Engaging Early Music

SeattleEMGI recently had the opportunity to meet with leaders of several arts groups in Seattle. One was Gus Denhard, executive director of Seattle’s Early Music Guild. In the course of the conversation, he told me about a fundraiser his organization has been involved in. Ordinarily, I am not enthusiastic about fundraisers as community engagement activities since they usually simply involve giving a portion of an event’s proceeds to some worthy cause with little involvement or investment by the arts organization in the organization whose cause the event supports. EMG’s fundraiser is different on several counts.

After Ebola: Bringing Hope to Life has been presented the last two years to raise funds for Liberian Transcontinental Christian Ministries’ provision of housing, food, clothing, and education for children who have been orphaned as a result of the Ebola crisis. The 2014 concert was described as follows:

The crises caused by various plagues in human history have inspired artistic responses — art that does the work of mourning and remembering the victims and offering consolation to the bereaved. The special Early Music Guild concert will focus on the musical response of Medieval European composers such as Machaut, Landini, and Dufay to the devastating bubonic plague of the late Middle Ages. These will be juxtaposed with readings and songs from West Africa.

The concert will suggest parallels between Europeans’ reactions to plague in the 13th and 14th centuries and the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. This Ebola Relief program will feature performers including Eunice Yonly, Erin Calata, Erika Chang, and Marian Seibert, voices; August Denhard, lute; Shulamit Kleinerman, vielle; Bill McJohn, harp; and Peggy Monroe, percussion.

The 2015 concert featured a trio performing on harp, jarana, guitar, quinta, voice, lute, Baroque guitar, therobo, oud, andereta, bendir, teponatzli, cajón, zils, cascabeles, and rattles.

To me these events are remarkable in several ways. First, the fact that an early music group is sufficiently invested in contemporary events to consider something like this is heartening. Second, awareness of the parallels between the origins of (very) old music and contemporary issues demonstrates a real concern for community and the potential of even Renaissance music to have continued relevance. Finally, the 2015 concert demonstrates a willingness to expand understanding of the group’s mission by including decidedly non-traditional (for an early music group) instruments in its offerings.

Bravo EMG!



40 Years Engaged

KronosQuartetSunday’s New York Times article on the Kronos Quartet reminded me of one early step on the beginning of my pilgrimage as a community engagement advocate. (Kronos Quartet’s 40-Year Adventure) Over 35 years ago, I had coffee with David Harrington in a small café across the street from the Eastman Theatre. I was a doctoral student at Eastman and the Quartet was doing a residency at the school. I had been blown away by a concert of theirs (some contemporary work and a Brahms quartet if memory serve me correctly). I also knew a bit about their origins (some of which included playing in bars in San Francisco) and I was fascinated.

For those who don’t know their work, Kronos has become the premiere advocate for contemporary string quartet music, especially music that pushes the boundaries of music, incorporating amplification, lighting effects. They are also strong advocates for “crossover” music. One of my favorite albums of all time is their “Pieces of Africa.” (And, of course, no musician’s life is complete without hearing one of their performances of George Crumb’s Black Angels.)

However, beyond my admiration for their music making, the thing that prompts me to comment on them here is their ongoing awareness of the need to connect with the public at large. This largely comes from the entrepreneur’s awareness of the need to nurture an audience,  but it also derives from a commitment to being “of the world.” The Times cites the Quartet’s sometimes political orientation in concerts and quotes Mr. Harrington as saying, “I’ve not lost my appetite for ensuring that, of all the string quartets in the world, I’m intending to have the largest F.B.I. file.” This awareness of the communities in which they work has led them to become, as I sometimes joke, one of the few chamber music ensembles in the world that has groupies. (It’s true. They do.) They were criticized, especially early on, for being gimmicky. Even if that were true, their musicianship and the quality of the new works they have fostered has made them an invaluable part of the world’s music scene. And, the evidence of operating successfully as concert and recording artists for forty years is further indication that their art has staying power. Engagement and artistic excellence are not mutually exclusive.

