Thursday, January 20, 2005


Essay number two for conducting class tomorrow:

Detail your personal mimetical issues and challenges as you have begun to study at the graduate level.

Note for readers: Mimetic theory is the theory of the destructive power of envy. The theory is that we automatically envy that which we desire, and this leads to anger, self-flagellation, and other negative emotions unless we consciously fight to keep our responses positive. The below quote is a good summation.

“Envy desires to have the beauty or power or talent that another possesses precisely because that other strongly and gracefully possesses it, and it desires this at the other’s expense.” - Donald Sheehan

My personal mimetic issues are essentially tied to the areas where I feel no self-confidence in my music-making. Those would be the following:

First: I’m worried that I’m not passionate enough. I envy other people’s passion – when they describe transforming experiences, I simultaneously want those experiences for myself, and want to slap them and tell them that they’re being overly romantic.

The quotes I read in the book about Nadia Boulanger encapsulate this attitude of which I am envious. There is basically a philosophy that “if you could possibly be happy doing anything else, you shouldn’t do music!”

I have actually been worried about this all my life. When I was a child, I would actually sometimes cry in my bed at night about this. I thought I could never be a great composer because I didn't feel things deeply enough. (The irony of crying over not feeling things deeply enough has not gone unnoted.) I thought I could never be great because I wasn’t messed up enough in the head. After all, there is this tendency to revere the composer, to view them as someone touched by a madness that exacts a heavy emotional toll. To a lesser extent, all musicians are viewed the same way – in contact with another world, people who go through things that we mere mortals cannot possibly understand, people who feel more deeply, who are more sensitive. I think this is perhaps an idea left over from the Romantic period, when composers (and musicians in general) went from being employees or servants to honored gods of society. But it is still very, very prevalent today – and it is not in the immediate best interest of musicians to dispel this stereotype, because it’s where a lot of funding comes from.

I don’t actually, when I am in my happy intellectual place, believe this. I believe that everyone can make music. In cultures where the participation in cultural events requires singing, dancing, and playing instruments, I think this stereotype does not (cannot) exist. I will quote the New Grove article on South Africa, on the Venda people:

“The Venda assume that every person is capable of musical performance, unless he is deaf; and even then, he ought to be able to dance.”

and from later:

“However, only a few of those who are born into the right group actually emerge as exceptional musicians, and what sets them apart is not so much their ability to do what others cannot do, but that they do it better because they have devoted more time and energy to it. In applauding the mastery of exceptional musicians, the Venda applaud human effort. In being able to recognize mastery in the musical medium, listeners reveal that their general musical competence is no less than that of the musicians whom they applaud.”

People may have more or less musical competence, but I disagree with the idea (your idea, actually – see pg. 15 of The Musician’s Soul and the description of “the artistic curse) that the ability to create music sets one apart.

Part of the reason I believe this may be self-defense, but partly I believe it because it seems to me to be logical.

It would fall into the category of self-defense because, as I mentioned above, I am worried I am not passionate enough. I could be happy doing something other than music. I could be happy doing a lot of things. It would, in fact, take a distinctly negative job environment to make me unhappy. One of the reasons that I worry that I am not passionate enough is that for a good part of my life, I believed that I simply didn’t have the strong emotional reactions to events that other people did. I don’t lose my temper easily. I don’t act irrationally when drunk. I don’t put my fist through walls. I get pissed off like other people…but I never feel like I lose control. The few times when I decided to pretend that I had lost control to see if I could create a desired effect (for example, of getting people to shut up) were a miserable failure.

I no longer believe that I don’t feel things as deeply as other people. I feel that intense expression of emotion is inappropriate – possibly this is partly learned from my family – so I simply don’t express it as often, perhaps. And as I grow older, I feel as if I feel more emotion. I recognize now when I am stressed, irritated, angry. And dating someone seriously for the first time last year really opened me up – I cried more with him, for no discernable reasons, than I have ever cried in my entire live previous. When I think of vulnerability, I think of the relationship I shared with him.

But the question of passion still deeply worries me. I worry that I don’t respond to music enough. I do respond to it – especially Renaissance music. I have cried in concerts – as I grow older, I cry more often at them. But I have no dramatic stories about how I heard Mahler for the first time and my life was changed. I do not experience sudden epiphanies. And so I worry that I’m not allowed to be part of the genius club.

Second: Because passion in music is so often tied to the concept of musicality itself, I also worry that I am not musical enough.

