Ethical Artistry: Are we really asking ourselves these tough questions?
Why are we doing this? This is one of the toughest and most deceptively simple artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when planning a new project. Dan Temkin encourages us to take a harder look.
A little background: For more than two years, I worked to co-curate the Intricate Machines project with composer Phil Taylor and the Aizuri Quartet. Along the way, we had many discussions ranging from the pragmatic details of venue and budget, to deep artistic conversations about musical values. Our process challenged many of the assumptions we had about concert curation and presenting routines, showing us that no single set of guidelines apply to every project, and that decisions we made at every stage—from instrumentation to venue to repertoire—encompassed “lessons” that weren’t unique to us, or even to concert curation in general; instead, they were part of larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists.
So here we are. In a nutshell, over the next four weeks I will discuss the types of projects we pursue and who they benefit (Part 1); I will illustrate the complexity of certain decisions we face when running ensembles and curating concerts (Part 2); I will consider various ways we tend to evaluate our work (Part 3); and, I will argue that our efforts really do matter in terms of how we affect and reach others through our artistry (Part 4).
Pursuing Projects, Finding the Balance, & Reckoning with Artistic Guilt
It came as a surprise when I realized I’d been organizing, presenting, and performing contemporary music concerts for more than a decade. Sometimes these were really special projects near and dear to my heart, but more often they were rather pedestrian, fulfilling some calendar quota at a summer festival or university.
From a very young age musicians get lulled into the routine of these events, from holiday concerts in grade school to those tedious group studio recitals.
Later, in universities and conservatories, we perform degree recitals where our artistic choices are filtered through a rubric of academic requirements. They are often structured with a sort of formula or routine. For example, if you do a quick google search for “voice recital degree requirements,” dozens of similar rubrics pop up. (Here are a few from the University of North Texas and San Francisco Conservatory.)
These sorts of prescriptive recital curricula have strong educational value, ensuring that any student working through a degree program will develop targeted skills. Voice students, for example, will have practiced singing works in different languages, different mediums (e.g. art song, aria, oratorio, etc.), and different historical periods, and this will help in a variety of professional areas where they may later work.
Yet, in spite of their pragmatic design and pedagogical value, our students easily conflate that ticking off these sorts of checkboxes is the essence of what we are meant to do as artists. In fact, these recitals are not an end unto themselves—they are meant to develop our skills so we have the versatility to pursue other far-reaching artistic endeavors!
When I first started curating concerts outside of school, I struggled to make this distinction. I was swept along in the entrenched patterns I trained under, and it was all too easy to keep my head down and just go with the flow—Hey, just tell me where/when the gig is and I’ll be there!—rather than asking if my concerts and artistry were really reaching people in powerful ways.
If we’re not careful, we can easily take for granted the ways in which our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience that may or may not have an intimate knowledge of the musical world we inhabit. Because of this, we not only have a chance to connect to our audiences, but an obligation to help guide their concert experience in meaningful ways. If we don’t embrace this responsibility and challenge, we miss the opportunity to showcase the beauty and relevance of our unique artistic world, or worse, we risk turning people off from it.
Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?
This is one of the toughest artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when we curate a project. It is often easier to follow the steps of a well-defined role—like gigging as a freelancer, enjoying the active musicking of performing in a community choir, or working as an employee in a professional ensemble—than it is to invent or craft our own projects.
But, at other times we do choose to step outside of these defined roles, pursuing projects in which we invest our own time, money, and mental energy. In these cases, what is the driving force? Is it a career boost? Is it a musical opportunity we don’t have elsewhere? Is it part of curatorial duties we fulfill with an ensemble? Is our project centered around an aesthetic idea, or a collection of repertoire and artists? Is the project fulfilling a social or cultural need in the community? Or maybe it’s a combination of these (and other) factors.
Understanding and deeply connecting to your project’s underlying artistic goals can inexorably guide your work. Your belief and passion is the basis around which others will connect to your ideas. Whether your project centers on a social movement, a set of composers, or even a vague artistic notion that you imagine but struggle to articulate in words, your conviction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.
One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), a choreographic rendering of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2006 BAM Next Wave Festival.
View this post on Instagram
Having always danced ‘Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich’ herself, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, for the first time in the work’s history, now passes it on to two new dancers. Premiere next week / 19 September at the @centrepompidou, Paris with the @festivaldautomne Dance: Yuika Hashimoto, Laura Maria Poletti / Laura Bachman, Soa Ratsifandrihana Images: @anne_emma_van_aerschot
For those unfamiliar with Fase (and with early Steve Reich), this setting lasts over 50 minutes, as each of the four Reich scores is played in its entirety. Unlike many of Reich’s later works, these early pieces are extremely limited in their material—repeating a few small musical cells over and over and over, in phasing repetition. Keersmaeker’s choreography is similarly minimal and repetitive, focusing on a few gestures and movements that cycle again and again, closely mirroring the musical architecture in long, unvaried, stretches.
In other words: it’s long, extremely intense, and fairly boring in the sense that it provides very little variety or reprieve. But, for me, it was also nothing short of brilliant and inspiring!