At the risk of repeating myself, I do need to point out that the interest of this blog lies mainly with arts organizations. No individual artist (or artist ensemble) need follow an engagement path. At the same time, there is evidence that, for those who choose to, there is merit (and potential for success–artistically and otherwise) in doing so.



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Why We Do It

JimmyEllisAtAndys-SeatedI love Chicago. I love jazz. I love jazz clubs in Chicago; and one of my favorites is Andy’s, a place my wife and I discovered because it has a show that begins before my bedtime. (Being a jazz lover and not being a night owl creates some real challenges for me.) We were recently in the Windy City and had the pleasure of hearing saxophonist Jimmy Ellis’s quartet. (Click here for an article about him.) Mr. Ellis is in his 80’s and is a legend in jazz in his home town, though little known outside of the Chicago area.

But I’m not writing about jazz here. I’m writing about a performer who is devoted to the development of his audience and who loves to perform–for them. One of the things that’s cool about taking in the early jazz scene is that parents come with their children. In the crowd that early evening were a couple of families with children. One, sitting close to the front, had brought their two-year-old boy. Mr. Ellis picked him out, conversed with the parents, and acknowledged the child several times, commenting on the importance of growing the audiences of the future. What generated this post, however, was something else he did. At one point, a light bulb clearly went off in his head. He told the band they were going to do “Pop Goes the Weasel.” (Who knew you could make jazz out of that?) While playing, Mr. Ellis moved off the stage, went to their table, and played directly for that young boy. (Fortunately, this was a child who liked music. I can envision some who might be terrified of a saxophonist in front of them. The kid loved it.) I’m not sure if two-year-olds retain memories into adulthood, but I can imagine this being that child’s first retained memory.

You have to visualize this. Mr. Ellis is not a young man. He is not, as some might say, spry. He had a bit of difficulty simply getting up and down from his chair on stage. (Insert your own story about the hard life of jazz musicians here.) Moving into the audience was a considerable effort for him. But he thought about it, he committed to it, and he did it. That spoke volumes about his call to music, his commitment to the future, and his passion for sharing what he does with people.

While I’m certain I read too much into things sometimes, I don’t believe that action was simply about growing new audiences. It certainly was that. But it also had to be about loving the audience, loving those who come to listen, loving performing for them. That is where I think our focus needs to be as we seek to engage with those who come to us and to reach those who do not yet have a relationship with the arts. We need to understand the basic nature of the arts enterprise: skillfully crafted aesthetic experiences presented to improve the lives of those with whom we share this planet. I am convinced that will get us where we want to go.



Photo: Julie Frye

Can You Feel the Love?

A while ago I ran into this video clip. (Forgive me, I can’t remember where. Facebook I imagine.) In the midst of some fairly heavy-duty posts, I thought now might be a good time to share it. The original source for me was http://twentytwowords.com/2013/01/11/choir-of-old-men-break-out-in-song-while-hanging-out-at-tim-hortons/, where we are told:

After practice on Mondays, members of the Barbershop Harmony Society in the Toronto suburb of Oakville go for coffee. This past Monday, they decided to serenade other diners with an impromptu performance of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” And the answer is Yes. Yes, we can feel it…

I have so many takeaways from this. First, here is a group of men who invest themselves in rehearsing and performing a capella vocal music. I could stop right there and hand out a medal. They clearly enjoy what it. (I guess they wouldn’t do it otherwise.)

They are poster  children for art making a difference. These are not, presumably, artistes. They are regular guys who find the benefits of music to be deeply meaningful. They have a visceral understanding of the value of art, but I suspect they don’t think of it as “Art.”

They are also exemplars of the merits of participatory art. They don’t sit back and observe. They do. I would give a lot for many, many more people doing art. Is the quality of their work as good as the Metropolitan Opera Chorus? Actually, to begin with, it’s hard to know. The acoustics in Tim Horton’s cafe (and of this recording) do not come up to the standards of Lincoln Center. That said, what would be the point of that question? The more I participate in “quality” debates, the more I despair at the “apples and orangutans” nature of those discussions. Spectator art and participatory art are very different things. And, as I said in a recent post, what is the purpose of quality? (Excellence–To What End?)


