Thursday, April 16, 2009

Improv or Improve

There is a chance that I am becoming less mature artistically and intellectually. Then again there is a chance I am not, which is something that actually concerns me. I am not a religious person, but I do think that as we grow old we need to put away childish ways etc. Well, I am not here talking so much about my many childish ways (love of ice cream, toys, sci-fi, fast cars etc, all of which I don’t see a problem with) but rather the way I view process in art. When I was 21 years old I directed my first play, and went on to direct 10 or so others over the next few years. When I first started directing, I was just out of acting school, and had experienced some self transforming exercising in improvisation, which had changed my world view, as much as my acting(which by the way never got very good). These exercises were so powerful to me, that as a director, I would bring them into rehearsal. In fact for those first few plays, much of rehearsal was spent doing some intense improvisation. I had great actors, who never complained, and worked very hard on this. Unfortunately it left too little time to actually work on the mechanics of the play, and the result was not so good. It wasn’t long before I discovered that professional play directing was better off when you leave this kind of exploration to the actors, and instead focus on staging the most effective production possible. I don’t direct now, but if I were to, I would continue to stage the play, talk to the actors about character, but certainly not mess around with improv.
Now, 10 years later, I am performing and putting out recordings of completely improv’d free jazz music, and feeling the same emotional spirit that drove my work as a young acting student and director. So, the natural thing is to ask myself, “is this a phase in discovering something, but not the product?” I wonder how I got to this point, and realize that the cliché that life is the voyage and not a destination, is actually true, and applies where music and science are concerned.
I read many biographies and memoirs of people I respect. Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, Moss Hart, Richard Feynman, The Dali Lama, Einstein etc, and one thing is fairly common, and that is that most of them spent most of the time not working on a final product, but instead on the process. Strangely this process became a product, or revelation. Einstein dreaming of riding on a beam of light became the theory of relativity. They were often lucky to have time to play with process. It is so prevalent that I would almost say that discoveries and beautiful art only come from the type of contemplation and experimentation that could never be done in a controlled atmosphere of trying to “get the product up”. This must not be true (as major corporations innovate all of the time, on a schedule, and occasionally good plays and pop albums are also made), but it has convinced me that the process is worth it. The question remains is it worth it enough to make it the end product itself. Though I am not sure, my guess is that Da Vinci’s notebooks will be read for even more centuries than they already have been. That the Picasso, and the Renoir studies and sketches will continue to be valued by collectors. Perhaps discoveries will still be made from the late night scribbling of philosophers and scientists, or even obscure blog entries. Either way, I am going back to my youth and practicing my way through performances and experiments, in order to find something unique, about myself and the art and science I am exploring.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anticipating Music

There are two schools of thought as far as musical appreciation goes, and I am completely conflicted about which I believe. When I was in high school, my choir teacher (and still one of my closest friends, Mrs. Meinecke) was more than just a director of our small, but very dedicated choir. She was an educator in the best sense of the word. She is single handedly responsible for some of the greatest loves of my life; opera, symphonies, ballets, theatre and even history, politics and literature (also Italian wines, and osso bucco). Amazing woman. One of the ways she did this was to expose us to music, in order that we took ownership of our feelings for this art, rather than be intimidated by it. This was especially true where opera was concerned. She took us to see Verdi’s “Aida”, but only after we had studied the libretto, and listened to the score. When we actually went and saw the amazing spectacle, and the live experience, it was something we were partly familiar with, and therefore at home with. History has shown that for complicated art forms this tends to be the case. The first performance of the Ballet Russe production of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, famously premiered in 1913 in Paris, as not only one of the biggest scandals in ballet history, but one which actually caused riots in the theatre. Dancers supposedly could not even hear the orchestra over the boos and screams. Though this could have been written off as a bad work of art that audiences just hated, one year later the same piece was performed at the same theatre, by the same company, but this time to raves and applause. “Rite of Spring” is generally recognized to this day as the most important classical composition of the 20th century. How this came to be viewed so differently in one year is something that neuroscientist, popular writers and musicologists have been trying to understand. Jonah Lehrer has a chapter in his excellent book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”, dedicated to this. The outcome confirms that knowledge brings comfort, and eventually appreciation, just as Mrs. Meinecke would have predicted. So, in general I try to listen to an opera before I go to see it.

All of this said, I am changing my mind about this. In truth, most people you ask would say they would have rather been at that first production of “Rite of Spring” and not the one the following year. To be the first to hear something shocking and revolutionary is a moment that we would all like to be a part of. There is also the moment to moment discovery, which unravels itself like a mystery. Why is it that we don’t want to know how a television show or movie ends, but we are happy to know how an opera ends? Jazz is a great passion of mine, because of its complete unpredictability. For me, the more improvisation in a jazz concert, that better the experience is, as I feel that I experienced something organic and original. In opera I have also had this experience. I saw John Adams “Doctor Atomic” at the Met, and had never heard the score before and was blown away by it. (no pun intended) That can likely be explained away, as I did know the story of the making of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, and how the whole mess turned out.

Tonight Marine and I went to see Mascani’s “Cavaleria Rusticana” at the Met. Though there is a chance I had heard this music before, I had never read the libretto, and never studied the piece, having only heard some history of how the composer won a competition at the age of 25. But, I like this period of Italian Opera, (and it is the Met, which I try to go to whenever possible, with the exception of sitting through another production of Don Giovanni) so we went. I was again more moved by the piece than I could have possible expected, which made me wonder if I would have liked it better had I studied it, or as I saw it.

These questions are looming large for me, as I have a young daughter who I am trying to introduce to music. My feeling is that Mrs. Meinecke was essentially correct. My little girl tends to get even more excited about hearing music she already knows. Still, is there a time and place to throw yourself (or your little girl) into the chaos of the unknown, in the hopes of truly discovering something new.