At one point in Kyle Abraham's The Radio Show, the lights go down on an empty, silent stage, and, on the back wall, a projected circle appears, rotating 'round and 'round with the words: "Pause for Station Identification." In a way, that's what this past week provided. A diet of rich Spoleto fare needs a little built-in pause, if only as an aid for digestion.
Perhaps that's why this was the week for conversations. CBS correspondent Martha Teichner hosted a series of dialogues with Motoi Yamamoto, Jack Hitt, Alisa Weilerstein, Mike Daisey, and Jake Shimabukuro, while Resident Conductor John Kennedy chatted with Philip Glass. Enlightening, curious, and amusing things emerged from these formal interviews. Glass, for instance, talked about his opera Kepler and how it had been commissioned by the city of Linz, Austria, which was hoping to celebrate one of its famous sons. Linz, Glass remarked, is most notably the birthplace of two men who left their mark on the world stage: Johannes Kepler and Adolf Hitler. With a smirk, Glass said, "I got Kepler."
As instructive as these sorts of conversations can be, however, they're not quite enough. The benefit we get from them is limited because we're still just an audience to these events. By the time week two of Spoleto rolls around, we need more. We need to get our own hands into the process and begin creating our own, separate dialogue with everything we've witnessed.
For me, it's hard to say when this transition occurred. Perhaps around the same time Spoleto began making nightly guest appearances in my dreams. Or maybe the timing had to do with the full moon. Whatever the cause, there were many moments this week that felt like a living re-enactment of Louis Malle's 1981 film My Dinner With Andre, in which stars Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn simply spend an evening chatting over dinner. Like them, I learned a great many things.
Feng Yi Ting conductor Ken Lam told me about his past life as a Cambridge-trained lawyer working for a very prestigious London firm with clients all over the globe. In his early 30s, Lam found himself toiling away toward a bright future in the Hong Kong office of that firm when a decisive moment, another way forward, presented itself. As yet another office meeting concluded, he got up from his chair and announced he was done with this career that was taking over his life. Afterward, Lam said, several more-senior members of the firm came to him privately and congratulated him.
While all of this is far behind him now, Lam has amassed an impressive record of achievement in his second, musical profession. But the inescapable notion remains: To step out of a world that chafes like an ill-fitting suit and leap into another, better suited one, is an affirmation of one's essential nature. In the short term, the transition requires a commitment to risk. But in the long run, with just a little luck, the courage to follow one's passion may yield a much greater return than the safe bet. Did I mention Lam earned a master's degree in economics? There's no need to explain to him the idea of "opportunity cost."
He says that working on Feng Yi Ting has been a tremendous pleasure. "We were all committed to the process of it," he says, pointing out how much flexibility everyone brought to the process. Here and there, adjustments were made. An emphasis was shifted to one instrument over another to highlight a significant moment. A few more beats were added to support a key transition. The musicians brought their skills to bear, and each performance has built on the success of the previous one.
Of course, there's never enough time to do everything one might wish to do. To achieve the right balance, the trick is knowing when to allow the momentum of the process to take over. And that implies a certain level of respect for, and trust in, the things one is trying to express. This is a very different approach to the arts than the one the marketplace imposes on it.
Part of our conversation led us to discussing how the marketing of music (and art forms in general) has turned them into commodities. This commodification becomes significant whenever the economic state of things turns sour. Austerity measures frequently line up "expendable" items for the chopping block, and the arts are among the first in the short queue for the guillotine. Perhaps this is because we are often sold the arts as commodities that have a limited "value proposition." Another way of saying this: "It's all well and good to be entertained, but right now we all need to get back to work. So let's put the arts aside."
But historically, the arts generally, and music particularly, have served human beings in another way. Not as commodities to be jettisoned along with other unnecessary luxury goods, but as delineators of sacred space — human-sized sacred space — the kind of thing that actually gives meaning to our work. If we aim to be more than consumers and cogs in that wheel of "getting and spending," as Wordsworth put it, we might take a more thorough look at what makes any of what we do worth doing at all. We might, as Lam did, find ourselves drawn to a path that is an affirmation of our essential nature, and so we start our story over on a fresh sheet of paper, unwilling to simply fill in the blanks of some pre-determined script. This is perilous ground. The danger is partly why we approach the unwritten possibilities of our lives reverently, as sacred space.