Also, while we are having fun, here are two pretty cool videos from SoulPancake:


So, enjoy the clips and think about their lessons for the arts and community engagement.


And finally, Allison Orr of Forklift Danceworks (The Trash Project) is starting another project, this time with utility workers, bucket trucks, and the Austin Symphony. They are conducting a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that’s nearly “there.” If this is of interest to you, check it out.



Engaging with Palestrina

So, I was sitting there, behaving (as well as I generally can), when a sentence leapt out of my mouth unbidden. The occasion was a grant review panel, the subject was a chamber choir requesting funds to present a concert of music by Palestrina, and the precipitating topic was a discussion of the group’s response to the question about the public benefit of the activity. As is typical (and totally understandable given the state of the arts industry today), they had obviously struggled with their answer. They promised to reach out to all kinds of choral groups (e.g., church choirs), citing particularly African-American and ethnic European ones and to be welcoming to everyone. In addition, they said, “the music is chosen to be accessible and inspiring to all.”

Let me be clear. I am a huge fan of the music of Palestrina, but in today’s world, including among African-American and ethnic European communities, this would be an atypical and acquired taste. It would take a good deal of work to engage the audiences they listed. The truth was, and this is neither surprising nor something about which I could really take them to task, there was no acknowledgement of that fact nor any consideration of what to do about it. Generally, we don’t consider the issue because we suspect there is nothing that can be done.

So, the sentence that leapt out, without bypassing my thought processes, was, “Anything can be made engaging if you want to do so badly enough.” (If that statement had passed through my cerebellum at all, I probably would have amended “anything” to “any great art,” but that’s hindsight.) We briefly discussed their assessment of public benefit and went on from there.

But my exclamation stuck with me, nagging at the fringes of my consciousness. When I finally let it in, I realized I needed to examine it to see if I really believed it. Or rather, if I believed it (and I do), is it even remotely true.

I have used Palestrina before as an example of a truly great artist whose work is no longer the center of an industry the way, say, Beethoven might be considered to be a center of the orchestral industry today. But could things be done to make Palestrina engaging for uninitiated audiences today?

So, what do I have to say about this? Let’s begin with the music itself. It is the epitome of reflective music, especially in today’s context. It is not “easy listening.” It is “foreign” in text, mood, subject matter, and complexity. Yet, over the last decade or so there have been several “top 40” (or so) hits that focused on Gregorian chant. While most of those added (at some point) a strong (and stylistically inappropriate “beat”), there is precedent for music not wholly unlike Palestrina’s to be popular. Additionally, I think highlighting the music’s “points of imitation” could provide a viable window into the music itself. (If you question whether it’s possible to make structural details of music interesting to the general public, see http://www.openculture.com/2009/09/how_a_bach_canon_works.html.)

Another avenue that might be open to engagement is the meditative quality of at least some of the music–its potential for personal reflection. I know we are not a meditative society, but there are times and places when/where people are looking for opportunities to consider their place in the cosmos.

A third option is understanding Palestrina’s context. He was the musical center of the Counter-Reformation, attempting to stem the tide of messy modernism. (To my musicologist friends: cut me some slack for hyperbole and for over-simplification here.) Regardless of which side one is on in such debates today, understanding Palestrina’s socio-cultural role is kind of interesting as a basis for listening to the music.

I recognize that this may not represent an overwhelmingly compelling case for engaging via Palestrina, but they are a few “off the top of my head” ideas that might resonate. For those who know him and his music more intimately than I, there should be many others. Ultimately, the point is to see merit in the attempt to engage and then spend the time to seek out points of engagement and offer them to a public that by and large needs convincing.

In the end, I think I agree with myself, “Any great art can be made engaging if you want to do so badly enough.” And you don’t have to sell the art’s soul to do so.



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