Author: Christopher Rountree

On Contemporary Performance Practice, Melancholy, Subtle Activism, and Failure

Amid the careening-toward-the-floor subtle baseline depression of an election season, particularly of this election season and running up against the ominous and unlikely but possibly tragic end to that season, I’ve found it hard to begin putting digital pen to paper, even for a moment.

So let’s start here, with the quote that opens Sydney Pollack’s Frank Gehry biopic:

Is starting hard? You know it is. I don’t know what you do when you start, but I clean my desk. I make a lot of stupid appointments that I make sound important. Avoidance. Delay. Denial. I’m always scared that I’m not going to know what to do. It’s a terrifying moment. And then when I start, I’m always amazed. I say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.”

And let’s begin with failure.

On Failure

I was re-reading Alex Ross’s article on Morton Feldman recently and thinking about frailty, failure, error, and ultimately vulnerability in our field—in classical music and new music. It’s my feeling that creating situations of intense vulnerability is at the deepest core of great artmaking. There are so many examples where watching things simply fall apart in front of our eyes, hearing things rip apart, moves us—even to tears.

Entire cultures of meaning are built on this kind of melancholy. In Japan, the negative notion of “depression” (kokoro no kaze—a cold of the soul) had to be supplied in the 1990s by the U.S. pharmaceutical industry because before that only the idea of melancholy (mono no aware—the pathos of things) existed there. This melancholy was one of day-to-day transcendent awareness of the transient in all things. It was a state full of not just pathos, but also of revelatory mindfulness, a savoring of flaw, and a state that was cherished for its closeness to God. Can you imagine us now, in the DSM-6, reclassifying depression as a danger not because of how it incapacitates, but because our deep melancholy, being so beautiful as it drew us closer and closer to the divine, might take us out of this world completely? How that would change all of us, and for the better.

It’s a wonder then that this vulnerability, this beautiful frailty, and the melancholy that goes along with it, has been systematically and near wholly removed from our musical practice. Or maybe conversely, due to our collective lack of adaptability, it’s no wonder that we’re experiencing difficulty envisioning the future for our art, forging the immediate paths forward, and taking steps down those paths.

Vulnerability is the future of our art.

Where we’ve closed people out of our practice—closed rehearsals, kept our lips shut in performance, bottled up the audience’s ability to respond to us and capture our spirit in real time, preserved the canon at the expense of innovation, created scarcity by locking audiences out of our halls with exorbitant prices of admission, draped our bodies in dogmatic 18th-century religious garb, slammed the door shut on digital reproduction and on the free trade of recorded musical ideas, become isolated from the depths of current theater/dance/contemporary art because of our intense attachment to the “known,” and based our institutional financial models on the whims of individual philanthropists rather than a response to the market—we must change course, and we must let them in. Everybody. Right now.

Here’s how failure, how vulnerability, plays in: it let’s us be who we are in the moment—a bunch of humans together in a room, simply sharing something, a beautiful thing, and something we made together. The ensemble, the score, the equipment, the space, the circumstance of this exact moment in time, and the audience—all absolutely integral to the experience, and all central to what we’re all making in the moment, together.

If your blood is in the water, if you make a mistake, they’re on to you and they’re going to rip you apart.

In classical music our built-up notions of perfection, from pre-conservatory education forward, teach us to erect immense walls between us and (as they teach us) people who would hurt us. People who are out to get us. People who are not us. Outsiders. It’s totally paranoid.

I remember an experience that I had in school, one that I’ve shared with a number of collaborators who echo the story from their own experience. I was working out an issue in my conducting and my score study, and a teacher said, “They’re like wolves, like sharks: orchestral musicians. And if your blood is in the water, if you make a mistake, they’re on to you and they’re going to rip you apart.”

With formative experiences like that, it’s no wonder that literally every classical musician I know—from the “most important-job-holding, deeply invested in the conservatory tradition orchestral player” to the “most deeply invested in experimental music, improvisation, and a willingness to try anything at any time without any prep, on no sleep and an eleven hour car ride, with two kids in the back seat, six-big-mac-wrappers-and-two-empty-mcflurry-containers-on-the-floor-in-the-front-passenger-seat-type player”—all share, somewhere down there, an instilled sense of fear about our community, about the ghosts of history and our teachers and, most profoundly, about their own collaborators.

