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Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Eye of the Beholder: Art is Love Made Public

“Art is love made public” is one of my favourite episodes from Season Two of Netflix's "Sense8" series (created by the amazing Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who brought us The Matrix). There are many characters and the plots are too vast to go into. For the purposes of this blog, this scene focuses on two male lovers living in Mexico who, up to this point, thought their affair was private: Lito, is a machismo action movie star, his lover Hernando is an Art History professor.

While discussing a piece of art in his class, Hernando Feuntes (Lito’s lover) finishes his lecture with: “It (art) is the language of seeing and being seen.”

Then the class starts to giggle as their phones all light up. When Hernando asks what’s going on, one of the men in the class shares what they're all looking at by putting a viral photo up on the lecture room view screen, for all to see. The picture that has gone viral is a photo of Hernando and Lito having sex (and it is quite explicit.) Everyone laughs. The guy who put it onto the screen then wryly asks “Is this art, Mr. Feuntes?”

After taking a moment, Hernando decides to continue the lecture using the picture as the subject...

“Is it art, Mr. Valles? Why don’t you tell us what you see?”

The student says “Looks like shit-packer porn.”

Nervous giggles emanate from the other students.

Hernando retorts: “Shit-packer porn, that is very interesting. ‘Cause this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen, now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, and prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you want to see, Mr. Valles, is in fact, shit-packer porn.”

More chuckles from the students, while Mr. Valles looks on uncomfortably.

Hernando finishes, “Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also... vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment of each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class, art is love made public.

There are many moments like this in Sense8. Turning societal conventions on their heads and asking questions of the viewers themselves. Trying to take a public art form - a tv series - and move it back into a person's private life, to get them to think about their own biases and ideas.

A colleague of mine, Paul Yachnin (Tomlinson Shakespeare Professor at McGill University) once said during a public talk that “theatre (he was not just meaning Shakespeare’s theatre, but all theatre) is the private made public.” He went on to say that one of the terrible things about incarcerating another human being is that you remove their ability to have a private life.

Social media is certainly making most people’s private lives, their thoughts, their meals, their dates, their holidays, their everything super public. For some, the public might mean a closed group of friends, for others, a much larger group of friends of friends, and for some a total public presence (like our dear President Trump). All their thoughts sent out into the world. Their PRIVATE MADE PUBLIC.

Social Media is, in its essence, THEATRE.

If we return to Hernando’s point, that Art is Love Made Public, and if private-made-public Social Media posts are theatre, then Art and Love can also be thought of as a form of Theatre. And as all social media seems to be self-focused, many people are finding that their lives, their literal faces, can be made into a type of public theatre. It’s yet another reason why opinions are being transformed into facts, why people are being duped by fake news – it’s hard to discern real from fake in a world where everything is theatre.

For theatre isn’t real. It is fake.

Yet, social justice warriors on the left, and Trump supporters on the right, are having problems recognizing the difference. They see productions and think that images and words created in the theatre are real, or are offensive, or... dangerous. The uproar this summer with the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar is a perfect example of people not figuring out what’s theatre and what’s real. Trump supporters stood up in the theatre to protest the show’s JC looking a lot like Trump (after JC gets assassinated), then real security show up to remove the protestors. But, and this is the meta-gone-crazy moment, later in the play fake protestors stand up in the audience (as part of the play) and protest the assassination and are escorted from the venue by fake security guards. But then the meta goes beyond the horizon: real security guards were needed to escort the fake ones to ensure their safety from the real protestors, or I guess others in the audience upset about the protesting itself. Many in the audience were left perplexed.

But this isn’t only a problem with people who are blinded by their support of Trump, or who haven’t read the play to know what it is actually about. (These protestors are often derided by us liberals for being ignorant, fyi.) Ignorance lives on both sides of the political coin. However, the left sees itself as not just holding the upper hand, but holding the correct hand. Productions of operas, movies, paintings, and books are being singled out for being politically incorrect, oftentimes without realizing the subtleties of the history of the pieces, or the lives of the authors/artists. They are doing the exact same thing as the JC protestors – trying to shut down the private made public. They are trying to control art.

Often the people being silenced are being singled out because of their outward appearance, i.e. their race or their visible cultural identity (often, this is put upon them by those criticizing their works.) Someone might see me and make the obvious - but incorrect - conclusion that I'm a straight, white, male. But my personal identity is much more fluid (and complex) than that and for some of my ancestors, they were far from being considered "white". I'm mostly a European mix (Scottish/Danish), but my Catholic Irish immigrants and "Bohemian" immigrant ancestors on my mother's side would argue their point: they were not allowed into WASP establishments, institutions, or public groups, so how "white" were they? My mom was called Cat-licker by the same protestant kids who would wave their hands over their noses when she passed because she smelled like fish (Catholics ate lots of fish I gather.) Would anyone say her struggles as a young Catholic child in an all Lutheran small town were not caused by her perceived identity?

