Earnestness, honesty, and Appalachian Spring

I spent the last couple of weeks following my favorite band (Ride) on tour through 8 shows in the UK and US. Anyone that has done this can tell you that far from being the same show every night, each show had a distinctly different vibe to it (at least in my opinion). Yes, many of the songs were the same, but there’s no such thing as two shows that are exactly the same. There was one show in particular that was full of so much frisson that I was convinced the band must have been arguing backstage before the concert! But for the most part, the concerts were full of joy and camaraderie, both from the band and from the audience. It was genuinely moving to see the energy flowing back and forth between those on stage and those in the hall – seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t attend live concerts, you’re missing out on something special!

I had a short chat with one of the band members after one of the shows. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing more about my work as a classical musician, and asked me some rather deep questions. The one that stuck in my mind most was the question of what I would play just for my own pleasure, without considering the obligation of upcoming gigs or things like that. I knew as a songwriter, he was approaching this question from his own perspective as a creator, and though I can’t know for sure, I am guessing that he generally feels more motivated to play his own songs and write original work versus doing covers. My perspective as a performer is pretty different, though.

Classical musicians (and actors, and dancers) occupy a strange role in that we are the conduit for someone else’s work. If you are a rock musician and you write a song, you generally perform it yourself. You are the primary source, and the listener can hear it directly from you (or through your records). If you are a sculptor or a painter, the public can see your vision directly as it comes from you. However, if you are a choreographer and you are envisioning a ballet, there’s no way you can perform the role of all the dancers yourself. If you are a composer writing a string quartet, or a percussion ensemble piece, or a symphony, you need players who can take what you have in your imagination and bring it to life. These creators are working with such a large palette of colors that they need to collaborate with performers (outsourcing at its finest!). Conversely, performers such as myself need composers in order to help us say what we don’t have the language to say on our own, and to reveal part of us in the process, both to ourselves and to the audience.

I do feel that musicians show themselves in their art, both in their writing and their performance. I won’t claim that I fully “know” anybody solely through their creative output (that would be silly), but of the composers I’ve met and worked with, the music they write really does tend to be reflective of their personalities. No naming names here, but the earnest, emotional, honest people write music that feels that way. The prickly, suspicious, veiled people that eat sarcasm for breakfast write that way. The performers who are egotistical and brag a lot offstage definitely perform that way, and for me, it mars what I have come to hear. I don’t blame performers for wanting to impress an audience, but I’m not attending concerts to hear amazing finger technique or to be wowed by rock histrionics. The music I’m most attracted to transcends the methods used to create it and it is a direct line from the creator to your soul. It’s probably one reason why I am so enamored of singer-songwriters… they lay themselves bare and are speaking directly to the listener, without hiding behind stage fireworks or other things meant to dazzle. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be so real. With Ride, I feel like all four of the members of that band definitely show their true selves both in their writing and in their performance, and it’s one reason that I have had such respect for them for 25 years (and counting).

Some months ago, I had gotten hired to perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (the original version for 13 instruments) at the end of July. When I realized that rehearsals would start just a few days after the end of my Ride tour, my first thought was that I hoped I’d get back into performing shape quickly (two weeks off is a lot for the embouchure!). But, given that I’d performed this piece many times before, I wasn’t too worried about being able to handle it… it was more about wanting to do this piece justice. If I could equate my personality to a particular composer’s output, I’d have to say I feel like I am closest to the music of Aaron Copland. What attracts me to Copland’s music is the sense of openness, and honesty, and lack of artifice. Any music that makes so much use of the “open” intervals (octaves, fifths) has a way of sounding really honest and pure. There’s nowhere to hide bad intonation in intervals like these! No way to fake it. Anyone that knows me knows that I have no poker face, and while I do use sarcasm and dark humor from time to time, I am generally a really earnest person and I don’t try and obscure my true self. Does this get me into trouble? Occasionally. It would be safer for sure to hide my true thoughts. But I’m not going to try and pretend to be more complex or layered than I really am – people can see right through that, and wearing a mask all the time is exhausting. If people are going to dislike me, I would rather they dislike the real me, and not the person I’m pretending to be.

Copland described the Duo for Flute and Piano (of which the first movement is one of my favorite things to play) as “a work… direct in expression and meant to be grateful for the performer.” I understood this instinctively when I first encountered this piece as a teenager, and it still moves me today when I perform it. I may not have written the notes, but I feel both Copland’s intention behind the notes, and the personal meaning that I could not have expressed without him giving me the language to do so. I am humbled to be able to help his music live on past his lifetime. While I sometimes wish I had the drive to compose (I greatly admire composers and anyone that creates new art), I do feel like I am meant to be exactly what I am – a vessel, a translator (which is meaningful to me, as my late father worked as a Korean-English translator!). I won’t be remembered past my lifetime, but I am not bothered by that. I am part of a bigger picture, a small fragment of a great and mysterious whole, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, to answer the question of what I would play for myself, just for my own pleasure, I would say the answer is anything that celebrates the soul within. Sunday’s concert is something I’m very much looking forward to – it is a gift and a privilege to be able to share my innermost feelings with an audience, and it’s something I look forward to every single time. And on that note, I’d best get practicing. 🙂

Live recording of me performing the first movement of the Copland Duo, 2009. It’s not flawless, but it’s authentic, which is my goal in life these days.

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