What this fear has inspired in all of us is a resistance (to some large or small degree) to exposing our own vulnerability, to exposing our error, our rough edges, and our deeply held beliefs about our value vs. the difficulty we’re having collectively with being a market-driven art object. We are having trouble with our history (immediate and ancient), with how white and male we are, with the things we can change and those we can’t. We’re having trouble with adaptability of spirit—and adaptability of business plan.

We’ve been spending so many decades concerned with being perfect that we somehow forgot to ask: What can we give to people? Our ideas, our art, ourselves (with our deep longings and blazing brilliance and stubbed toes and flaws the likes of which the earth has always known but yet still we feel as if no one has ever been as flawed as us, so please don’t tell anyone)—what do we want to share with people? What can we give of ourselves, as we are, right now?

I’ve made a habit of reading a bit before I go to write each day, and these days that reading period is full of Jungian philosophy. Recently I came upon this passage from Mysterium Coniunctionis concerning our search for the Other, in our relationships and (ultimately, if we get things right) in ourselves:

In nature the resolution of opposites is always an energic process: she acts symbolically in the truest sense of the word, doing something that expresses both sides, just as a waterfall visibly mediates between above and below.

This mediating third, the space between us and what we’re looking for (the Other), is a space that holds immense, boundless power. While we seek to find something in a relationship, it is actually in this third space where both sides, inherently present, are activated. This space is the thing itself.

In the conversation about music, musicians, and our relationship to perfection, I believe that mediating third space is Failure.

We look at the mountain, the score and the situation, at all the hurdles—wrought with self-judgement and external judgement—and we see only technical perfection at the summit. In classical music, we want to move through difficulty with expedient ease and arrive at a place wrapped in the cozy blankets of comfort. Missing all along: the thing itself, the real art which is made of difficulty and struggle. The moments in which we are forced to deal with something that we don’t want to deal with, that’s the moment I’m interested in. The moment we, against all better judgment, leap from the cliff and truly trust one another to leap as well (also where we simply trust ourselves to have, years prior, pre-loaded our parachute correctly). That’s the right moment. The right pursuit. And, I believe, it’s the future.

The Books In My Life

All of this came from somewhere. Nothing exists in a void; ideas are in and of themselves a lineage.

All of our human ideas flow back and forth—between parents and kids, among friends, pressing in against relationships—tangentially, sometimes musty, and lent hand to hand. Often, we teach each other these ideas through books. In the process of writing that last essay, I realized that—particularly because I’m not an academic—I feel deeply uncomfortable citing or, more egregiously even, forgetting to cite something. So this essay is a collection of books that changed my way of thinking, as they do. This is like the footnote section, all on its own, annotated with how and why these things got me thinking and how they got me to the beliefs I’ve got now.

Though most of them aren’t in fact books, actually. More on that later.

Henry Miller—The Colossus of Maroussi

Of the things that have most shaped my ideas about making work and living in our world, Miller’s character Colossus, a normal guy with butterflies and retsina and guilt for taking a nap spilling from each hair, looms (though he is likely normal in stature) the largest. Miller writes aimlessly through Greece with friends until he happens upon a giant of a Grecian raconteur, in the guise of just an any-guy guy.

This is probably the reason I’ve been telling stories ever since. I identified with the Grecian (Katsimbalis), wheeling about those streets and hillsides, finding the triumphant in an egg, ecstatic and unabashed moment to moment, sad only about missing something important. The lesson: stay heart forward.

My Mom—Jennifer Rountree (who avoids the internet, so I can’t link to her website here)

To start again: my mom. My mother, Jennifer, is a person, not a book. When I told her I was writing about her in this post, she said:

You can “read” people, so why not. I wonder how we got to the term “read” people. Maybe it was body “language.” You must include Walt Whitman. I’ll paraphrase: Is it night? Are we alone? Who holds this book, holds a man. There’s this incredible interaction between your eye, a reader’s eye (some would call that the window to the soul) and the word (a writer’s idea and voice), and there it is! A conversation. And aren’t all quiet conversations between two people the best—the right way to meet someone. It’s just like reading a book.

