“This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.” -Leonard Bernstein
Last month, I had an epiphany in the shower: Instead of writing the ensemble piece I was asked to write for St Louis students, I would write a piece related to the recent shooting of the St Louis teenager Michael Brown. The topic spoke to me more than what was originally planned, and when artists can do what they want, rather than what they are asked, the work is usually more meaningful. Presumptuous?
I began researching the events and discovered Michael Brown’s rap songs. Many of them were vulgar, but I decided to take a melody he had used and based an entire piece around those eight notes. The aim wasn’t to glorify his crude raps, but to represent him aurally. The hope was that teens from all over the city would perform it and the whole community could come together across racial and socioeconomic lines to reflect on the situation in a healing and thoughtful way. Audacious?
Two weeks later and I had something…something I am very proud of. There is a reading by Du Bois to contextualize the racial aspect, and I gave players the option to raise or not raise their hands as they finish playing, in the hope that they could have a conversation about their choice. The fact is, people of good faith can -and do- have differing opinions about Ferguson, but I felt everyone would appreciate what I was trying to do. Naive?
But my perspective as a New Yorker didn’t anticipate just how tense and divisive things in St Louis are right now. And there are so many factors involved in having teens perform: Administrators, teachers, students and parents all have to be for it. Then there are all sorts of considerations for the presenting organization: Will we alienate members? Be seen as taking sides in this polarizing issue? How will the media portray this (e.g. “Presenter Showcases Vulgar Rap Song”)? We fought the good fight, even changing aspects of the piece to assuage objections (this is a whole other subject), but in the end, the difficulty in getting it performed as conceived became overwhelming. Failure.
UPDATE: So when at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I went back to the drawing board and through luck, grace, and the hard work of certain individuals I’m grateful to, the piece will be premiered by Duo Noire at the Alliance of Black Art Galleries in St Louis. Now the real work can begin. Redemption.
Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. - Calvin Coolidge
I want to tell you a story, trust me when I say the story has a happy ending. Back in late October, I finally, finally, completed a project that was roughly 2 years in the making, I released my debut solo album, “Something New.” I can honestly say that I can’t remember a time in my life where I have undergone anything as psychologically and emotionally demanding for such an extended duration. Now that I've had several months to reflect on things, I’d like to synthesize some thoughts…as part of the healing process. :-p
When I first embarked on this journey, a colleague of mine warned me of the sorts of emotional toils making the CD could create. When she made her own solo CD she suffered so much psychological trauma that she thought she had developed physical ailments that made it impossible to play the violin. Several doctor visits later it was made evident it was all in her head. I’m not certain if I got to that point, but I did undergo at least a year of CD-related anxiety and stress, and even suffered a bout of despair when I realized a virtuosic arrangement I had made and invested dozens of hours in had to be scrapped from the project.
Picture yourself showing up for your first recording date, armed with a ton of virtuosic music that you’ve spent years researching, composing, re-composing, and arranging. You are on the clock and don’t have time to warm-up. Should I have changed my strings a day earlier? There are a dozen microphones facing off with your entire field of vision. Did I play that too fast? There is a man in a cordoned off room talking at you through a speaker about everything you could be doing better. Did I bend that string out of tune last take? The heat from the spotlights is knocking you out of tune. Should I have filed my nails differently? You know some part of what you record on this one day of your life is going to eventually be the permanent finished product. No, it was too slow! It is just you, and you knowing that all of the success or failure of the project rests entirely and literally in your hands. This is just a taste of the first day in the studio, and an example of why the process forces one to either let go, or go insane.
After intermittently undertaking these sessions for a year, I was left with several hours of recordings and soon learned that a CD is actually made on the editing room floor. You sift through hours and hours of takes in order to build a coherent and enduring musical statement. Make different choices, get a completely different CD. And of course, some trade-offs have to be made: Do you choose perfect intonation or precision? Do you choose the beautiful vibrato on the 7th eighth note, or the take where you spontaneously moved your right hand an inch in the other direction to get a different timbre?…etc. etc. I can think of nothing more tedious than the hours I spent making these choices during the summer of 2012.
Though, now that I’ve come through the other end of the process, I actually think finishing and releasing this CD is one of the proudest achievements of my career. And I learned so many lessons from the undertaking that every time I’ve recorded in the studio since has been much easier. It’s been thrilling to hear praise from colleagues and see people from around the world enjoying my art, and [UPDATE] As of August 2013 the CD was reviewed in Classical Guitar Magazine and was given high praise for being “beautifully played and recorded."
I’ve concluded that it’s likely impossible for artists to fairly evaluate their art because it’s too personal for us. Sometimes I listen to my album and think there are moments of true originality and brilliance. Other times all I can hear are the things I would have done differently if I had more time and resources. But at some point, you have to let go and put your art out into the world, because nothing is perfect, and waiting around for perfection is a surefire way to never put out anything.
All I can say for certain is that I know the album is sincere, and has something worthwhile to say, and that means a lot to me. As the famed guitarist Julian Bream - who also disliked the recording process- said at the end of his book A Life on the Road, “I don’t think I’m a great artist, but I know I’m a good one, and that I have got something to say, however modest. And I am happy to be alive, and to be able to say it and say it [through music] with some eloquence to people.”
Until the next one. - Thomas