But the defining aspect of my identity is my atheism. According to the recent polls, being an atheist makes me the most hated type of person in America; the most "immoral". My privilege is great, but I could never run for President. A guy with a middle name "Hussein" has a better chance of being President than any atheist would have (at least currently.) Times might change, we shall see. I make no travel plans to certain countries because my atheism is grounds for my execution.

Should Art or Artists be seen solely through the lens of their identity? And if so, what is that identity? For example, is my art atheistic or should it be distilled down to that of a white married guy, negating my actual and more complex identity? If names and identities were hidden from the public, would art be seen and heard differently? On the operatic stage we can see people and make opinions about their identity, but I don't think we can hear identity. We can't hear race, for instance. Sometimes we can hear an accent (Americans singing in French, the French singing in English, the English singing in 'Merican), but usually the training of a professional opera singer overrides their cultural background. In an art form that is predominantly about hearing, shouldn't that be the dominant element when discussing an opera singer's performance?

Time does move forward and no issue lives beyond its time without mutation. Issues typically evolve. Times change, people change. The Eyes of the Beholders change. But the ART stays the same. It is who is seeing the art that changes. The seers think the art has changed, but it hasn’t. If you understand that, then you're more enlightened than most. The Art is just revealing the seer's current biases, their current issues, their current hearts and minds.

So – what are The Eyes of the Beholders, i.e. the public, revealing what’s in their own hearts and minds now? Currently, I think they reveal a lot of hatred, bias, close-mindedness, anxiety, worry, anger, offensiveness, defensiveness, shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice, but mostly: fear. Otherwise, I think we’d see more discussions about how Art – whether it’s public art, theatre, music, poetry, murals, or even facebook posts – is empathetic, enlightening, open-minded, positive, educational, beautiful, spiritual, or culturally broadening.

As Hernando stated, Art is the language of seeing and being seen. Art is love made public.

What do you see when your Eye beholds art? What does that say about you?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Department of Practice

Many of us study or work in schools of music, or departments of music. At McGill, I work in the Department of Performance which is just one department of the larger Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

We call ourselves that, I guess, because we are performing professors who teach about performing to future performers.

Or do we? Is it all performing all the time? Certainly it looks that way with over 600 public performances given each year in our various venues on and off campus. (That's a lot, mind you.) Each of those performances represents hundreds of hours of preparation, score research, listening, active learning, studying with mentors, and - especially this - practice.

"Practice makes perfect" or my favourite (NOT): "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice."

Both of those famous quotes are truly not true. Far from it. Research has shown that too much practice focused on achieving perfection oftentimes does not give one perfection. And really, what's perfection? Totally unattainable outside of a few Olympic gymnasts or divers, (or Julia Child's recipe for boeuf bourguignon.) As well, getting to Carnegie Hall is pretty easy nowadays. Put together some money, gather your forces, and rent the hall. I know lots of people who've performed at Carnegie, but I can tell you honestly that very few got there just by practicing.

But practicing is a huge part of a students' world. When I was a piano major, I never practiced (I've blogged about this probably too much. It sounds like a boast, but it actually is my only regret in life.) There's a famous memoir "I really should be practicing" by the great pianist Gary Graffman. The title speaks deeply to many instrumentalists during their student years, and it really spoke to me as it was my mantra at Simpson. I'd say it late at night while painting a set, or I'd say it later the same night over shared Dominoes Pizza with others who should've been practicing too.

Nowadays, just like in yesteryears passed, students stress out about practicing - either they're risking injury by practicing too much or ignoring the pile of music on their desk. It's stressful just typing about practicing!

I think what might be adding to this stress is that, through social media, we are now teaching young people that learning itself is stressful. Because, you see, stress sits very close to the feeling of being uncomfortable. Stress is now being seen as entirely negative, which is too bad because stress is not always a negative force. Uncomfortable, yes. But not always a negative thing.

"Stress kills!" read the headlines. Then there are all the medical sites, with their "stress and high cholesterol", "stress and depression", "stress and binge eating", etc., etc., etc.

Depending on what motivates a musician to practice, the stress is magnified or lessened. Deadline to memorize a movement of a sonata looming? Good stress. Accepting a gig at the last minute that causes you to have to learn gobs of music overnight? Good stress. Taking on too many gigs while starting a new program of study and a new job bartending at night? Not the best kind of stress. Forgetting to translate your texts until the day before stagings begin? Shame on you!

Practice is not solely a sole activity. Collaborating with others is what most musicians do as the next step beyond their own practice. And collaboration can be difficult. Everyone in the room seems to have done more research than you, prepared more dutifully than you, had more coachings and lessons on their role than you. And they're all skinnier it seems and wearing cooler outfits in order to impress their new colleagues (why did I choose to wear the tight jeans today?) The stress of collaborating, especially with new colleagues, is like the stress of a blind date. You know the name of the restaurant (La Boheme), and the name of your date (Marcello), but you know little else and have to wing it, even though you've prepared for your date simply by living your life. Preparing for the first rehearsal of an opera takes a lot of practicing, a lot of preparation. Everyone is nervous and trying to impress, so everyone is stressed (and don't you hate the person who knows everyone else and is running around kissing everybody on the cheek?!) Why have sweaty palms too?

