I was giving a lesson the other day. Toward the end of the lesson, my student informed me that he would like to make a career orchestrating shows. I asked him if he would like to hear the demo recording of a show that I composed. After listening to a few of the songs, he wondered if audiences would be distracted from the vocal by all the interesting things going on in the orchestration. I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since.
When I go to the opera, I often focus my attention on the beautiful orchestrations. I’m content to forget about the story for a while and just listen to the instruments in the pit, but this is understandable since my profession centers primarily around writing music for instruments. Also most operas are not in English and my understanding of Italian is mostly confined to food and musical terms. Plus opera singers often sacrifice diction for volume.
For me, this focus on accompaniment is not limited to opera. When listening to any vocal performance, I’m interested in the relationship of foreground and background. How do the instruments help to tell the story? Are their parts interesting and integral or merely filling out harmonies? At what point do they become distracting and fight the words for attention?
When I go to a museum and look at a painting by van Gogh, I take in the totality of it. I notice the superficial subject matter and other first impression stuff, but then I want to focus on the texture, color, composition, shapes, and other elements of its construction. The same goes for when I watch a movie or a play. I first want to experience art as a civilian, and then I want to understand how it is made and understand the interconnectedness of it all.
After all, everything in the universe is at once an entity unto itself and completely interconnected to the rest of the universe. Us included. I am an independent me, but also a New Yorker, a citizen of the United States, an earthling and who knows what else? I’m also a father and grandfather; I’ve been a son and grandson. Also I write music for singers and instrumentalists, which entertains listeners of all stripes around the world. I’m a teacher, bandleader, publisher, and employer. I am a friend to others and other people are friends to me. I pay rent to my landlord so that he will let me live in my wonderful apartment in a beautiful old neighborhood in possibly the most exciting city in the world. I thrive on the energy of those I come in contact with (both physically and psychically—I love that I can feel a vibe).
Ever since I was a child and attempted to draw and paint, it frustrated me that I couldn’t achieve the perfection I saw in nature. I still do battle on that front. For art to be great, it must present the world in a truthful manner (as nature does). But that’s not enough. The artist must share his/her inner conflict and show us how the world might resolve those problems and be a just world we would love to live in.
To fully appreciate interconnectedness, we must surrender our egos to at least the extent of recognizing the equality of others. Sure, each of us excels at one or more aspects of life or skill sets. Some lucky few are rewarded handsomely for it. If I could hit a 100-mile per hour fastball 400 feet, there would be 30 major league baseball teams offering me millions of dollars to perform for them, even if I was a liability in the field or a slow base runner. And that doesn’t even begin to address my value in the clubhouse as a spiritual member of the team or how I would interact with others outside baseball.
Can someone be a great artist and a horrible person? That’s an age-old question. I’ve had the great fortune to work with and come to know many of the stars in the worlds of jazz, popular, and classical music. As I’ve gotten to know them better, I have become able to see some flaws—some glaring, others better hidden.
My trumpet teacher, Jimmy Maxwell, idolized Louis Armstrong. Jimmy worked with everyone in music from Al Jolson to John Lennon, and yet he never had any personal contact with Armstrong. When I asked him why he avoided even speaking with him when they performed together on TV shows, Jimmy told me that to him Pops was a god and he didn’t want to be disappointed to see any flaws that would bring him down to earth. Fair enough.
So, I guess, we all choose to focus on what we want to see, and ignore that which doesn’t serve us. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison created our country and structured our government, but all three owned hundreds of slaves, acknowledged the evil in slavery, and yet, provided for its survival in the land of the free.
There are few things we can do in life that are more odious than owning another human being, let alone hundreds of them. In school when we learned about our Constitution and the concept of equality, we turned a blind eye to the fact that Washington’s false teeth were pulled from the mouths of his slaves and that Jefferson had children with Sally Hemmings. After all, what has this got to do with “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?” Actually, quite a lot.
Alfred Hitchcock, who started his career in silent movies, believed that we should be able to completely understand a movie from what we are presented with visually. Before he shot each movie, he created storyboards that were like comic books. Every camera shot was depicted, so that the actual shooting of the movie was reduced to painting by the numbers.
Should we be distracted from the story by Hitch’s cameos, the clever license plate numbers, the references to birds in Psycho, or thousands of other artistic touches that don’t seem to forward the plot, but maybe subconsciously affect us? When asked to analyze his own work, he would politely abstain from icebox talk. Like a magician, he wants you to enjoy the fantasy of the trick. If you know how it’s done, that takes the magic out of it.
We professionals are obsessed with technique and construction. How else can we learn how to create our own magic? But, as much as we artists want to satisfy ourselves and our performers, we must always keep in mind that our first allegiance is to our audience. No matter how amazing the logic of our music looks on paper, the ultimate test of its worth is how it sounds to the first-time listener. Then, if the listener is sufficiently interested, he/she will go back to discover the hidden treasures. If there are insufficient hidden treasures to be found, the listener will tire of this music and move on to the next bit of ear candy.
Deep down, we all want to be nourished, but McDonald’s will never have to worry about a dearth of customers. In this modern world of superficial pop culture, can a work with substance capture the attention of a mass audience? I hope so.