So you can see why I included my mom here (who, by the way, is an incredible acting teacher).

She says often these two things I wanted to share in particular:

  • I rarely go to the show. The show isn’t the thing. I live for rehearsal. Rehearsal is the art. There are actors who lay down on the ground, pressing their foreheads into the edge of the stage, focusing their energies and honoring the space, before they’d dream of beginning a rehearsal. That’s intentionality.
  • Making new work, it’s always problem-solving. We’re all problem solvers.

She also says a few other things often too, like: “You can do this.” She’s pretty great.

Alex Ross—Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report

I remember with syrupy clarity the exact second I realized that (ostensibly) the pomp of not clapping during classical music concerts was a mistake made at one singular concert Wagner was overseeing—that only one moment, one transitive point of view, was the thing that led us to the deep divisions and divergent beliefs on stoicism we have in our artform. My view of the way we should go forward and that call to action to change our direction was bright blue, white hot—neon even!—in front of my eyes.

This Image

This is the best Venn diagram on the internet. I use this to describe how people should find what they love. I mean, I’ve always felt awkward, and multifaceted, and did I mention awkward? Haven’t we all. That’s enough on this.

Miranda July—You Me and Everyone We Know

Stark simplicity and the unseen depth of little decisions and so many other things come together in July’s work, generally and especially in this film: intense, brief insanity; emotions so complex that the only way to represent them is ritual; love represented as two shoes that keep moving closer and farther from one another; performance art as film as job in film as life; vulnerability as a source of power; neutral tones; helping other people; sex as simple and human and even childlike; the playful in everything.

Krzysztof Kieślowski—Three Colors Trilogy

I’m a visual person. When I’m writing music or thinking about a certain sound or envisioning the way a phrase will sound as a conductor, I see it—I visualize how it will look when it is sounding the way I want it to. I’m not sure when my brain became obsessed with the idea of the tableaux in my own work, but wow did it happen. There are movies, like these three from Kieślowski, plus Godard’s work and countless others, that struck something in me about beauty and how we should harbour it in our lives. Not guard it, but rather just cherish it, be curious about beauty, and seek it out in absolutely everything. In wild Up’s performances, I’ve been fascinated by what light does to the audience. What happens when they’re in just slightly more light than total darkness? What happens when they are in as much light as the performers? I’ve found that my favorite is when each member of the audience is in just enough light to see everyone else in the audience.

Steve Schick—Kurt Schwitters’s Ur Sonate

I so clearly see Henry Miller’s colossus of a raconteur in Steve Schick. I remember stumbling upon this video long before Steve and I had worked together and being floored. This can be music? And you made this thing of considered beauty out of that blank slate of a conceptual Kurt Schwitters piece? Anything is possible when you see it creatively enough.

Lao Tsu—Tao Te Ching

So I grew up in a spiritual community, in and around an ashram in Santa Monica, California, and sometimes an ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. My first experiences with music as a child were chanting Sanskrit words in large groups of people in a gender-divided and basically pitch-black room, with musical leaders intoning pentatonic melodies from one corner of the room and only one little candle visually lighting the way. I grew up learning about seeing God in people and in myself. In art, in nature, in human endeavor, in conflict and mostly in resolution, in fear and contentment and ecstatic bliss all the same. It’s a wonder it took 20 years for me to find the Tao. These teachings are on such an even keel, the words themselves seem to have the life of the teachings included. They somehow know you and your life and your struggles and exactly what’s happening for you and for you right now. Not to mention, exactly what you could do to just sit in it all and be totally saturated in flexibility and it all being ok, and just from reading the words. A favorite set of mine is this set, all numbered and clickable randomly, I keep this open in my web browser often and just click over to it.

Mathieu Kassovitz—La Haine

Just watch it (not just the clip above, the whole thing). I guess what I mean is: grit, activism, the beautiful, the heinous, people smashed against each other in too little space: all these things belong together in one black and white piece.

Kurt Vonnegut—in the preface to Breakfast of Champions

I feel like this could be the singular footnote for my previous NewMusicBox post, or maybe the complete content efficiently boiled down. Vonnegut, Unserious in Chief. The painful and the light, exactly next to one another, like the end of the world and this childish 50th birthday drawing.

