wet earth

On Knowing Where to Stand, Part 2

It was the death of a cat that prompted me to join Facebook.  The year was 2009, eleven years after I had adopted Misha from a colleague in Seattle.  Misha was large, regal, glamorous, a big-hearted, spirited tortoise-shell a friend of mine dubbed the Marquessa. I had moved twice and lost touch with the colleague, a woman named Suzanne, and I wanted to tell her that Misha had died, and also how much this cat had meant to me. When I googled Suzanne, the only contact information I found was through Facebook. So, reluctantly, I created an account.

I was reluctant because I had the sense that Facebook would be a huge distraction in my life and a waste of time. But I really did want to send some words of gratitude and shared mourning to Suzanne.  So I sent my first Facebook message.

A month passed, I never heard back from Suzanne, and I deactivated my account.

I reactivated it four years later. I was heading to Los Angeles last summer for an LGBT writing retreat, and some weeks before the retreat started, I learned that a Facebook group for the retreat’s participants had been created.  I have struggled all my life with feeling like an outsider, and I have also done a lot of work to overcome that feeling.  I knew I didn’t want to feel left out or excluded, so I joined the group, got drawn into the kaleidoscopic world of Facebook, and the rest is . . . a continuing experiment in how I choose to spend my time.

This is my first Arts Alive blogpost in several months.  When I created this blog in February 2012, it was, in part, in response to my frustration that the local daily newspaper, which had been regularly publishing theatre reviews by me and others, had made an abrupt budget decision, essentially eliminating any meaningful coverage of the arts. Over the course of over 70 posts, I reviewed plays, art exhibits and music events, conducted interviews with local artists and writers, as well as national figures like Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts, whose works are a favorite of Chamber Music Monterey Bay.  For over a year, I kept up a steady stream of weekly posts, ranging from dance performances to Harold Pinter, and Aimee Bender to Louise Erdrich.

After my summer of writing conferences in 2013, I decided to focus more on my own writing.  By that time I was also posting regularly on Facebook, so Arts Alive got moved to the back burner.

One benefit I have noticed from participating in the culture of Facebook is an increased willingness to speak my mind.  Growing up gay and scared undoubtedly contributed to habits of secrecy and privacy, in thought as well as deed.  Some people blast out of the closet with the force of a cannon, and once the smoke has cleared there is no mystery about where they stand.  For others, like myself, the process is slower.  I’m still learning how to be an adult, to speak my mind, to feel unafraid of the opinions of others.

My intention for 2014 is to renew my commitment to publish Arts Alive blogposts, widening my focus to include not only the arts in Monterey County but other issues that inspire me to share my thoughts.

Lately, for instance, I have noticed having strong opinions about movies.  I’ll say more about that in a future post, but for now I will reveal that my favorite movie of 2013 was Frozen.  There, I said it.  A year ago I probably would have been too embarassed to share that, but the truth is, I don’t really care any more.  Frozen is beautifully made, with gorgeous songs and orchestral music, and a feminist story that upends the entire Disney tradition of a princess defined by the prince who saves her.  The two hugely talented lead performers are active in LGBT activism (one is also a strong animal-rights advocate), it has the voice of the dreamy Jonathan Groff, and the gayish snowman sidekick is not incidental but plays a key role not only in the unfolding of the plot but also in the film’s message of service to others.  There are other current films that, obviously, are of more intellectual and cultural and historical import, but I persist in believing that a prime function of art is to provide pleasure.  And at this moment I am just not interested in spending my money and time on seeing indulgently-long movies about the destructive lifestyles of immature, greedy people.

This is a longer post than I am accustomed to writing, and my sense of pacing is whispering at me to stop, but I have one more thing to say.

A significant part of my personal growth is thanks to the Monterey Peninsula College Drama Department, where I conquered my fear to stand on a stage in front of an audience.  When the local paper stopped running theatre reviews, it felt like an assault on a community that not only trains actors, directors, and stage crew, but also gives people of all ages a safe and creative place to develop skills for life.  Recently, the MPC adminstration proposed a huge budget cut to the Drama department, so huge it would have eliminated their ability to mount productions.  Department Chair Gary Bolen, my first acting teacher, has managed to negotiate a painful deal that will keep the department running, though at a high cost of losing two full-time positions.  It is VERY IMPORTANT that everyone, AND I MEAN EVERYONE, who cares about the arts in Monterey County come to a public meeting to discuss the future of the Drama department, which will be held on Wednesday, January 22, at 5 pm, at Lecture Forum 103 on the MPC Campus.  The Adminstration and the MPC Board of Directors need to see clearly and definitively how wide, deep, and passionate this community feels about local theatre, and the arts, and an irreplaceable tradition of deepening our sense of being alive.

The Juilliard String Quartet in Carmel

“Slow it down.  Take your time.  Listen, really listen.” Much of the wisdom and coaching offered yesterday by the esteemed Juilliard String Quartet to local students at Carmel High could be boiled down to those basic principles.  It was riveting and incredibly satisfying to watch the students—who performed admirably well—soak in the wisdom offered by the quartet, and, with each repetition of a phrase or passage, get closer to excellence and a deeper musical expression.  I think what impressed me most about the quartet’s coaching was that they did not speak down to the students, but treated them as equals, as fellow travellers on the path of musical discovery.  The students had clearly worked very hard for this day and they deserved and received the appreciation and respect of the quartet and the audience.

I was also struck by the advice to allow the bowing arm to move freely of its own weight, instead of through pushing or forcing, which has the effect of jamming the music into the instrument, rather than letting it flow and emerge out from it.  That is applicable to many activities in life, musical and other.

