Stress and Silence

I should apologize for my silence on this blog for the past — can it be? — two weeks. Or maybe not. I’d have preferred to post, but (to bring up an issue more important than music, both for myself and others) I realized this fall that I’d been very stressed. My paying work, traveling, my teaching, this blog, meetings on future projects, composing, my online book…I’ve had a lot of balls in the air at once  and I noticed a lot of classic symptoms of stress. My mind racing at night, back pain, irritable bowels; and throughout it all, a feeling that I wasn’t having much fun. I read a book on stress, and was struck by many things, including this: Studies show that people, queried after they’ve made decisions, don’t regret choosing pleasure over work.

So I’ve been trying to change. I had a long Christmas holiday, and then launched the series I’ve interrupted on this blog, about what I think the classical music crisis really is about. And then I prepared the two courses I teach, one at Juilliard, the other at Eastman, both about the future of classical music. The Eastman course is a schlep, worthwhile, but exhausting — up in the morning at 6 AM, catch a plane, fly from New York to Rochester, teach, maybe lead a workshop on entrepreneurship, then fly back, and get home late in the evening. Putting aside all my other work, of course. Which includes preparing parts for my new symphony, commissioned by the South Dakota Symphony, and scheduled for a premiere on April 19.And also making small revisions, in response to suggestions from some of the musicians, who’ve looked at the score and found some places that are harder than they need to be.

I’m trying not to force myself to do anything (except, of course, the things with rigid deadlines), trying not to work a full day seven days a week, making sure I take time for cooking, movies, walks, and other entertainments. I’m doing pretty well, which makes my life a lot more livable. But I haven’t wanted to obsess about the blog, which unfortunately has left me silent.

Not that I don’t have things to say. They’ll pop up here. And I’ll resume my “Where We Stand” series, with some thoughts on popular culture. I’m sorry for my silence, but, you know, I couldn’t help it.

Here are some things I’ve thought about, watched, read:

DVDs of Mozart operas from last summer’s Mozart marathon in Salzburg (they did the entire Mozart operatic oeuvre, 22 works in all, many written, of course, when he was in his teens). Really vivid, sharp productions, featuring an unforgettable giant venus flytrap in La finta giardiniera(and also a soprano riding gently on the back of a giant dove).And a rewrite of the ending of Lucio Silla, making it chilling, rather than celebratory.Though the realachievement was making that opera gripping at all, with its long string of more or less featureless arias. The production dug out the issues lying underneath, and brought them to vivid life. These productions, taken as a whole, have some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in opera, a tribute both to the casting and to the stage directors.

The new Norah Jones album.Quietly delectable. Citizen Kane, which I’ve been watching on my video iPod, to check my feeling that the operas in the standard repertoire are getting to seem a little like old movies — wonderful, but clearly from another era. I’ll have more to say about this, of course. But I thought I’d rewatch a certified Great Old Movie, to make sure that even the best old movies come off the way I thought they did. And they do.

Georgina Born’s Rationalizing Culture, an anthropological study (!) of IRCAM. And quite a detailed, serious and savage one. Does nothing to refute my feeling that musical modernism — even if it started well — ended up as something of a blight.

Quite priceless: the comments of IRCAM’s non-musical staff on IRCAM’s concerts (“But no one comes to them! And the music is terrible!”). And the detailed accounts of rampant sexism.

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, the most vivid book I’ve ever read on life in Stalin’s Russia (and I’ve read a bunch of them). Unlike other writing on this subject, it doesn’t simply tell a tale of horrors (though of course they were there), or expose criminality and chaos.

Instead it shows what people thought about — the strutting, macho leadership, the squalor of everyday life, the strong belief (rational or not) that things were getting better. Why, for instance, did women start wearing makeup late in the 1930s? With the approval, that is, of the Communist regime. It wasn’t simply (as I’ve read elsewhere) that Stalin brought back many traits of older culture, so he could rule with more stability. There was also a belief that the revolution would make Russia more cultured — that, for instance, the peasants might start to bathe more often than once every two weeks. And once you got beyond that, what then? You might learn the names of Shakespeare’s plays — and start to dress a little better. A fascinating time, the 1930s, full of hope (and not only in Soviet Russia), even when the hope didn’t make any sense.

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