G.R.R. Martin—A Song of Ice and Fire—Complete (WHY IS THIS NOT COMPLETE YET!)

I read the entire series in a summer, mostly looking up over a river to Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley while the (then) new Fleet Foxes album flowed through my (then) locks of hair. (Also back in a time when “vacations” weren’t a thing, because my whole life was workless).

Also a definitive moment to add here where a kid points at me—reading, sitting in a chair with my feet in the river—and says to her mother: Mom, why is that bear reading a book?

Back to Martin, here’s what surprised me: the details were so fleshed out, the forethought was enormous, the hell the characters were put through felt real and like so many artistic (read: diplomatic [read: hellish]) relationships that surround simply making things one believes in. Maybe it’s not fair to equate art making to warfare? Doesn’t it feel like it sometimes though? And what an arc! We’ve all got so much to learn from an arc like Martin’s.

Nico Muhly (with Nadia Sirota, Pekka Kuusisto, Valgeir Sigurðsson and others)—Drones

More on Nico’s writing in a second, but I listened to Drones while putting together most of this post, so maybe it’d make a good soundtrack to read it to. Oh, and I was listening to this.

Nico Muhly—this essay on depression

There have been a number of artists recently with whom I’ve been having a conversation about a life around and truly inside of art, and for whom their life makes up the subject matter or close inspiration for their art (as so much of mine does). Nico Muhly’s essay on his own wellness is included here, because Nico lives in this most beautiful way, unafraid to include the trials of his life as his art—and to help other people, as someone to resonate and identify with. My guess is some would likely say here that his writing isn’t his art, but that’s the crux of why this is included. It’s so clear: an artistic life is one lived deeply in artistic practice at all times. Yevtushenko said it best, and this while in a war zone dealing with being actually besieged:

[A]nd what if art be my torment, harass me on every side, I am already by art besieged.

Conversely, what if we all included our artistic selves in our moment to moment, most routine, lives. How beautiful it all would be!

Melancholia / Love Actually

I always watch these back to back on New Year’s Day. Things mixed, all at once. Sappy light, sappy, light, Wagner (so much, too much in this article), a forest, love as controlled falling down, rough edges (curated and considered in this case). This airport thing that is like way too much and why am I still crying, and do I really like Christmas music, and is this because I’m half-British? Also, is love always like this, and grief?

Chef’s Table

Watching people believe deeply in making something of kinetic, spiritual, and physical value with the level of intentionality that these artists do—it’s something else. Food inspires me. The people who make something that so often is unconsidered or momentary or just mundane is, for me, sort of revolutionary. And the way things are put together, the way that they look—the perfect tableaux again, breathtaking and perfect.

I remember watching chef Marco Pierre White (who’s not part of this show) give a talk about what great food is that summed the whole thing up for me. He said something like “great food is just the things, the right things, on the plate. Nothing extra, nothing extra-special. The thing itself, the things as you put them together themselves: they are special. They are pure. Don’t muddy it up.” That changed me completely. Also, he holds his index finger up the whole time while talking, just like Curly from City Slickers about the “one most important thing.” Also, apparently I do this.

Pina Bausch—Bluebeard

Once we’ve built our artistic brains, our critical, burning, on-fire-with-intentionality minds (or the ones we keep working toward) it’s incredibly rare that something actually strikes us as our art, our way of making, our people, our tribe. I’m about to make a most hopeful and heroic statement and I’m sorry about it: If my tribe has a leader that leader is Pina Bausch. So much humanity, the real and the surreal with hands-locked fingers-interwoven running in a line together toward all of us, the onlookers, the community of outsiders, the ones who paid to have our minds blown, and oh are they!

Where would I be forgetting the inspirations for this list: Henry Miller—The Books in My Life and David Foster Wallace—Infinite Jest (because isn’t he just the master of too long lists?).

There could be so many dozens more, even in the core set, but I’ll stop there for now. To sum all of this is a grand duty, one that I’m not sure I could do given any amount of time (other than the perfect amount of time—which as we all know is: not quite enough), but here goes:

All of our particles are resonating and reverberating, thick with our histories. There’s so much there, for all of us.

