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The necessity of STUDY!

Last week I attended a lecture as part of a master seminar series at HoGent, run by the quite incredible Lukas Pairon, entitled ‘The Philosophy of Enthusiasm’. The series has seen artists from many diverse fields giving talks on finding their passion, sticking with it, and turning it into a successful career, including all the many necessary failures and challenges along the way. This particular lecture was given by the co-artistic directors of the Ictus ensemble, based here in Brussels: Jean-Luc Plouvier (piano) and Tom Pauwels (guitar).

They spoke of many very interesting things, not least of which their own personal histories, how they came to new music and why they ended up with Ictus. But for me, there were a few major points that they made that struck a chord. The most important of these was this:

You need the free time to STUDY – the time to go deeper into knowledge about the music you are performing and the world from which it springs.

I’ll come back to this, but I think it’s a point that very often gets lost for musicians – much more so than for other artists, for whom discussing the ideas behind their work can be just as vital as creating the work itself. Musicians, especially performing musicians, tend to get buried in long hours of technical practise. Even practising for ‘expression’ is often technical practise. Really, really thinking about how and why you have chosen a certain piece of repertoire, or why you phrase that line as you do, or how exactly to present a program to an audience, often falls off the priority list so that you’re scrabbling to pull a bunch of unrelated works together in order to make a concert. The key note here is that it’s not just about production, not merely ensuring the music gets played at a high level.

Jean-Luc also quoted Rancière on the generosity of performance – considering the intelligence of the audience. In new music, where we often agonise over how ‘audience friendly’ something is, this is worth keeping in mind. Respecting your audience should very much mean considering density and difficulty, but it also shouldn’t just mean throwing in the occasional sugar cube (and then increasingly padding out your program with fairy floss) in the interest of sweetening things up. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from the way new music is composed and performed in Australia, it is that this not only makes for crap programming, it also means your audience loses interest. Either they’re attracted to the fluff, and the ‘real’ stuff you’re trying to sneak in there turns them off, or they’re looking for an interesting listening experience, and the fluff is insulting.

The Beckettian ‘it is necessary to continue’ also made an appearance. Most musicians I know face the daily ‘is it worth it – will I make it – shouldn’t I just do something else’ dilemma. I’ve always liked the grim conviction of that Beckett quote adopted by Alain Badiou in his ethics: “in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (from the end of ‘The Unnameable’).

I’ve been spending a lot of time of late just practising at home, really getting on top of some technical bugs that have irritated me no end the past few years. But sometimes it’s hard to keep up this kind of motivation. I think I found some little clues towards answers in this lecture.

You can’t just wait for things to happen for you, you need to create the opportunities yourself. But how to create them when you’re in a brand new place, halfway around the world from the scene you know, like I am? By not waiting too long to get accustomed. I’ve been thrown into a very fortunate position, playing with Fractales, and I believe we can really make some wonderful music together. But we need ideas. Strong ideas that carry across whole concert programs, that respect and speak to the intelligence of our listeners, and that excite the musicians (this is most important, for no matter what music you are listening to, if the musicians are truly engaged with the music they are playing, you can be drawn in).

All this requires that key point: study.

We (and now I will take some personal responsibility and say ‘I’) need to know the contemporary repertoire in all its variety, with a good understanding of the history that led us to this point, and a hopeful vision of what might appear in future. I need to know what sounds most entice my ears and my brain, what allows me to jump into conversation with someone (and it’s nearly always Liam) and defend my preferences, or to sit and write emphatically and passionately for some time. I need to know the cultural and political settings for the music that I aim to play.

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