dignity called “nightclubs”, this work was originally performed outdoors on concrete and asphalt. Would it be appropriate to present this work on a concert hall stage or on the floor of a middle school gymnasium? Should the performers wear tuxedos and concert blacks or dress in period clothing of blue jeans, rubber sneakers, and ironic graphic t-shirts? Should they all run, in sync, onto the stage to take their positions in and around the vehicle?

Should the work be presented live at all? The original was not intended as a live performance but as a recording. Perhaps the best “performance” would be one recorded in two-dimensional media and viewed by the audience on its own time. Could the graduate student create an app that allows her contemporaries to view this centuries-old technology on the 2318 version of the handheld device (iPhone 297s Plus)?

Further cultural issues arise. Only a small portion of 2318 music listeners even cares about music from the early 2000s, and those people are incredibly opinionated about how to do it “right”. Any choice that doesn’t align with The Norton anthology on millennial music history is bound to draw criticism from scholars, performers, and music critics. Will performers risk programming such an obscure composer as Smith, even for a world premiere? The normal public radio audience really only likes to listen to the three Bs: The Beatles, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé. Contemporary music fans dismiss music of this time period as boring background noise heard at middle-of-the-road Italian restaurants.

The graduate student eats her midday celery stalk and ponders this. What does this mean for Techno Jeep or any other musical work of similar profundity? The chances that anyone will ever know of Techno Jeep in 2318 are quite small. That it would find traction in the musical world of 2318 is smaller still. However, the fact that it has made it out of the dark chasm of history to the graduate student’s computer screen and into the ears of others should be cause for celebration! What percentage of all creative work and artistry over the course of eons of civilization and billions of lives survives beyond the memory of its maker? Should this work be given new life, or should it be allowed to fade into the recesses of history once again? Is it a museum piece only, or does Techno Jeep have the potential to aesthetically connect with audiences in 2318 in a way that connects human beings and human feelings and thoughts across centuries and generations? Time alone will tell what materials are quality enough.

How are we constructing quality music today? Should we? Is there too much of it for any one piece to matter anymore? Is our modern music made in the same way as our cars and computers and phones, made for maximized profit, utility in the moment, and to be discarded for the newest model? Handel wasn’t planning on that music lasting 300 years. He wrote it for a drinking party on a boat. It has made it this far in no small part due to its royal patronage, a system that no longer exists.

With that in mind, we might be able to see how music written 300 years ago can help us. Generations of musicians, historians, and audience members have asked these questions, answered many of them, and found value in their construction. It would be wise for us to learn that quality.

“It’s How Bach Would Have Heard It”: Stifling Creativity Through Historical Reconstructionism

I recently read a review in the New York Times that criticizes professional musicians for making artistic choices. A critic judges a professional German symphony and its conductor to be unmusical (or less musically perfect than they are capable of) because they made the conscious decision to not diminish the size of the orchestra for certain selections in their program. This scolding is part of a large, increasingly emboldened segment of the classical music academy that has begun to call for all performances to be “historically informed”. The movement seeks to synthesize the research of musicology with performance practice. This pendulum swing in favor of historical research has led to a plethora of recordings, interest sessions, and articles extolling the virtues of the concept. Their primary question comes in two parts: Is there an “ideal” performance version of a musical work (in the platonic sense of the word)? If so, is the ideal performance one that recreates, to the smallest detail, the exact environment of the original performance, as it would have existed in the time and space in which it was conceived? Such a recreation would, theoretically, be as close to sounding like what the composer him/herself would have heard or envisioned for the work. One can see the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to declare one’s own performance of a great master as “the way Bach would have heard it?” For many musicians this desire to recreate what the composer intended is like uncovering a new code in the DNA sequence of musical society, taking our understanding of the art form one step closer to perfection. It is a scientific principal applied to an artistic medium. We all like confidently declaring that we did something the “right” way.

To that end, many conductors and performers have been fascinated with the challenges such a performance presents. They are at pains to deploy the exact same forces, period instruments, physical staging of players, historical tuning, and historical language pronunciation that the latest scholarship has discovered. It has played out in concert halls and recordings across the world, though the American academy has embraced it with unusual relish. At a recent national gathering of the Choralrati, much conversation was had on the historical appropriateness of certain ensemble presentations. The higher the level of musicianship, the greater the expectation that the ensemble reproduce a historically informed performance. Generally, high school and youth ensembles are forgiven for not recreating historically informed performances because their role is seen to be more about exposure than artistry. However, collegiate and professional ensembles are increasingly expected to take this scholarship into consideration when making a public performance or risk being dismissed as “behind the times”, “unscholarly”, “amateurish”, or even “lazy”. The historical reconstructionism movement has developed a subgroup that seems to enjoy bullying anyone who doesn’t wear the same clothes as them.