I guess—after putting together this list of things that inspire me—I’ve realized how immensely profound all of these possibly overlooked bits of culture have been for me. In hindsight, that’s the revelation. Beauty is a practice and I wonder what we’re all missing, day to day, moment to moment, and how all of those things would change us, if we just paused and took a minute to notice them.

Notes on Belief, Creation, and the Un-serious. Seriously.

Writing seems to come from this place: a speaking/thinking person, believing so clearly that they know something definitive about a subject, breathes their loud, strange knowledge onto the written page. This practice is maybe among humanity’s oldest, along with probably: language, storytelling, killing animals to eat them, foraging for berries to eat them, and searching for proper and safe sources of water. And, well, after a bunch of years of study, I can safely say: I know nothing.

And that not knowing makes writing—beginning writing especially—pretty hard.

I believe things, though. I believe, for example, that time passes slightly more slowly when I’m at home. I believe resilience and kindness are the top two things for people to learn. And I believe that there’s beauty absolutely everywhere, if we’ll have it—it’s all there for us. As I sit and write this, I’m outside a huge farmers market in Ontario, Canada, at the height of Thanksgiving (Canadian) and Oktoberfest (kind of German), sipping a cappuccino at the surly Yeti Cafe (home of the “Pregnant Cowgirl,” which is a breakfast sandwich on a bagel) and watching (a seemingly limitless) bubble machine launch lofty bubbles toward the cool Canadian sun.

I believe in the conscious observation of beauty. And the space between the observed and the observer — that spaced called, for lack of a better name: Art.

O.K. Here’s the thesis:

If you hold onto that art space too hard (grip it and grip it and grind it), you’ll miss it itself, those things that are really actually there, waiting to be seen. If you know how art is supposed to look or sound—when you’re making it, taking it in, dissecting it critically (to learn, hopefully, or even just if you’re a jerk)—then, well, 1) good for you 2) how’d you learn what it’s supposed to be (the holy grail or some other fount of knowledge?) 3) please stop. As I was saying, if you know and you’ve held onto what that space looks like, you’re going to miss it. You’ve already missed it.

About Art:

Knowing is definitively serious. (Knowing is just so finite, isn’t it?)

About Art:

Believing, rather than knowing, is in fact: actively being unserious with a serious purpose.

We’re almost to the part, a few sentences from now, when–like Indiana Jones, one foot pressed out into the space above an endless, dank chasm–we all of a sudden swing down with all of our weight in belief. A few sentences from now: things happen, things in the real world.

I’m saying: David Sedaris, Samantha Bee, Louis C.K. and their teammates, they are better artists than us. Because they, as a near spiritual practice, are unserious about serious things. The way lightness, the way humor found its way into our work—

(As a note, I’ll be using the universal “we/our” to describe wild Up’s work in LA here from now on. wild Up is the ensemble I founded in LA….Oh, and as recommended reading, for anyone starting anything, before passing the threshold here: An Article About Startups and Cults.)

—that wicked and wily way that humor snuck in, well, it was actually pretty simple. Here goes:

The conservatory model jumped the tracks, a while back. Not sure if you saw it, but it happened. Humor hit us all because of that model, in reaction to that plan and course of study. The conservatory model rips people to shreds. It rails on us and teaches us all to rail on each other. It’s so beyond broken, it’s not even worth going in to here. Many of us are a product of this immensely broken system that knows, among other things: we’re chaff for its teachers to make a living, we owe it something and it owes us nothing, and that its history is more important than our present. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the rigorous is good, just that pain for no reason is bad.

An aside moment about Mark Allen and the founding of Machine Project in LA. Machine is a group of artists, performers, and creators, a storefront space and, most importantly, it’s a voice—one of lightness, play as singular pursuit, and context determining the power of content. Their work has changed Los Angeles and changed all of us who have worked alongside it. (It’s also a place that combines aerobics classes with butter churning classes and a space where an ex-con teaches kids to break out of the trunks of cars.)

So add 20 or so post-conservatory twentysomethings to a post-emergence-of-Machine-Project Los Angeles and “voila”: wild Up.

