An ordinary person's thoughts on the complexities of art & life ...

An ordinary person's thoughts on the complexities of life ... or just ramblings from the mind of a working Mum with far too little time to think!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why music matters

When this extract from a talk by Dr Karl Paulnack, Pianist and Director of Music at Boston Conservatory, showed up once again in my inbox this morning - sent to me by one of my overseas colleagues - I felt I needed to share it on my blog. It is part of his welcome address given to parents of new students at the Boston Conservatory in 2009. With all the devastation and heartache already experienced by so many in this still very new year, it is a worthwhile and inspirational read, even if you are reading it for the second time ...

“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” 

On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.  At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship bet ween invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during Worl d War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70′s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece. When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”
Thank you to Dr Karl Paulnack.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taking Stock

I have always been a minimalist by nature, and as such I find it extremely difficult to tolerate clutter in our home, so much so that I regularly sort through our many cupboards and shelves to clean out the unneeded and pass them onto to where they will be more useful - with the exception of books that is, of which we have far too many to count!

Over the past few days I have gone through our home for items of clothing, toys, linen and other essentials that we can donate to help the hundreds of families that have lost all in the devastating floods that have swept through our state, and this week, our city.

I am embarrassed at how easy it was to collect 12 large bags of good clothes, shoes, towels and bedding that we are able to give away without even trying, and I cannot believe just how much my three girls still have in their cupboards that they quite probably will never use! Enough for me to go through everything a second, and indeed a third time, which I aim to do this week! 

Though I pride myself on not being a hoarder and have always been somewhat obsessive about cleaning out, it was a shock to realise that we have somehow collected so much more than we could ever need. And this applies to all areas of my life, including my photographic work.

As our fine art photography business has grown, I have come to realise that I need to find a better system of storing and easily retrieving the huge number of digital images I have amassed.

I have so many folders of raw originals and copies of the adjusted originals that I have shot over the past few years, that unless it is a current image, it is difficult to find anything in less than an hour. And, as I found out more recently, sometimes it can take me all day to find a series of images that a client has requested!

I know I badly need to ‘spring-clean’ and heavily cull the number of images as there is no way I need to keep all of these files.  And the first step in this elimination process needs to happen when I download the images from my camera, before I process the raw files.

But, how does one go about it? Each time I try, I manage to discard only a few before I start seeing reasons as to why I should keep each and every image.

When we start taking photos, it is so easy to delete those images we are unhappy with.  And as we improve as photographers, we should in theory become more ruthless with our image assessment because we are more able to recognise the flaws in our photographs. 

However, the problem is that as we become more professional we are able to make most of those assessments about exposure, light, composition and focus before we take the shot.  We know right then whether it will be a good image, and if it is not, we don’t take it.

I don't do any post-processing of my images apart from converting the raw files and tweaking the exposure and contrast levels. I set everything up by eye and may take only one or two shots of the subject if I am happy with what is in my frame before I move on. 

As I shoot almost exclusively hand-held, if there is alot of wind and I am shooting with a slow lens, I will take a few images to ensure that one will be sharp.

Upon downloading, if I am unhappy with the focus of an image I will discard it, but usually if I am happy with the composition, the light and the focus when I press the shutter, I know I will be happy with what I download onto my computer later.  
And if I don’t discard the image at the downloading stage, I am unlikely to press the delete key at a later stage.

It is this emotional connection to my images that makes it so difficult to judge their value. And the value of an image is entirely different depending upon who is viewing it!

My on-line gallery is a prime example. Many times I have resolved to revamp the gallery and remove many of the older images. Then a sale comes through for one of those images that I would have removed and I decide to leave it as it is.  However, I keep adding new images and my gallery becomes more difficult to navigate and less focused.

My husband - whose somewhat ruthless opinions on editing I stubbornly resist, but ultimately do trust - believes that only the truly outstanding images should see the light of day. He would probably discard a good half of my gallery if given the chance!

I know he is right ...  
Perhaps as fine art photographers in business, we subconsciously try to cater to everyone’s tastes so that our work has the best chance of appearing on as many walls as possible.

Instead, we have to develop a more critical and ruthlessly objective approach to our own work at every stage, a very difficult step for most of us, but ultimately one that will set us apart from the millions of digital photographers out there.

All images published on Extraordinary Light are available for purchase as greeting cards, matted prints, framed prints, posters, canvases and large wall art, including those not available in our on-line gallery (soon to be revamped!) 
To enquire about images not available in the gallery, please contact Tania.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Surfs up!

It is mid-summer here in Brisbane and last Sunday was the first sun-filled day we have seen for the past few weeks. Australia, ever the land of contrasts, is currently either flooding or burning, with half of the country being ravaged by floods and the other half battling high temperatures and raging bushfires.

Last Sunday at Broadbeach, close to Surfer’s Paradise on the beautiful Gold Coast of Queensland, it was a magnificent day, made all the more so by the preceding weeks of unrelenting rain!

The skies were a brilliant blue, the sun was shining, the temperature was up in the 30’s, the humidity was high and it seemed that everyone had headed for the beach!

Children frolicked in the shallows shouting and laughing, running from the waves, digging in the wet sand, their watchful parents within easy reach to pluck them out of the way of an errant wave or runaway surfboard.

Eager surfers hauled their boards through the crowd of swimmers into the deeper waters where the rip was fierce but the surf was good.

Seagulls flew overhead, backwards and forwards, adding their urgent voices to the wondrous symphony of the sea.

The iconic Surf Lifesavers were out in full force, their distinctive red and yellow flags, surfboards, buggies and rubber dinghys in pride of place all along the beachfront.

These trained volunteer lifesavers keep Australia’s many swimming and surfing beaches safe every summer by providing beach patrols and first aid services, and just the sight of their red caps and yellow shirts makes everyone feel a whole lot safer.

Later that afternoon the walkers arrived, seeming to emerge from the sea-mist that settled down over the ocean and diffused the late afternoon sun.

To say that we humans are obsessed by the sea and the beach is a gigantic understatement! We have had the sea in our blood forever and it is part of who we are.

Seen from above, the earth is almost totally blue – a vast world of oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and streams.
In Australia, most of our population lives close to the coasts and interaction with the three oceans on our borders has long occupied a special place in our identity.

It calms us, it relaxes us, it invigorates us, it inspires us. We feel the tug of the sea's power right from the moment we glimpse its blue edges from afar, making our hearts beat faster with the anticipation of breathing in the salty air and feeling the soft, white sand between our toes.

We want to hold on to the ocean in our hands and sink down into it, absorbing it into our souls.

We want to stroll along its edge and feel the warm breeze caressing our skin and breathing salt into our pores.

We want to feel the smooth, velvety, water-laden sand give way under our feet and the gentle waves lapping at our ankles as we walk in the shallows.

We want to experience over and over again the power of the waves as they bear us up onto the crest as if we were weightless, only to dump us over the other side to come up spluttering but deliriously happy and ready for the next one!

We want to breathe it in and keep it with us for the rest of the week ... or year, until we can get back again.

And we return to the ocean ... time and time again ... throughout our lives, never being able to get enough of it, and always dreaming of the time when we will be able to live right on its shores.

Until then, we live for the holidays, or for those of us who are lucky enough to live close by, for that next day trip to the beach when we can again spend time within the ocean’s mesmerizing embrace.