To which I say, “bull.” First, it is impossible to actually recreate a historical performance. Taken to its furthest extreme, we have to admit that there are elements of the original performance of a work that make replicating it either impractical or undesirable. For example, women couldn’t conduct any of them. Women also didn’t sing or play in most ensembles until the 1800s or later. This is particularly a problem for singers, as the timbre and color of the adult female voice is naturally quite different from that of the boy soprano. Most institutions don’t have access to historical instruments, usually there are more students in a collegiate ensemble than there were in the church and court ensembles of history. Far too much time is already wasted on historical language pronunciation. It is very in vogue right now to sing with Latin pronunciation of a certain composer’s country because it is deemed to be more authentic to the sound that would have been heard during that time. No one (at least no one I have read about or heard) makes that same effort with historical vernacular language. Concert spaces today are built with different acoustics and technologies in mind. The inconsistency in application of these characteristics in today’s historically informed performances dilutes their potency.

This is all peas and carrots, to some degree. If musicians want to try recreating historically accurate performance environments, why not? There should be no problem with this approach provided it remains one of many methods of musical presentation. It’s certainly interesting to see and hear these unique performances, as they are usually quite different than contemporary concert paradigms. What should absolutely be condemned, however, is this call for historical accuracy to be the sole means by which an ensemble’s presentation and musical accumen may be taken seriously. Such a philosophy will inhibit creative and artistic interpretation, limiting conductors and ensembles to the role of large, expensive, human record players. Incapable of doing anything other than repeating what others have already done, the focus of their musical craft would lean toward technical efficiency and away from creative artistry.

Homogenization is, after all, just another word for standardization. Standards have their value: they define and defend quality and support tradition and institution. The musical world already has layers of hidden code in this regard, code written to dictate global themes and local minutae, from concert attire to program notes, musical technique, facial expression, concert length, appropriate venues, acceptable instrumentation, acceptable composers. The list goes on and on like some long, complex DNA blueprint for acceptable musicianship. To build outside of the blueprint is to risk marginalization and, on rare occasions, personal obsolescence.

Yet, creativity thrives beneath the shroud of mystery! If every element of an artistic form is quantified and codified, is it still artistic? Is artistry possible without individual interpretation, without creativity? Is not the essential, humanizing component of art that it explores and gives voice to the uncharted and undiscovered pathways of the human experience? Surely, this type of creative artistry cannot be reserved for art creators only. It is a vital quality for those who give voice to musical creation throughout time. Music without humanity is simply ink dots on paper. The music historian an critic alike should bear that in mind.

The Future of Music, The Future of Us

UNLV is one of the most diverse college campuses on the planet. It has more students of color, more ethnic backgrounds, more first languages, more first-generation college students, and more students from low-income backgrounds than all but one other university in the United States. That in and of itself is incredibly exciting. What’s even more impressive: UNLV’s choral department is as diverse as its general student body, an almost unparalleled demographic representation among secondary and post-secondary choral programs nationwide. The School of Music at UNLV has over 500 students, both undergraduate and graduate, traditional and non-traditional, homegrown and international. It is located in the heart of a rapidly growing, increasingly cosmopolitan city.

just some of the 2016-17 UNLV Choir Members

UNLV’s music students, right now, already look like what most of our country’s ensembles, classrooms, and communities are going to look like 20 years from now (and many do already). It is a student body that values community alongside rigorous scholarship, one that embraces difference and doesn’t shy from it. For that it should be celebrated!

I’ve been visiting a lot of high schools recently, getting to know students and teachers, learning the values of Las Vegas’s young people and musicians. Inevitably, I am asked why I think young people should choose UNLV from amidst a host of excellent options. This is what I tell them:

If you want to go somewhere where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, talks like you, acts like you, and comes from the same background as you, there are plenty of colleges and universities like that to choose from. Many of them have phenomenal music, passionate professors, and dedicated students.

However, if you want to be somewhere where the people you sing with and feel with and learn from and become friends with and share with represent the entire world, the future classrooms you’ll teach, and the ensembles you’ll conduct, regardless of where you find yourself on this ever-shrinking planet, then, may I humbly suggest that I know of a place like that.