The connecting fabric between Machine and wild Up is namely that we share a member, our guitarist/composer/artist/collaborator/friend: Chris Kallmyer. Chris has done more to aim the creative output of the band than anyone else. If I’m the spiritual leader, he’s the philosophical leader. Chris’s work is a mix of politics, mindfulness, listening practice, and social practice.

Back at it: Since we all met in this climate and space, we’ve been searching individually and together for our community, our music, and—more widely—for meaning, ever since. Probably because wild Up’s been in this place for us to learn and experiment from the start, a number of lessons rose their angry heads early on, and continue to do so daily. Some highlights:

The time that we, leaping over a table, almost got in a fistfight about who would be included on a museum project.

The guy who stood outside our second concert, smoking in the rain, and told my mom, “There’s no way they can do this program. Too much different music. This isn’t new music or classical music.”

The time my friend Paul said, “You all program like John Philip Sousa” (and meant it).

Our first interaction with the music of Julius Eastman — the immense freedom, agency for each performer, and multitudes of calls to action inside of it.

The time a concert completely failed and the embers, drifting with a golden glow down to the floor, lit the entire room.

The questions we ask every time we start a new project: How do we get the ratio of beards down? How can we be advocates for this art? Are we the right ones to be advocates for these sounds? Does it matter? Is it the right time for this, the right place, why, why not? Will people want to leave this concert and go home and have sex? If not, why not? Did we plan enough rehearsal time for the Adams? Do the brass players have to play with ratchets and tin foil again? Related: is it a good idea? Where do we get circular metal paperclips and are they easy to remove from the viola strings? Did we order the right kind of vibrator to put into the piano? Who brought the blue tak?

We’ve learned a ton together and we’ve found some things to believe in:

We believe in fooling around, a lot.

We believe in each other, and watching each other’s bravery in the face of art (and sometimes the insurmountable odds surrounding it).

We believe in putting strange things next to one another and seeing if they rub off.

We believe in dinner and/or drinks as art.

We believe in learning our parts and fighting the thing together.

We believe in sometimes falling apart with people watching.

We believe in rough edges, pies that look ugly and taste good, rustic too-thick slices of bread, and room temperature (read: dangerous) butter.

We believe in sound as science and rehearsal as research (never a moment to communicate how right we all are to one another but a time to simply throw ideas into the air).

We believe in complex emotions and sharing them with each other as part of our artistic practice.

We believe in blood and guts. And, as you can imagine, sometimes in the context of blood and guts, getting in fights is O.K.

We believe in the impossible, and even though that guy seems psychologically present around every blind corner, none of us have ever met him on the road.

We believe in failure and the beauty of ashes.

We believe in art that comes from the chest, not the brow.

We believe in purity and covering her house with thousands of magazine covers.

We believe people will come together around art that puts a consideration of their interface with it at the core of its being.

We believe in the jump-cut. And in singing a bunch of songs in a room.

We believe in each other.


And we believe in the chase—in following the pursuit of lightness with serious vigor.

Chris Rountree

Christopher Rountree

Christopher Rountree is the founder, conductor, and creative director of the pathbreaking L.A. chamber orchestra wild Up, an ensemble founded in 2010 with no funding and no musicians, driven only by Rountree’s vision of a world-class orchestra that creates visceral, provocative experiences that are unmoored from classical traditions.

In the coming year, Rountree makes his debut with San Diego Opera and with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony; he helps resurrect works of Graham, Barber, and Chavez with the Martha Graham Dance Company; finishes a forthcoming album with Pulitzer finalist Chris Cerrone; leads wild Up as group-in-residence at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. He returns to the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of a twelve-hour festival celebrating John Adams and new music in LA, and to Opera Omaha, conducting Jonathan Dove’s Flight.

Last year, Rountree made his Chicago Symphony, LA Opera, and Atlanta Opera debuts, returned to the Music Academy of the West, to Ensemble LPR at (le) poisson rouge, and twice to the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox series, conducted the Interlochen World Youth Orchestra on the New York Philharmonic’s 2016 Biennial, premiered David Lang’s new opera Anatomy Theater, and joined Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner with wild Up at the Laguna Beach Music Festival.