Tag: Shi-An Costello

What 4’33” Teaches Us

I would like to begin anecdotally. My primary activity in music, aside from performing, is educating. I teach ferociously, intrepidly, and passionately. I teach 12-month olds, 24-month olds, 3-year olds, 4-year olds, pre-teens, teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, retirees. I teach the mentally challenged, the exceptionally gifted, undergraduate music majors, undergraduates with a hobby in music, pre-collegiate young artists, and all ages under 18 as a glorified babysitter. I teach in classrooms, in lecture halls, in concert halls, in orchestra, choir, and band rooms, in my home, in students’ homes, in public libraries, on the street, in shopping malls, and remotely via Skype or email. I teach in English, in French, in Spanish, and sometimes in two at the same time. I teach piano, guitar, dramatic theater, voice, contemporary music, ear training, sightsinging, theory, harmony and counterpoint; I teach pop music, hip hop, jazz, classical, rock, R&B, boogie woogie, or a bizarre combination of all of the above at the student’s request; I teach friends, friends of friends, colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, lovers, family, strangers; I give career advice, school advice, work advice, relationship advice, marriage advice, family advice, tentative advice, adamant advice, and refuse to give advice at all;  I teach as early as 4 a.m, and as late as 1 a.m.; I teach 12 hours straight, I travel over an hour each way to teach for 30 minutes; I teach by course syllabus, by textbook, by photocopied handouts, by total free improvisation; I teach the hearing impaired solely by visual cues, linguistically impaired solely by ear… These are all the ways I’ve taught and continue to teach—this is a window into the lifestyle and profession of education. It is a living, breathing, shifting shape that transfers thought from one body to another, in real time and in real space. The act of teaching, that is, the dynamic means of transferring knowledge, mimics the shape—a shape that is perhaps unknowable, ungraspable, and unconquerable—of knowledge itself.

This introduction was meant to astound; I begin my discussion in this way because education truly is astounding. Astounded, I will position myself behind the work of Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed I find relevant, profound, and articulate in expressing the need for education in the ongoing struggle for liberation of the unprivileged and oppressed peoples of the world.[1] This form of education takes shape beyond the restrictive nature of a classroom; pedagogy is indeed omnipresent, and potentially omnipotent. Pedagogy as a performative gesture can ignite political action, or embody a campaign for social justice in the good, raw form of the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, if we simply make the effort of acknowledging, receiving, and reinvigorating pedagogy’s potential role.

all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

I will treat John Cage and, in particular, his momentous work 4’33”, which engages the performer(s) of the score to refrain from playing their instrument(s) for the entirety of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, as a pedagogical act. Willful silence, in all its performative manifestations, will be treated as pedagogical as well.

In order to understand the premise of this essay, the reader is required to welcome the assertion that all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and that all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

All performative acts are pedagogical in nature. Paulo Freire transgresses beyond the boundaries of the classroom in his discussion of pedagogy when he begins a chapter with the sentence: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, [emphasis mine] reveals its fundamentally narrative character.” “At any level, inside or outside the school” is an attempt to transgress the classroom—that is, to move against and beyond the boundaries of what we properly view as education.[2]

Art is something even when it is nothing; silence is something. Cage did say, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” but he also said that art is a form of complaint.[3] A complaint is external negativity—an un-externalized complaint is not a complaint at all. The uttering of words or production of bodily sound is what launches a critical thought or gesture into the externalized world, thus giving birth to a complaint. As we will explore deeper through examples, silence can be employed when sound is expected, as well as subverted when one expects silence. Later in the essay, this will be referred to as subverting silence / silently subverting.[4]

4’33” is an externalization, and powerfully so, of a deliberately shared thing, even if that thing happens to be silence, even if that thing happens to be no-thing. The thing, in this context, is a classical music composition, and the willful absence of that thing—the nothing—is 4’33”. Silence in a performance of 4’33” is knowledge willfully shared, willfully externalized; in short, a complaint. Silence, too, is a form of complaint, when conventions expect sound.

Empty frame on the wall

In classical music, silence is a loud complaint against the expectation of sound. Equally so, in a climate that values and expects explication from the artist, to say nothing is a loud, theoretical critique of the desire/need for critical theory that legitimizes one’s own artwork.