This notion of sacred space also came up in a conversation with José Luis Rodriguez, the dazzling flamenco guitarist who accompanied Susana Behar at her City Gallery concert. Together, Behar and Rodriguez created a captivating experience for their audience. Rodriguez commented on how that experience may have diverged from some prevalent notions about flamenco.
The commercialized version of flamenco — the images of that art we're most likely to conjure up for ourselves — focuses on the fiery element. But the real element of flamenco, he says, is earth. Rodriguez likened flamenco to the soil it took root in and mimicked jackhammering his hand into that soil, pulling up handfuls of dust, dispersing them in the air. Many layers below the hard-baked crust under the flamenco artist's feet, the earth is in motion, fluid, grinding out new mountains and shorelines, readying to form new landmasses and reshape old ones. Flamenco draws itself up from these hidden tides and shapes them into an aesthetic experience we can share.
Rodriguez's goal as a concert artist is to enter into that sacred space himself and extend it outward toward those willing to enter it as well. "If, in 10 years' time, someone who cannot remember exactly where a concert took place, or even who was giving it, can recall distinctly that experience of being moved, of being entirely in that moment, that is the best of all possible results," he says.
The idea of sacred space, marking it out and working within it, can sometimes make for interesting side effects.
Kyle Abraham talked about a recent performance of The Radio Show where he noticed, or thought, or imagined (he couldn't be sure), that someone was dancing beside him, someone who, according to his choreography, should not have been there at all. Abraham had earlier mentioned that as he set about working on The Radio Show, he'd gathered some video of his ailing father, hoping to preserve his memory before it was too late. His father — who partially inspired the show — had passed away before seeing the work performed. Abraham knows that his father would have been proud of his son. And so we were left wondering, when we dance in a sacred space, do we ever dance alone?
Another artist who took us for a journey around our soul's home turf was Renaud Garcia-Fons, a master instrumentalist who never seemed to lose his bearings. Before playing each piece, he'd announce where his train was bound and then rattle off to the far horizon, sweeping us along with him. And his music reinforced the proper order of things. Destination, yes, but most important of all, the journey itself. It's useful to recognize that in Spanish, the word "destino" means destination, but it also means fate, the journey our souls undertake.
Which brings us back to Spoleto, not as a festival for the purposes of distraction and entertainment, worthy as those are, but as a spur to real conversational journeys. For an example of this notion, we need only look back to our own pivotal experiences of formal study.
One of the great benefits of higher education is being surrounded by a panoply of thoughts playing out at the highest level. In school, we are dropped into the deep end, challenged, guided, and challenged again. It often seems like much of the learning takes place not in a lecture hall where we're busy scribbling it all down, but tucked away in the corner of a coffee shop or wherever else we've gathered to hammer out what we think we've been learning.
Our conversations are slippery things. We start here, meander around, propose and defend some passing insight only to see it fold back in on itself like a Möbius strip and lead us into unthought-of terrain.
In this sense, we can imagine Spoleto as a lively, pop-up university. The festival serves as that kind of idea environment, and it's no good dipping just a toe in those waters. The real refreshment comes with immersion. We need to get ourselves dripping wet and keep talking until the warm zephyr of conversation has fanned us dry.
I think of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sitting around that restaurant table, two old friends catching up with one another. We can recount the events of our lives, passively, like we can share our recollection of a performance we've just seen. But this is hollow and unsatisfying without drawing on some larger context. Fortunately, providing a larger context — what we've been calling sacred space here — is art's stock in trade. It's the thing art can do best: pierce all our defenses, spin our heads around, and give us a new way of thinking about our world. These conversations don't begin with being handed back the ticket stub and end with the first sip of the post-show cocktail. Those conversations are just getting started.
If Spoleto artists give us anything beyond diversion and aesthetic pleasure, it's the desire to keep the conversation going.
Weigh in with your comments. What has you chatting away in this year's Spoleto?
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