Collaborating is the big step towards being able to perform in public. It is a courageous act. It is also a joyous and wondrous communal act as well.  Collaborating is the reward for practicing. A lot of times, I think young singers misunderstand that rehearsing is practicing. We even use those two words for the same activity (particularly in high school when your parents would say "how was practice tonight?") But practicing is really something that happens before collaboration and rehearsal, and those two things are continuations of actual practice, to be sure. For most of us who do this long enough, collaboration is usually pure joy.

If one doesn't feel some sort of joy in the activity of practice or feel mostly joy while learning something new, collaborating on it, and then performing it, perhaps one shouldn't be encouraged to study music.  Music schools think they teach performers, but it is a misnomer really. We teach "practicers", because that's what we all do 'till our own song ends.

Practicers are who we are, really, because it's what we spend 98% of our time doing.

Practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make performers.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fear In Opera 2.0

One of my most popular blogs was on Fear. (Here's the link: Fear In Opera ) I'd like to riff on that again, this time asking the question "What happens when artists start to fear the art itself, or the making of their art?"

I see this fear on social media posted by singers, coaches, teachers, and other artist-types. I experience this fear more and more during opera rehearsals - both at academic programs and at professional opera companies. Singers, administrators, pianists, directors, stage managers, all seem more afraid than ever. What is it that frightens them? What stops them from communicating and collaborating freely with others? Stage managers are afraid of rehearsals - what might happen if someone walks into a rehearsal and witnesses choreographed, simulated violence? Will someone in the room be triggered? How can we make sure that everyone in the room will be okay with watching someone stab another character?  (Given that the libretto calls for a stabbing, and all of the singers who've agreed to take part in the production have - hopefully - read the story, one would expect that everyone in the room would be okay with it, yes?)

But it's not just in the rehearsal room, now we must warn people that they will experience loud noises in the theatre (one hopes the opera will be loud at least sometimes!) More seriously, though, what happens when you do an opera where a sexual assault is the crux of the plot? Do you post trigger warning signs? Or should the company provide lobby therapists for audience members? Is the title The Rape of Lucretia enough of a warning? What about Don Giovanni when a director updates the story and the assaults become much more graphic? Where are the lines to be drawn - both in rehearsal for those participating and in performance for the audience?

As well, what happens when there are actual issues - real ones - that arise in rehearsals? Do we have the capacity to discern the fictional from the real? Are we creating a generation of artists that confuse being uncomfortable with actual anxiety or panic disorders?

What do conductors do when it's time to tell a singer that they don't approve of their artistic choices, or a more personal critique, the timbre of their voice? I can't truly describe how different it is to give notes to singers nowadays. The defensiveness and the anxious emotional states that get created by being criticized "publicly" are way out of proportion to the notes usually given, for example: 'make sure to pick up that cup on your way over to the soprano'. Many young singers receive notes as if they are under attack from some online troll. Worse, they can't discern between serious and casual notes because everything is taken so personally nowadays.

We are in a state of fear, everywhere. On stage, in the rehearsal room, in the audience, and in our online communities. It is a new Age of Anxiety. (Would that W.H. Auden could write a sequel!) Perhaps our orchestras should be programming Bernstein's Symphony #2 on every weekend during 2018 to get all of us to look back on the late 40s and wonder if our world is more or less anxious than it was 70+ years ago?

But what's so important not to forget is what happens when we fear things. Us humans have a strong reaction to that emotion, so it's important that we shouldn't start to be afraid of Art.

That which we are afraid of, humans tend to vilify or control or build walls up against it. This is an historical fact, and it is indeed actually frightening to think about the ramifications of our current state of fear. What happens if we tried to eliminate the very things that make art? Bizet said it best: "As a musician, I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note."

Particularly those of us within the arts communities need to make sure we are not creating new environments of fear. We need to actively seek ways to nurture environments that allow the creators to collaborate creatively and freely in an open space free from judgement. We need to help ourselves and the public understand how Art can be therapeutic, how Art can help build societies and cultures, and how Art ultimately cross-pollinates beyond borders influencing humanity's ability to be empathetic to others.

The danger is when we fail to speak out letting others who are intent upon pushing (or simply accepting without question) an ideology that purports that Art is somehow hurtful or politically incorrect. Many of us believe that we must be careful not to offend, careful to make sure those trying to learn about Art, appreciate Art, or create Art, be kept in safe, comfortable environments. This mindset creates the illusion of safety.

Safety is about control. Control is about fear.

And Fear, as Frank Herbert so aptly put it, is "the mind killer." Fear is potent and powerful.

Fear Kills Art.

Schumann was a composer who had many fears, I'm sure. But even with all of his many problems, he gave us all a clue what our next steps should be in order to bring the world back to a more positive and less fearful place: "To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist."

Indeed, it is our duty to send light into darkness, and not the other way around.