In pedagogy, silence can be understood as a fundamental explicative absence. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière acknowledges the role of teacher in conventional classroom education:

In short, the essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds. To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.[5]

What happens when Rancière’s “essential act of the master” disappears? What happens when teachers—that is any individual or group of individuals who transmit knowledge (knowingly or not)—no longer explicate? Can the power of silence debunk the expectation for the (school)master’s explication? If silence and absence are powerful educational tools, what purpose will explication serve? What power structure does the need for explication promote and non-explication silently subvert? As Rancière asks, “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous? Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?”[6]

I will briefly read scripts of silence that have little to say and plenty to teach. The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher. The tenor of these tales is the notion of subverting silence / silently subverting—that is, the subversion of silence when externally imposed, and the use of silence in order to subvert the expectation of sound. These stories breathe new life into the memory of John Cage’s 4’33”, while suggesting relevant pedagogical acts we can learn from today, and use tomorrow.

Democrats (not) in the House

In this particular iteration of silence, the House conducts a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting victims. What is not fascinating is that there was indeed a moment of silence given to the Orlando shooting victims, nor was it fascinating that the House erupted in protest immediately following that silence; what is notable is what Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did and said about the event, and why they were not there for it.

Announcing his boycott of the moment of silence the day before, Jim Himes contemned “silence. That is how the leadership of the most powerful country in the world will respond to this week’s massacre of its citizens […] Silence. Not me. Not anymore. I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity, and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed.” Nancy Pelosi offered her view, “The fact is that a moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that. But it is not a license to do nothing.” By refusing to be silent, Himes and Pelosi create a vocal opposition; by creating absence where presence is expected, Himes and Pelosi become more performatively present than anyone else in the House.

“[A moment of silence] is not a license to do nothing” is an intriguing statement that illuminates the complexity of silence, subversion, and their dynamic pedagogical possibilities.

Moment of “Silence”

A common Black Lives Matter protest is 4.5 minutes of silence, to represent the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street following his murder. The moment of silence is not what is fascinating here—these moments of silence for Michael Brown were held throughout the country. What is fascinating is how Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, and her fellow BLM activists use vocal dissent to coerce their way onto the stage and onto the microphone, only to again subvert expectation with silence. When obedience to the scheduled speaker (Bernie Sanders) was expected of them, they were most vocal. Once in control of the microphone and expected to speak, they employed silence. These events express their progression from subverting silence to silently subverting, using both presence and absence through their presence, and playing the role of non-explicative schoolmasters.

A meaningful use of breaking silence is shown in the privileged protest of anonymous hecklers. This is an iteration of 4’33” that perhaps Cage could have conceived of in his lifetime. Cage’s 4’33” originally subverted the establishment (at the time, Eurocentric, academic, classical music composition), while here at a 2015 rally, BLM Seattle’s 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence was a subversive act against the will of the audience. It was met by hecklers that represent establishment’s response to being subverted upon, a complaint upon a complaint, art upon art. Would Cage welcome this? Here, he claims that he would simply listen to some rude bodily noise, so perhaps the answer is yes. A year ago on my blog, I was moved to transcribe the unintentional participatory performance from this particular camera perspective, in honor of John Cage and in solidarity with BLM.

The Silver Tongued Poet Exercises His Right To Remain Silent

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, it is more than appropriate to look back upon his legacy as a teacher through the willful silencing of his Black voice, specifically his trip to Houston, Texas, on April 28, 1967 (14 years after the premiere of 4’33”). Ali did not have to take this trip. After receiving a letter from the U.S. Army, Ali could have simply filed as a conscientious objector like many others silently did, but instead, he used his celebrity to stage an important and unforgettable lesson. Ali flew from Chicago to Houston, took all physical and mental examinations, was tormented by doctors and army personnel, only to remain silent and motionless when his name was called. His name was called many times as “Cassius Clay,” and once, finally, in desperation, as “Muhammad Ali.” Each time, Ali did not respond. Ali, a man with the most agile of bodies, remained motionless. Ali, a man with the quickest, sharpest, and most eloquent of tongues, remained silent. In that moment, his pedagogical practice transgressed words and movement, and the oppressors’ expectations of them.[7]