I was stunned when I was accepted to Westminster. I had been rejected from every other school I applied to, except my “safety”, which was the University of Seattle, Washington (which has the most stunning campus ever, by the way, and you should visit if you get the chance.) Indiana, Illinois, UCLA, Maryland, Ithaca, and Michigan all turned me down. Westminster was my last audition – I knew I was supposed to send in a reply by May 1st, so when I hadn’t heard by April 31st, I figured I was out. I called up the Admissions office fully expecting to be turned down, and just wanting to get the damn rejection letter already, and they told me I was in.

I couldn’t believe it for a good many weeks. I had to get numerous packets, financial and administrative, before it began to sink it…and I kept worrying that some sort of mistake had been made, and someone would call me up to tell me I was actually not going to be allowed to attend.

This was still baffling me enough that I had the gall to ask Dr. Megill the following foolish question at a conductor get-together following the first masterclass. “Why on earth did you let me in?” He laughed, of course, and said that Westminster looked for people with potential, not people who were already polished and knew what they were doing. Putting this together with what I was told before my audition – “We want to see people who can respond to the music” – I concluded that other people must see potential in me, and that I must have been able to respond to the music.

I have decent faith in my nuts-and-bolts musical abilities. I have piano skills, I can sight-read better than most, my theory skills and ear-training are probably above average. Running a rehearsal is something I can do, I know how to keep my eye on the clock, and when it comes to assembling notes and rhythms and articulations, to teaching people the framework, I feel that I do it well, and I enjoy it – I enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together in the most efficient manner possible. But when the time comes to add the “little spark of inspiration” that will make the piece “come alive,” I’m terribly scared, and don’t know what to do. Because I don’t know how to hear it. I may love a performance, have a fantastic time during the piece, and afterwards someone will say, “Oh, that was just dead.” I have no confidence that what I like is, from an objective or majority point of view, great. I came to Westminster because it had the best choirs, and I thought, “If ever there’s a place to learn the difference between really, really good and great, it will be here.” I’m working on trying to hear it, but I don’t feel good about it yet.

Third: Because I worry that I’m not musical, that I lack some undefined inspirational spark (that I cannot even see myself in other people!) I worry that time spent with me conducting is a waste, and would be better spent elsewhere, under another conductor, or even experiencing music in another, perhaps more passive way.

Last year, in order that I could practice for auditions, I formed a chorus of friends and friends of friends. It was 12 people, it was called New Century Voices, and I concentrated on performing new music by young Boston composers, because I have composed myself, and because I hugely enjoy doing new music – I feel part of a living tradition in a way that I do not when I perform Handel. This group really gelled in a remarkable manner, and I loved them so much – I get a little teary when I think about them, still. But although I cared about them, and worked hard for them, and enjoyed rehearsals every week, I didn’t realize until the last concert, when I was sitting backstage with them waiting to go on, that they loved it too. Most of them came initially (I thought) as a favor to me. I didn’t believe them when they said they loved having a place to sing every week, since most of them were not in other choruses. It wasn’t until I watched them talking to each other before going on, and realized that they had met through me, and were singing music that they liked and enjoyed because I had pulled them together, that I realized that I had given as well as received.

I’ve pulled together a group of women to perform a piece by AD in February, and I hope to get some of them to stick around and thus to form a women’s chorus that I can work with, so I can have a rehearsal space each week, and a forum for performing more new music. But the most crippling aspect is feeling that anyone who attends a rehearsal will just be doing me a favor and will be suffering through the experience out of the goodness of their hearts. Shutting up the voice that says I have nothing to offer for long enough to get through a rehearsal can be very difficult.

I think too much, and you know this. All these ideas have been things I’ve been thinking about before tying them in to the concept of mimetics. As I understand it, the proper mimetic procedure for dealing with these issues is to…recognize them, ignore them while I’m on the podium, and concentrate on caring about the people in front of me. This does not seem a very satisfactory solution, I’m afraid. Identifying problems is not the hard part of the process for me. And ignoring them does not seem productive.

There is one further mimetic effect that you do not mention, but which I feel is very real. I discovered this not through music, but through taekwondo, and I firmly believe it is a powerful cultural force, especially in the lives of women in our culture.

It is a curious fact that when learning to spar in taekwondo, women always apologize profusely. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” is a constant refrain whenever contact is made (often even when it’s not.) Apparently, women are far more terrified of causing damage than men, who only apologize profusely when sparring women (women apologize to everybody.)

Related to this is locker-room interactions. Women are constantly denigrating themselves. “You sparred so well today!” “Oh, no, I’m really terrible. Did you see that roundhouse kick? It was awful. And I couldn’t move at all!” “Oh, no, you were really good – I’m so much slower than you are!” Etc. Compliments are given in an honest supportive spirit much of the time, but often, especially in the lower belts, at the expense of oneself.

One could argue this stems from the influence of Asian culture in taekwondo. After all, I have read that in previous times, women in China would go outside after a baby’s birth and announce how ugly it was, so that evil spirits would be disinterested. Tooting one’s own horn was a danger – bad spirits would be attracted to your home.

