Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 12 (round III) "In the trenches" (tribal edition)

Collaboration--true collaboration--can teach you a lot, but collaboration—true collaboration—is not much available in the collective arts of the Industrial West. About the commonest and most debased version, in western post-Industrial culture, is the committee, aptly described as "an animal with no head and four hind legs": whose raison de etre mostly manifests the message either that (a) no decision need be taken or (b) a decision must be taken but no individual have to be responsible for it. In a post-Industrial Revolution culture, where the models of decision-making, wealth, power, and artistic creation are overwhelmingly top-down, there are very few alternative circumstances in which persons can experience other versions of collaboration: those that depend upon cooperation, focus, awareness, the ability to improvise and to imagine alternate scenarios (or realities)—circumstances in which everyone pulls their weight, everyone’s contribution is irreplaceable, and everybody helps one another. Of those very few remaining circumstances, the one about which I know the most is collaborative music making, when we play together, listen together, think together, and watch each other’s back.

Celtic Ensemble had the full performance of the Winter “hard” program yesterday evening. This is the repertoire which we typically spend a little more than one full semester preparing: we come back in the Fall and give a “going-away” performance of the repertoire from the previous Spring (because I hate the classical-academic template in which a student ensemble performs a program of music one time, and too seldom gets a second shot, applying the lessons learned, at the same repertoire), and then, pretty much immediately, we dive into the “hard” program.

We do this because Fall semester is conceived as a learning, rather than a performing semester: it’s when we have new recruits to get up-to-speed in our by-ear-and-memory way of doing things and when, as a result, we refrain from scheduling a complete free-standing concert. We do service gigs, and are heavy participants in the annual Celtic Christmas, but by refraining from scheduling a separate, free-standing concert, we remove the “get it together quick even if we have to cut corners!” pressure of starting-up the ensemble and then rushing to give a full concert in the same semester.

So we come back in January (very early in that month, this calendar year), and we aim for a “Winter” concert within just a few weeks, at which we revisit the pieces we first played at the Christmas show, but also add-in various other numbers (typically, chamber pieces and songs) which we’ve been working all Fall, but which needed a little more time, or perhaps wouldn’t translate quite so well in the large-scale, extroverted Christmas show. Then, when the January “hard” program has been given, we can take a little break from the concert pressure, and then start preparing the festival/outdoor/”big” repertoire which we’ll typically concertize in the second half of April. It really works pretty well, providing a feasible and reasonably healthy balance of high/immediate versus low/distant pressure and deadlines.

Of course, coming back and giving a concert in late January, in a large public university in West Texas, also typically means that some percentage of the participants are gonna be ill. There are so many bodies on this campus (22,000? 23,000?), and so many in the Music building (550? 600?), and their immune systems are so weakened, and they’re so stressed (already) and short of sleep (already) that, on any given weekend, at least 10-12% of them are going to be sick.

Last night, it was 2 who had to sing and 1 who had to play—and 2 of those three had to dance as well. They were all three both troupers and also responsible: showed up to rehearsal, kept their shit together and focused even though they felt like crap, danced and played even when the hacking and coughing and wheezing made dress rehearsal sound like a c1900 County Clare workhouse, but there is no way, in certain musical circumstances, that somebody who’s lost their voice can sing some difficult solo vocal piece—there was just no way it was going to come out, even if trying to make it do so was remotely what an ill person should do (hint: it’s not).

In the top-down world of the classical orchestra or choir, one of two responses would be necessary: if the individual’s part was essential and irreplaceable, somebody else would have to step in and do it: the opera understudy, the 1st violin, etc. Conversely, if the individual’s part was (as is often the case in the pyramidal structure of the classical orchestra) duplicated and doubled ad virtually infinitum, that part would likely be dropped and not played at all.

Either of these solutions, though essentially unavoidable in the case of the large complicated machine which is an orchestra (or a factory, or an army), is essentially dehumanizing. The person stepping aside either feels left out (because someone has stepped in and replaced them) and the rest of the ensemble feels disoriented and uncommitted to the replacement, or the person feels superfluous (because the part turns out not to be inessential) and everyone else in the ensemble wonders “shit, am I equally replaceable or superfluous?”

In the event, we did neither—we neither replaced the sick singers nor left out their parts. Instead, we did what you do in a collaborative artistic situation when somebody essential can’t participate: we did something different. We had a ton of music and, even with two cut pieces, still had plenty of repertoire. By saying to the sick musicians “look, don’t worry about it; we have enough music and we’ll just plan to sneak your pieces in on a future concert,” we send the message, to both the ill persons and to everyone else in the band, “no, your contribution is essential and we can’t replace or do without you.”

This puts more pressure on everybody else—there is less music to be played, which means more emphasis on each piece, and the sequence has changed, and the other people participating in those cut pieces have to control their disappointment that their own contributions have to receive deferred recognition. But it also sends the right message; namely, that we have two obligations: first, to the music…not the composer (because classical music’s deification of the composer, in my opinion, has done far more damage than good) and, second, to our colleagues: to their health and happiness and artistic contribution. In other words, to the tribe: to the group of people who, as the great Gary Snyder put it, decided to “stick together, and go light.

By saying “no, we can’t do without you; instead, we’ll do without the piece,” we are conveying “the priority here is to the music, long term—not just this concert, but the long-term musical health and identity of the band, and, in addition, to the people…because we are people first, and ‘servants to the music’ a long way second.”

In making collaborative, communal, participatory art, we send what is in my opinion one of the great messages to be learned from traditional culture, if we’ll just pay attention: that it is people—our people, the primate and quadruped and gilled and green people of our (global) tribe--that matter most.

That's why we do what we do.

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