Me in Middle School

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

education, elementary school, learning and people

I’ve thought a lot about that day. I thought about the willful silence on my part as the (school)master as my authority was subverted on a more and more profound level with each passing movement. I thought about the willful subversion of silence on the part of the classroom, despite their unanimous desire to take the challenge of remaining silent. And finally, I thought about $35,100—the cost of yearly tuition at that school. I thought about what these kids must have thought and felt when they laughed, talked, and threw objects across the room, during a moment we collectively agreed upon as “silence.” I wonder if some day, perhaps much much later from now, they and I will find clarity in this silent lesson. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we, as a classroom, already do understand the lesson as best we can. When the lesson willfully explicates nothing, is there anything up for regurgitation—the classical evidence of having learned? Like any performance of 4’33”, perhaps it is only the feeling and the experience itself that we can walk away with. Perhaps there is nothing to say, and I am saying it, as an educator, as a thinker, as an artist.

This sentence was written as I prepare in Chicago for the longest day of the year, and I can’t help but notice how much darkness looms around me: personally, two friends’ parents have suddenly died; citywide, a scandal erupts in the theater community by the way of misogyny and abuse; statewide, a debilitating standoff is occurring on the state budget level; and nationally, an armed civilian killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. And another more banal, neutral—yet essential—piece of news: another school year has come to a close. This is all floating in the air as these words fall upon the page.

A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

Reflecting on pedagogy, as well as current events, it is perhaps now more than ever that we need a pedagogy that is simple, direct, and a fundamentally positive influence upon society. We need a pedagogy that uproots cowardice, questions authority, and subverts the angry, oppressive, harmful acts of the privileged classes in the oligarchical role they/we currently enjoy.[8] We need a new pedagogy that responds alongside the boundless dynamism of political struggles in wealth, race, gender, and sexuality, yet endeavors to liberate the circumscribed dynamism of power, currently—and wrongfully—defined by haves and have-nots.[9] Just as 4’33” incited negative reactions from its first audiences, truly liberatory education incites resentment and anger from many of those who already enjoy full liberty. A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

I believe this pedagogy can often manifest in silence, whether it is the silent subverting of the expectation of sound, or the subverting of silence itself by creating sound when it is not desired by an oppressor/oppressive force. Learning from 4’33” as a musician, performing silence can liberate or oppress, assuage or provoke, subvert or comply—education can do all of these things too. 4’33” mimics the unknowable, ungraspable, unconquerable shifting shape of knowledge itself. Whether Cage originally meant it in this way or not, 4’33” is an open invitation to critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act.

Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Dedicated to the music of living composers, Andy Costello’s solo repertoire champions works by living composers all over the world. He is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago, and he previously served as a visiting artist for the composition department at The Boston Conservatory and as a guest artist at Time Forms / Formes Temporelles, Columbia College Chicago, Laboratoire de Musique Contemporaine de Montréal, and Scotia Chamber Music Festival.

In Spring 2014, Andy founded the Morton Feldman Chamber Players (MFCP), a non-profit organization devoted to programming the solo and chamber works of Morton Feldman in the United States and Canada. Based in Chicago, MFCP has been partnered with the Experimental Sound Studio and Iarca Gallery since the Fall of 2014.

1. The related authors and books of the type of pedagogical theory I’m particularly interested in, arguing for the liberation for the oppressed, include Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

2. I am particularly drawn to bell hooks’s definition of transgression in her work Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom: “With these essays, I add my voice to the collective call for renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices. Urging all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”

3. The statement “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” is from page 109 of Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. The notion of art as complaint comes to Cage, as far as I can tell, from Jasper Johns, whom Cage quotes as saying, “all art is either a complaint or an appeasement.” Subsequently, Cage writes a mesostic on the subject, “art is either a complaint or do something else.”

