wet earth

In Real Time

This has been an interesting week.  For the past ten days I have been steeped in rehearsals for three music events, the last of which was yesterday.  On the day the tragedy in Connecticut was unfolding on the news, I was deeply involved in a marathon rehearsal covering three centuries of Western music: Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Britten, and others.  It was both comforting and strange to experience such a juxtaposition: the disconnect from the focused grief of so many.

Over the weekend, at a sumptuous dinner table that was part of one of the events, a man said he had recently concluded that he preferred movies to plays.  “Movies are closer to real life,” he declared.

I have been pondering and weighing his comment in the context of this harrowing, bloodied time in our culture.  I adore and enjoy movies as much as the next person, but I do not think they are more “real” than live theatre, in which real people with real bodies reveal through their real voices and gestures stories about people, their struggles, their foibles, their individual and common ways of moving forward in life; and all this in the same space as other bodies, who are breathing and watching and listening and absorbing what is transpiring before them, in real time.

Because of the immersive nature of movies, as we sit surrounded by darkness, our eyes and our thoughts entirely glued to the immense screen before us, movies give us the illusion that what we are seeing is not art, but somehow something more real than art, which to some is not far from “artificial.”  So what the man at the dinner table was really saying, I think, is that he prefers movies because there is, it seems, less art in them.  There is little need to actively suspend disbelief; the circumstances of seeing a movie do that for us.

It is my belief that as a nation we are tragically and dangerously malnourished, deprived of the vital, living ingredients of art.  Art has the potential to encourage participation, curiosity, empathy, connection, and healing.  The performing arts create community.  Experiencing the visual arts can spark ideas and connect us more deeply to our own and sometimes hidden natures.  Art—even painful or ugly or sorrowful art—is always a positive act, in the sense that something is created, brought into the light, that wasn’t there before, something that had only existed in someone’s dreams, or fears, or desires.

What happened in Connecticut was the precise opposite of art.  It was an act of silencing, of destroying.  An act in denial of the meaningful ways we are all connected to one another.

I am frightened to live in a world in which the majority of people’s only experience of art is the passive consumption of corporate entertainment: movies, television and video games that are so often violent, trivial, or snarkily ironic; disembodied images passing pointlessly across a screen.

My wish for the new year is that more people take their children, their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews, to plays, to art exhibits, to concerts, not as cultural medicine (“This is good for you, so swallow it whether you like it or not”) but as opportunities to ask questions.  What does this object, painting, installation look like to you; what does it remind you of?  What did you think of that character; why did she behave that way?  Did you see any pictures in your imagination when you heard that music?  I believe that people in general, and children especially, are not being heard.  No one is listening to their confusion or pain.  Yet before we can find answers we must ask the right questions, and that is where art comes in.  I believe that the living arts may offer us a way into the hearts of one another, and help us make sense of our lives.  This past week, as I sat before the piano and felt in my body the healing rhythms of Bach, the poignant, piercing emotions of Mahler, I know that it helped me make sense of mine.

Note to my readers: I will be taking a two-week break from posting on Arts Alive.  I wish you a joyous and healthy holiday, and look forward to connecting with you through the arts in the new year.

Vive la radio classique!

I’m in the thick of rehearsals for some upcoming house concerts and have not had time to write an Arts Alive post this week; in the interim, I invite you to discover a fantastic online classical music resource: Radio Classique, a French radio station.  They play more interesting selections than most American classical stations I know, and there’s the added benefit for us Francophiles of hearing radio announcers in French.  Happy listening, or should I say, Bonne écoute!

On a Street in Paris

Not long ago I paused under a vaulting stone arch to listen to a young woman play the violin.  It was a sunny September day in Paris, the air generous with warmth and alive with the humming sense of possibility and promise one feels in large and beautiful cities.  The music was beautiful—Bach.  The woman was beautiful, too.  She was slender, in her early thirties, perhaps, with dark hair pulled back into a small bun.  Her face seemed finely made, an elegant nose, high forehead, her lips neither tense nor smiling but rather held in an expression of intent focus.  Cars drove by, people passed by.  The day ticked on, moment by moment.  I stood still and leaned against a stone wall.

Her tone was warm and assured; she was likely conservatory-trained.  She wore a simple outfit, black pants and a white shirt.  She looked a bit like Uma Thurman.

When I stepped forward to put some euros into her open violin case, she turned her eyes to me, still playing Bach, and gave me a quick smile.  There was not a lot of money in her case, and I wondered how often she played on the sidewalk for cash.  She was good enough to be in an orchestra, or to give lessons, but instead she was here, playing music written three centuries ago to a mostly indifferent city.  I decided to stay longer and returned to the stone wall and listened.

More people walked by.  A small number lingered, threw some coins into her case, then moved on.  I wondered what she would do with the money she earned that day.  Was she saving for something, or would she spent these coins later that day at the supermarket, the laundromat?

Locally, especially in Santa Cruz, I see people, usually men, who better fit the image conjured up by the phrase “street musician.”  Facial hair, a whiff of tobacco and body stink, the guitar or saxophone or voice sometimes conveying a undertone of melancholy, or anger, or need.  I think that for some of these men, playing their music on a sidewalk is a way for them to cry in public.

The woman in Paris was not crying, she was making art, though I heard in the depth of her playing a familiarity with suffering.  When I put the money in her case, her quick smile was marked by the same self-confidence I heard in her music.  She was past the age of the conservatory.  Perhaps she had a dull job in some anonymous suburb outside of Paris, and playing Bach on La Rue Béarn next to La Place des Vosges was how she remained connected to her lifelong passion.

I ended up staying a good while—she was as good as performers I have paid large sums to see and hear, and the setting, it must be said, was unmatched.  To hear such beautiful music in one of the most beautiful places in Paris!  I want to remember this woman for what she showed me about art and perseverance, and being unafraid, and being willing to share, through her music, her private self to a population of strangers that, for the most part, does not stop to listen.