When the Juilliard last appeared in Carmel, a few years ago, I was less than enthusiastic about their performance, which I found dry and uninspired.  But since then they have acquired a new first violinist, Joseph Lin, and a new violist, Roger Tapping, and the change in the group’s energy is palpable.

Tomorrow, at Sunset Center, they will perform quartets by Haydn and Beethoven, as well as a new work by the rising young American composer Jesse Jones (b. 1978), whose piece, “Whereof man cannot speak...” was commissioned by the Juilliard.  Jones writes, “[each of the quartet’s five movements will reference] a certain poetic text, and will explore the spiritual and literal dimensions of religious mysticism and symbolism, as embodied in certain poetry: Yeats, Aquinas, Lamartine, etc. To achieve this, I intend to wed musical aspects of these texts with luminous microtonal harmonies, in hopes to create a sonic embodiment of their unspoken, spiritual ‘meaning.’  In other words, I intend to create a sounding board from which the sentiments of the texts, without actually being spoken, can freely resonate in the listener.  For this I plan to transcribe and orchestrate samples of the human voice—inflected speech, sighs, and song—so that the music flows directly from the sinew of genuine human expression.”

This promises to be a wonderfully auspicious start to Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s 47th season.

The Juilliard String Quartet, Saturday, October 26, 8:00 p.m., at Carmel’s Sunset Center.  Call 831-625-2212 for tickets or visit http://www.chambermusicmontereybay.org/

Piano Geniuses

If you are a pianist, what does it mean to be a genius?  Is it the specific sounds you produce—the timbre, the tone, the color?  Is it the way your fingers move on the keys—your dexterity and clarity, your technical skills?  Is it some aspect of your musical life that occurs when you are away from the piano—your public role as an advocate for creativity, for innovation, or your writing, speaking, arranging, improvising, composing?  What are the qualities that help us point to you and say, yes, this one is a genius?

I was thrilled last week when I learned that the MacArthur Foundation awarded two of its coveted 2013 “genius” grants to two pianists, Jeremy Denk and Vijay Iyer (photo below right).  I have heard the jazz musician Iyer perform three times, in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco, and each time I have been dazzled by his searching imagination and fierce intelligence, by a musical energy that always feels propulsive, expansive, on the move.  Listening to his compositions and improvisations, for me, is to experience the dynamic unfolding of a brilliant mind at play, translated into music, into sound, and therefore into the senses.

But what about classical music?  Growing up studying piano, I was quite aware of the immense divide between right and wrong notes: there was no middle ground.  There was also a perceived separation between “expression” (playing with feeling) and “technique” (getting the notes right).  I usually received more praise for the former; only as an adult have I finally learned how to practice.

When I learned that Denk (photo below left) had won this award, I felt a sense of victory against the belief that classical musicians “only” play the notes that someone else wrote, and are therefore somehow less “creative” than musicians who improvise.  In addition to being a pianist, Denk is also a prolific writer about music and the creative process.  On the MacArthur website, Denk is praised for exploring “the connection between the process of writing and the practicing musician’s ceaseless efforts to find the most vivid and meaningful way to bring a particular phrase to life.”  That rings so true, that common resonance between playing a sequence of notes over and over, and rewriting a sentence again and again, as each time the artist keeps reaching and striving for clarity of expression, for balance, for beauty.

But what about the brilliant pianist who doesn’t write about the piano, whose only communication with his public is through music, through the meeting of his body and mind with the instrument on the stage?  Can he, too, be a genius?  A friend of mine recently described the pianist Vadym Kholodenko (photo at top), this year’s winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, as a genius.  Kholodenko will perform next Sunday, in Carmel, and I eagerly look forward to his recital.  His choice of repertoire for this performance, an all-Rachmaninoff program, has limited appeal to me, but I will keep my mind open.  (The MacArthur also praised Denk for his “unexpected pairings of pieces in recital programs and recordings,” pairings in which “he often draws out surprising themes and continuities between historically and stylistically disparate works.”)

My friend, who heard Kholodenko perform live last summer at the Van Cliburn, in Fort Worth, Texas, said that, for him, what raised his musicality to the level of genius was that no matter what technical challenge the most difficult pieces in the repertoire might pose, Kholodenko responded with an ease and flowing grace that seemed to be above and beyond the realm of technique.  Kholdenko also famously composed a thrilling cadenza to a Mozart concerto on the plane en route to Fort Worth, which led San Francisco Classical Voice to suggest that he possesses “the guts of a true superartist.”

My take on these three musicians is that genius is not what the listener thinks about the pianist, it is how the listener feels.  It is an internal experience, not a judgment: one imagination making contact with another.  How many concerts have I attended where I was impressed, but not moved?  With a genius, we are moved.  This can happen far from the concert hall.  About a year ago, I did something I hadn’t done in a very long time.  I put a CD on the stereo, lay on the bed, and did not get up until the entire CD had finished.  While the music played, its enchanting rhythms streaming around me, I felt the powerful light and heat of the afternoon sun pouring onto the bed and onto me, and it was as if the music and the sunlight were together conspiring to help me dissolve into pure awareness, no past, no future, just that extended moment of sound, and light, and warmth, and my own body, and everything was exactly as it needed to be in that moment.  A moment of absolute perfection, and I at the center of it, warm, grateful, and awake.

The CD was Vijay Iyer’s “Tirtha.”

For tickets and information about Vadym Kholdenko, Sunday, October 6, 3:00 p.m., at Sunset Center, in Carmel, contact the Carmel Music Society.