4. The baggage behind the word subversion is deep and complicated. Ali mentions on page 177 of his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story that he was on a list of “undesirable subversives” by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The context, however, was amidst an experience with a college student, where the college student, in a particularly touching experience, encouraged Ali warmly: “See, you’re number one on the list.” (Though the list was simply in alphabetical order, as Ali noticed.) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that to the oppressor, “the pursuit of full humanity” is identified as subversion, and labeling someone a subversive is a denial of the basic need of the oppressed to achieve full human potential: “Humanity is a ‘thing,’ and they possess it as an exclusive right, as inherited property. To the oppressor consciousness, the humanization of the ‘others,’ of the people, appears not as the pur­suit of full humanity, but as subversion.”

5. Quote found on page 3 in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

6. Quote found on page 4 of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

7. A chapter in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body by Harvey Young deals brilliantly with the stillness and silence of Muhammad Ali in this particular event in Houston.

8. I say “they/we” to described the privileged class because I feel that I belong to this class at times, and at other times, I do not.

9. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledges oppressors for their “strictly materialistic concept of existence. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘haves.’” On use of the word “power,” I do believe power has potential to be a liberatory word, but when defined in terms of to be is to have, it is a destructive notion for society.

Music and The Number Four

The number 4

The Number Four in a gray cloud.

This article is about The Number Four—the conclusion to a three-part message.
That’s right—my message had only three parts—Place, The Body, and The Heart.
Music and Place is about place, Music and The Body is about the body, and Music and The Heart is about the heart.  Each article progresses.
These articles are a progression inasmuch as form is visible.
The first article, Music and Place, ended with the line, “…finds form, loses it, finds form, loses it…”  Each article found its form then lost it, found its form, then lost it…  When form is lost, progression is broken.  One can still progress, if the finding and breaking of form becomes the progression.
The three previous articles’ ability to take shape is highly contingent upon how you see clouds.  Do you see black-and-white?  Do you see gray? Do you only see silver lining? Are you color blind like me?

A group of three neatly present a beginning, middle and end.  The first was an introduction, the second had plenty of meat, and the third tried to make sense of it all.

But what do you do with Four?  Two beginnings? Two middles? Two ends?  All we can be sure of is a beginning.
Here in The Number Four, my form is finally lost, not to be re-found.
Nevertheless, I will try.  Here are a few new beginnings:
How do you define locality when you nebulously float from one place to the next?
How do you embody in-the-moment magic?
How does one take form while staying true to the heart?

I think this Number Four is an ending to three beginnings, and three new beginnings to one ending.
The ultimate is always the least formed, the most becoming.
I have poured a great deal of energy into the way I write about music, as I have similarly done for the way I compose and play music itself.  As these writing choices come to focus here at the NewMusicBox, I am discovering that it is not so much a matter of finding (or re-finding) the right note, the right chord, the right word.  Rather, a note, a chord, a word, then another, then another, until you are out of space.
I’m afraid I’m almost out of space.  And i

n the first article I wrote, “I’m afraid it has begun.”

Writing is scary.

Although I’m almost out of space, I will say this: For both musical and literary composition, the work will shine through if it is deeply meaningful to the author or performer.  I hope it is clear that this is all deeply meaningful to me.

And, I’ll say yet one more thing:  I’ve thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to contribute to NewMusicBox for the month of May.  I hope my words have meant something to my fellow musicians and music appreciators here in the U.S.  I’ve had such a pleasure sharing my thoughts with you, and am thankful for the personal growth this process has afforded me.  Special thanks to the editors, writers, and readers of NMBx that keep this platform dynamic and relevant.

Music and The Heart

Heart w staff paper

My Heart on staff paper

I drafted this from the ground, on a bus between Chicago and New York.
The Body is what I meditated on last week.  This time, I will hone in on an even more centered topic: The Heart.
In Sports et divertissements, Erik Satie writes:

C’est mon cœur qui se balance ainsi.
Il n’a pas le vertige.
Comme il a des petits pieds.
Voudra-t-il revenir dans ma poitrine?

The last line poses the question, “Will it [The Heart] want to return to my chest?”  What a bizarre image—a heart with little feet that plays on a swing, and you wonder if it will return home.

This is one of my favorite poems and pieces of music.  I don’t really know why. I sure wish my heart would explain itself.

The heart is often characterized through disembodiment.  It’s as if your heart is a separate creature you interact with in the exterior world. Follow your heart. Listen to your heart.  Wear your heart on your sleeve.
Imagine a thing that has little feet, talks to you, plays on a swing, clings to your arm, and leads you forward. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Your Heart.

