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

As this fraught election season draws to close, Chris Rountree considers the roles of vulnerability, struggle, and failure in art–the moments in which we are forced to deal with something that we don’t want to deal with and the powerful messages we can draw from that space.

Written By

Christopher Rountree

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.