However, that doesn’t explain why the attitude is so much more prevalent in women than in men. And if you look carefully, self-condemnation is a common method of communication among women. It can be done cattily and snidely, where complimenting another person by insulting oneself is actually a subtle insult. But often it is done in order to ingratiate oneself with the other person.

I know because I do this. Often. And I see other women do it. I don’t think people will agree with me on its frequency, but I really find it a prevalent force. And when I try to stop doing this – when I try to give myself the respect I deserve in speech with other people – it can occasionally be impossible. I am worried that by NOT being self-deprecating, I will insult the other person.

In essence, I believe that I am anticipating a mimetic response, and acting in advance in order to prevent it.

I think we intuit, subconsciously, the entire mimetic theory. And I think that we know that people may get envious of us if we are obviously skilled at something, or talented, or powerful, or beautiful. And therefore we downplay and undercut our skills and gifts in order to prevent a negative mimetic response directed towards us. It is not done out of subconscious concern for the other person – it’s done for our own benefit, to prevent negative emotions being directed our way.

Why else do we so instinctively not stand up and take joy in our accomplishments? We are scared that others will not love us if we shine too bright – we are afraid that if they think we are “better” than they are, they will not like us, they will be angry, because they will be envious.

Why else would Nelson Mandela (editor's correction: actually, it was Marianne Williamson) even have had to make the following speech?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

That is my final mimetic challenge – to believe with my whole body that shining brightly is the best way to serve others.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Responding to Quotes

My assignment for conducting class for the past week has been to read two books by James Jordan, one of my conducting professors, and then do some writing. Part of the writing assignment is to choose 4 quotes from the books, and then respond to them in one page essays.

Well, here's my first quote and response. Much longer than a page!

Ever since there have been men, man has given himself over to too little joy. That alone, my brothers, is our original sin. I should believe only in a God who understood how to dance. - Henri Matisse

When I read this quote, I wanted to cheer. Right on, my sexist brother! (Footnote: I have no patience with this “brotherhood,” “man,” “himself” crap. I think that the automatic use of the pronoun “he” is incredibly alienating. At least, I find it so. Douglas Hofstadter has a really good bit on this in his introduction to the reprint of Godel, Escher, Bach. I think “her/him” is clunky, and “womyn” is not productive, but there are graceful ways to do it. The use of the male pronoun implies an assumption that “woman” is a subsection of “man” and so the notion that I shouldn’t feel alienated by use of the male pronoun is ridiculous. I do feel alienated. It makes me feel like I’ll never be good enough b/c I can’t be part of some old boys’ club called “Brotherhood of Man.” Knowing that I am meant to be included consciously doesn’t mean that I don’t feel excluded unconsciously. But people writing before 1970, like Matisse, are forgiven. (People writing after 1970 are forgiven, too, but they will nevertheless get a stern talking-to if I ever meet ‘em.)
I’m a big fat feminist. Something to know.)

My response to this quote will have some background.

I am not a Christian. I was raised UU, which was a perfectly spectacular way to be raised. Sunday School consisted of learning about world religions. I got all of the community – growing up, church was a safe space where I always felt loved, embraced, and appreciated for my gifts – and none of the dogma. In the absence of anyone telling me what to believe, I tried on different hats. I tried the Judeo-Christian god, I tried Greek mythology, I tried Norse mythology, I tried a bit of Irish fairy-tale. (I was a huge mythology buff in middle school.) Nothing really stuck – I couldn’t figure out where to fit this idea of God into my natural and instinctive view of the world. So I drifted along as an agnostic until I got to college.

There I met Christians. Real Christians, who thought about their religion, and believed it - Son of God, transubstantiation, the whole nine yards. And I realized how much that was not me. I realized, in fact, when faced with true belief in God, and people who were willing to talk about it, that I did not believe in God. (Adults at church were so leery of involuntarily imposing their own beliefs on impressionable young minds that they would never share their own beliefs – the one drawback of my UU experience.) As in, truly did not believe, or rather, believed that there is no God. I was an atheist, not an agnostic. I believed in none of these things that people of other faiths – Bahai, Jews, Christians, whatever – believed.

I realized there was no place in my world for a God, and that I had been trying to attach an extraneous belief onto a world view that was whole by itself. I felt that God was a belief for people who could not believe a more difficult belief – the universe. “How could all this have happened without a God?” people say. Well, for me, it’s easy. What’s the problem? I have faith in the universe. I have faith that it could be this complex, this ordered, this miraculous, this beautiful, all by itself. Trees don’t need help being trees. Stars don’t need an excuse for existing, like “God made me.” Stars are allowed to exist all by themselves in my world. And I don’t need an excuse for existing either. I am. Isn’t that enough? Why demand the extra miracle of a God who created it all? Occam’s Razor is the answer for me.