Why do we think it gross when The Heart is ripped from us?  The images from Mortal Kombat and Indiana Jones movies have saturated my childhood, but I do not remember them as particularly grotesque. Disheartening perhaps, but nothing more.  Ha ha.
I apologize for writing too friskily.  My Heart hops about, outside of my body’s jurisdiction.  Writing comes from The Heart—my pen is merely its translator.

My Heart has a Mind of its own.  My Heart has a Heart of its own.  My Heart has a Heart, a Mind, Little Feet, and a Swing.  Once My Heart is on The Swing, His Feet are useless.  Progression means nothing to My Heart when he plays on The Swing—each step forward is a swing back, and each step back, a swing forward.  The Swing perpetually effaces clarity of advancement, and undoes its own direction with opposing force.  My Heart is only along for the ride.

Playing on a swing and abandoning the feet of logical progression is not so bad after all.  There is something blissful and liberating about following the Heart, wholeheartedly.
Ha ha.

To play on a swing, you must sacrifice your feet, the tools for Progress and Order.  So here’s a big question: How does one generate Progress and Order on a playground swing?

Unfortunately for readers who may be interested in form or progression, I believe this is an occasion where my Heart is playing on the Swing.  He has run away with the show.

Although The Heart has seemed to run away with this particular article, this is still about Music and The Heart.  So here goes it: The Heart does not care about the Music you have prepared for him to grasp.  Music is already difficult to grasp through the Mind and Body; why would it be any different for The Heart?  The Heart does not care about music with a capital M.  The Heart prefers to swing to his own beat.

Heart w/o staff paper

My Heart, not on staff paper

The short piece from Satie’s Sports et divertissements is entitled “La Balançoire” (“The Swing”). The focus is not the Heart, nor the Body, but The Swing.  The Swing itself is what sways us.  The relationship of the Heart to The Swing is the same as the Body to the Heart.

Does my Heart have a plan for this article?  Absolutely not.  Does The Swing have a master plan?  No.  If I am a musician, does that make my Heart a musician too?  Not even.  As stated in the first article, I am a musician, therefore what I say is musical.  My Heart, however, does not follow these same rules.  He is disembodied from me and from Music, giving orders from afar.  And we are along for the ride.
My bodily plans as a musician try to take into account the playground antics of my Heart.  But still, no matter how hard I try to create Progress and Order, my Heart will occasionally swing unexpectedly fast, unexpectedly slow, or not at all.
So back to the big question: How does one generate Progress and Order on a playground swing?

In its original French, Satie uses the verb “se balancer” which literally means “to balance oneself.” His heart does not “play” on the swing, nor does it merely “swing” on the swing, rather, it balances itself.
Playground Swings are a balancing act.

As a musician in the U.S., I am blessed with a wonderful freedom to create and express.   In music, I often feel like the embodiment of my Heart—in a playground of delightful activity.  But if I’m not careful, I can easily suffer from vertigo.  The swing is the carrier of this said vertigo, and it happens to be where my Heart loves to play. Like a proud and patient parent, I stand at the edge of the playground, planted on my other two feet, supervising as best I can a mysterious, disembodied Self.

Music and The Body

Costello performing Aperghis in Montréal

Costello performing Aperghis in Montréal, January of 2013. Photo by Fredrik Gran.

Take a deep breath in.  Breathe out.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been given these directions in a musical score.

It’s a reminder.  It’s the composer’s way of saying, “Don’t forget, my friend, you are a body.”

People should start saying, instead of “I want to be somebody,” simply, “I want to be a body.”

I think embodiment is profoundly important to music.  One of the seminal books to my artistic practice was David Borgo’s writing on embodiment in Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age.  He speaks of the “embodied mind”—this notion nearly drove me into the field of musicology, and away from the realm of performance.  I was ready to give up embodiment in practice for embodiment through the mind.  A demented notion, I know.

Although I’m sure I would be happy either way, I’m thrilled that instrumental performance is my primary professional activity.
I began serious piano study as a practical necessity—and in a sense, a rite of passage—to becoming a composer.  Most music schools, even if you intended to major in something else, required an entrance audition on an instrument.