Keersmaeker’s work had such conviction and dedication to its concept. Meanwhile, Keersmaker and Dolven performed with virtuosity, focus, and determination, sweeping me up in the experience, in spite of the fact that it was long and psychologically intense!
This was the type of concert experience that illustrated the visceral power of art and made me want to be a composer. Today, curating my own projects, I try to harness the type of conviction I saw in Fase as I craft projects to try and reach others.
Unfortunately, as much as conviction can positively guide our artistry, a lack of conviction in programming ideas can also detract negatively. Sometimes our programming can be sort of lazy and half-hearted (e.g. going through the motions, checking off the boxes, etc.). At other times, we feel indifferent, making curatorial choices that are sort of random, or which we feel are minimally relevant. Perhaps scariest of all, we can take a nihilistic view that no programing decisions we make will really matter or affect others in a meaningful way.
I can’t force you to be morally optimistic, but I think a lot of us as artists and listeners have experienced moments of powerful personal reflection and transformation at a concert, and these moments seem to fly in the face of artistic pessimism. Whether it is towering sound giving us chills and goosebumps, or the depths of a haunting piece that ravages our emotions, or some unique communal experience we felt while participating together in a live musical event, it often feels like these revelatory moments result from musical conviction, not from coincidence.
In a word, if we ask ourselves, “Why am I even doing this?” and spend some time really thinking about our answer, I suspect it might guide us towards a sense of conviction that will reach others in a powerful way.
Who Does My Project Benefit? Be Honest, Not Guilty.
As artists, it is important to have autonomy and freedom. And, pursuing any kind of curation or concert project takes a lot of work. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing projects that deeply interest us, or that will benefit our career in an obvious way. (After all, we’re the ones putting the work in—writing grants, calling venues, renting equipment, and so on!) Furthermore, many of us see the value of projects oriented towards community or social justice, but are reticent to involve ourselves if we feel the projects won’t meaningfully contribute to our own artistic life and goals.
We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about any of these positions, but we also should be willing to face the music and admit that some projects we pursue primarily benefit ourselves, and some more widely engage with others.
Wrestling with this balance is largely the crux of what Elliot Cole discusses in his article “Questions I Ask Myself.” Cole notes how much of our musical work as contemporary composers is often structured around personal gain and value systems defined by the specialization of our field, rather than being focused on what it provides to communities outside of the field. Cole’s honesty, and his willingness to engage with these questions, are important steps to take in measuring the impact of our artistry. Are we lost in a monotonous flow of formulaic concerts and accepted practices for artistic work? And are we putting too much weight on awards-based paradigms as the main criteria of evaluating artistic work?
In thinking about many of Cole’s specific questions, and about my general query of who our concerts benefit, we might bear in mind two important considerations. First, we should evaluate our artistic efforts and impact according to a broad and long-term view. In a lifetime spent in the arts, we have a chance to pursue certain projects for ourselves, focusing on individual growth, career gain, and other personal considerations, while other initiatives we pursue primarily benefit others as we provide education, access to music, community engagement, and so on.
Second, the purposes and impacts of any one project can be manifold, meaning the event you are investing so much time and effort into can ideally benefit you and others at the same time. In fact, many times we start a project focused on its benefit to our career or artistry, but as it grows, we may find ways for the project to have a wider outward impact.
When Phil Taylor, the Aizuri Quartet, and I began work on the Intricate Machines project, our passion for presenting five powerful, recent, string quartet works guided many decisions. Audiences on our tour connected deeply to our conviction for the music, which had spawned the project in the first place. But the project also evolved over time, and we ended up leading composer guest talks at five different universities, as well as multiple outreach events with the Aizuris coaching teenage and collegiate string musicians. In the end, our project benefited our careers, while also impacting audiences and communities on a wider level.
If you look at your own career (or ensemble or series, etc.) what balance do you strike? Are your projects exclusively career oriented? Or, are you devoting substantial time towards community ventures, but putting your artistic growth on hold as a result? Is there a middleground you can find?
Maybe the core of the amazing artistic project you are pursuing (e.g. a recital, recording, commission, etc.) can stay the same, but you can find additional ways for the project to impact (or be accessed by) communities that might not otherwise experience it. Or, maybe the community project you spend so much time on can start to include repertoire or curation that will simultaneously benefit your career in a direct way.
These ideas and suggestions take time to pursue, and they may not apply to every project. But, when we take extra steps to think deeply about our artistic work, we often improve both the quality of our projects and the scope of their impact.
For me these two central issues—conviction in concert programming (“Why am I doing this?”) and audiences who are potentially impacted (“Who does my project benefit?”)—are an important litmus test. Some groups are striking a great balance in their work, while others, it seems, are hardly taking these issues into consideration.
1. I think others experienced the work in a similar way. John Rockwell, writing for the New York Times remarked, “It is dry, austere and long, the movements inevitably lacking the shimmering resonance of…Mr. Reich’s scores. But in its intensely focused way it’s still a masterpiece.”