I still talk to God. Swearing, sometimes, but when I sing sacred songs, I sing to God. I occasionally feel that I have a much better relationship with him than talking heads on radio shows. I think at stars. I hug trees. My atheism, and my belief that stars cannot in fact hear me talk, does not preclude my talking to them and believing that they twinkle back. I read tarot. The cards speak to me, and in fact I have a personal relationship with my deck. The fact that the meanings of the cards are so precisely geared towards me during a reading does not conflict with my belief that any kind of disembodied consciousness is impossible. It’s not a problem.

So, I am an atheist. Do not think this is less true because I sing sacred songs to God, or hug trees. It is a place that I arrived at after careful consideration, and I feel the opinion some people have that, “Oh, you believe in God, you just don’t know it yet!” is false. There is no way I can convince these people not to set themselves up for disappointment. I have listened. I have thought. And I am quite solid in my belief.

However, after talking to many friends, I have also realized that their religious faith, which I have often been tempted to view as weakness (see above re: God being an easier belief) is just as much a part of their world as my atheism is of mine. My world without God (or anything approaching it – collective spirit, guiding consciousness, etc.) is complete. Theirs would be rift, broken. This is OK. The world is big enough for two ideas, even more.

This was all a prelude.

I came to Westminster. It is the most Christian place I have ever been. I joined Jubilee. That brought me into close contact with some of the Christianity at Westminster. I realized that many of the secondary beliefs of Christianity are antithetical to my personal beliefs. And chief among these is the notion of sin.

I believe that the notion of original sin is incredibly damaging. We are sinful? From the get-go? Having done nothing, I am in the red? It may be our culture, or it may be human nature, but we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves. I feel that a belief that we are inherently sinful just exacerbates that problem. There may be philosophical arguments for what this belief in original sin should mean, but as it is, I see people saying “I am a bad person.” How is that helpful? Someone who thinks they are sinful will not let their light shine.

Then, connected to that, is this problem of lists of sinful behaviors. Like having sex outside of marriage. Boy, that one pisses me off. Sex, and any other activity, whether it be drinking or fighting or anything, is sinful according to me if it hurts you or the other person involved. To steal a page from your book, if it is done without love and giving.

Is sex big? Yes. Should you enter into it lightly? Probably not. Is it a good bet that someone you’re willing to marry is a safe sexual partner, and that will lead to a safer first experience, less tied up with regret? Maybe. But not if you’re taught that sex is sinful first. That will guarantee a bad experience on into eternity, no matter who your partner is.

This life was not given to us to be easy. There is no checklist. You cannot follow rules of what is good and bad and then collect $200 at the end. You are not allowed to go through life without messing up. That bears repeating: not allowed. You don’t get to inherit rules. You have to do the work.

This, then, is why I object to the notion of sin, whether original or as a list of bad actions. It is used as an excuse in the former, and a shortcut in the latter, and as a way of rejecting the responsibility of the exploration of life.

Are there other, and valuable, and rewarding ways to approach the concept of sin? Absolutely. I really believe that. But unless this concept is taught along with the tools for self-reflection and examination, it will be damaging.

I have ignored the aspect of this quotation dealing with joy, both the recognizing and the necessity. But that is not the part of the quote that fired me up.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The spring semester begins...

Winter break is over, and the spring semester is begun! Winter break felt far too short to squeeze in all the visitings I wanted to, but I suppose that was inevitable. And as my spring schedule starts, I'm very much wishing I had concentrating on sleeping more during my break, as it doesn't look like it will happen much this semester!

I am taking:

Choral Literature II
Introduction to Musicology
Rachmaninoff Choral Works
Conducting II
Conducting Lab
Symphonic Choir
Westminster Choir

In addition:
a voice lesson
a composition lesson
and, as I am a graduate assistant for Conducting Techniques, a 10-minute meeting with 16 students once a week, as well as occasionally attending their class
occasional Master Singers rehearsals twice a week

In addition:
I am planning on starting up my own chorus. It will be a women's chorus, and it will (of course!) focus on new music. The amount of work this will involve is already daunting me, but I already told a composer I'd perform her work. I received the piece today - it looks very good, and like it'll be a lot of fun.

Might as well hit the ground running.

With all this on my plate, I'm thinking that I will not have time for taekwondo. This is not a decision that's made yet...but I didn't manage to go during the last half of last semester, and this semester will be even busier. I plan to set aside time to exercise by myself, but getting to classes at Princeton when they're held at 9 pm at night will be tough.