In undergrad, I quickly realized that I cared more for doers than for thinkers.  Thought is beautiful and powerful, but only in its implicit relationship to action.  I believed (and still do) that written and spoken thought is only re-actionary, and can never usurp the action to which it refers. To pay tribute to the late, brilliant Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, “Lo único mejor que la música es hablar de música.” (“The only thing better than music is to talk about music.”) I couldn’t disagree more with this sentiment.

These are the terms under which I have become involved in theatrical repertoire on the contemporary music scene.  I have become a self-proclaimed “speaking pianist”—a pianist who, in addition to playing the instrument, recites text and embodies characters at the piano—and have commissioned and performed works for the body and voice, even, at times, entirely away from the piano.

(This is not to say that I am the only “oddball” on this front—and far from the best!—as contemporary music in the U.S. can only be characterized by exceptions to the rule.  Notables in this arena that come to mind are the NYC-based collective ThingNY and Aiyun Huang in Montréal.)

In recital, I find myself wanting to speak off-the-cuff to the audience.  To me, the entire tradition of an untouchable, superhuman performer is antiquated.  As soon as I take that initial bow to that willing, clapping, smiling audience, I think to myself, “I owe at least this to them—to present myself as a person.”

What does this have to do with The Body? The body, and the use of it, in this particular setting, is the only way to dismantle those lofty ideals of immortality created by superhuman virtuosity.  The body is our reminder—to both performer and audience alike—of mortality.

I play arguably the easiest musical instrument upon which to produce complex sound—the piano.  Packed with centuries of innovation, the modern concert grand is the Frankenstein of the concert hall; it is a cumulative technological invention of which to be very proud.  Kudos to those working hard there.

However, this technician’s pride should never override our will to seek out the instrument’s visceral qualities.  The ghost in the machine is not a ghost at all—rather, a living, breathing, speaking, moving person.

Superhuman strength is a man-made creation—a form of machinery.

As a speaking pianist, I have, on several occasions, turned 90 degrees to the right, to face the audience directly.  I am always thrilled by this moment.  The action swiftly effaces my noble pianist profile—the Romantic façade of a hero.  No longer is one staring at another, but rather, we are now looking at one other.  I occasionally see sheepishness in the faces (does that make me a shepherd?), exhibiting an awkwardness you may feel when your eyes accidentally meet those of a stranger you had been watching without their knowledge.

The most fundamental aspect of classical music performance practice is voyeurism.  The audience may stare upon the performer, and the performer must act as if they are unaware, looking either at their instrument, at their sheet music, at the conductor, at other instrumentalists, or the least-but-still-acceptable choice, playing with their eyes closed—essentially, anything but the eyes of the audience. Turning to the audience changes everything—it shifts the experience from voyeuristic to collaborative. And what a glorious shift that is.

Nobuyuki Tsujii

Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
(Credit: Wikipedia, Wikicommons)

Let me shift your attention to Nobuyuki Tsuji, the 2009 Gold Medalist of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  A blind musician, Tsujii often “looks” directly to the audience, as if reaching out in a deeply vulnerable way.  The theatrical effect is quite tangible in his performance of Chopin’s Berceuse.

An audience can be nothing but voyeuristic when watching Tsujii perform.  His condition awarded him the ability to look wherever he pleases without reprimand.
For me, I go to live concerts to directly interact.  If I feel like not interacting with other bodies, I’ll stay at home and listen to a recording.  (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that either.)  The use of the body in a concert setting offers an accessible and dynamic alternative to the long-standing performer-as-deity ideal.  I’m not interested in watching a superhuman compete in a human challenge.  No one likes a rigged game.


The most outstanding theatrical performances are those that embody, not those that transcend.  In theatre, super-human actors are useless.  What makes them any more valuable in music?  The purest musical virtuosity convinces us that even the most physically transcendent feats are commonplace and human.  The etymology of “virtuoso” suggests excellence and mastery, not deification.  Descriptors like “god-like” and “superhuman” are hyperbolic.

The in-the-moment magic is what I crave as a spectator, not the aforementioned descriptors.  As performers, we should do our best to preserve that aspect, and to preserve it virtuosically.   The Body—and with it, the visual, the theatrical, and the voice—is essential to my artistic practice as a musician.  The Body is all we’ve got and embodiment is all we can do, and no composition or performance in the world can transcend this.

Join me next week as I write to you a third time, using body parts to discuss body parts: Music and The Heart.

Music and Place

I began drafting this as I flew in the air between Boston and Chicago.
What a nice thought that is.  This was written from neither here nor there.  The air between Place One and Place Two is the locality in itself.  To be in One, the Other, Both, Neither.  What a nice thought.

We tend to deal, especially in discourse, in duality.  But perhaps that’s not the way to go.
There is no “yin,” no “yang.”  Just a conglomerate “yyianngg.”  If black-and-white and white-and-black are fused, then what color are we left with? Gray?

Music and Place

Yin yang = yyianngg?

This gray area is the area I occupy, in the air between one home and another, one residence and another, one affiliation, one identity, one tax code, and another.  This is also the color and area I occupy as a discourse-eur in music.  Gray, gray, gray.  In the air and gray.

As the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould once said, “For every silver lining, there is a cloud.”  There’s nothing wrong with clouds—they’re really quite wonderful things.

So, as we speak, I’m watching the identity of a cloud lose its form, its very nature.  Even a cloud can grow further nebulous.  Even the obscure obscures further still.

Am I nebulous to you? Every sentence felt sunny and crisp to write.  So how is it I am not clear? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says it well: “Le langage est source de malentendus.” (“Language is the source of misunderstanding.”)  Misunderstanding starts with language, and I’m afraid it has begun.

A cloudy sky

A cloudy sky in my hometown of Chicago, in the neighborhood where I grew up.

So, here I am, in the air, in the midst of an ever-more-obscure, wet, rainy cloud, writing to you about Music and Place.  What is the music in what I say?  I am a musician, and that is the music in what I say. I write to you as a musician, in a musical way, and so music, music, music, is in what I say.

This is about Music and Place as much as Gray is about Black and White.
My personal history tells me Place is disappearing.  I am half Irish and half Chinese.  I speak neither Chinese nor Gaelic, and I have never been to Ireland or China.  I must wonder: What makes me a part of a culture—the sound of my name, my lingual abilities, the shape of my eyes? All seem like convoluted tools of measurement.  Yet they are the tools we use at the borders of our countries.  They are the tools we use to grant or refuse residency or citizenship.

Same goes for our locally subsidized arts agencies.  Grant eligibility requirements trace along those same cultural borders.  For every gray cloud, there is a Black-and-White lining.
If I was offered Irish and Chinese citizenship today, I would not accept, not for personal reasons, but rather, out of disrespect for the nationalistic platform of the offer.  What right do I have to Chinese or Irish government funds?

I have a friend who learned to play certain tuplets in Holland, and so he counts them in Dutch.
I learned harmony from a Russian teacher with a textbook in Russian.
I matured as a musician in the anomalous, bilingual city of Montréal.
I have been deeply moved by musicians from all over the world.
Perhaps the Irish and Chinese ought to subsidize my endeavors.

It seems there are two ways to negotiate our complex, diverse, and global web of music-making: Either jockey the heck out of everything, as if it is all free gain, or retreat to the rooted, familial plane, and herd with your local community.
A long while back, I wrote a post on my blog entitled “Light enough to be swayed, deep enough to be rooted.” These words take new meaning here.  Locality, as a musician in the U.S., is exactly this.  Like a pianist playing counterpoint, the opposites must be balanced—a harmonious inner locality must find resolution in oneself.  I read once in a composer biography that one builds a home wherever one may happen to be, not in the place, but in the music itself.  (I can’t remember from which composer’s biography I read it—does its location really matter?); I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.  I float around my own atmosphere—my home in music—neither here nor there, from neither here nor there, in a colorful, gray cloud that finds form, loses it, finds form, loses it…


Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Andy Costello is a concert pianist, composer, writer of words, and reciter of texts. He was a visiting artist with the Boston Conservatory for 2013-2014, and is the founding pianist and director of the newly formed Morton Feldman Chamber Players. Costello frequently performs in Montreal, Chicago, New York, and Boston. He currently lives in Chicago, working as a freelance accompanist and piano teacher.