[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013
[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging. Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won. But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]
Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.” He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion. He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles. I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.
[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]
Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).
[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard. The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression. And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later. I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]
Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”
[Indeed. One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma. I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess. My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—
—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]
Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward. He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.
There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential. “What would equality look like? What would it sound like?”
Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts. She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma. I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.
Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended) that the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around. One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”
[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.” Perhaps its exit is also messy. I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine. I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work. I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format. Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma. I have had enough bleeding for now. Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]
Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.” The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.” Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.
Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach. Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about. He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.”
It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated. Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all. Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year. I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.
These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”
March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness. Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating. The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while. I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly. Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together. I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit. Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.
March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world. Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists. It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.
April 1: a good day to post at face value. Time to listen to the birds, head out, and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.
*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs. “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.
Formerly posted elsewhere by Barbara White, October 11, 2013
Thank you for calling attention to this issue, for covering it with nuance, and for including counterexamples. This eruption has an all too familiar shape: there is the A theme (inane offending statement), the B theme (understandably outraged response), and . . . well, not a lot of development. Recapitulations abound though: Twenty-five years ago Rolf Smedvig, trumpeter with the BSO, claimed that women lacked the equipment to play brass instruments, and there was outcry; in 2013, despite certain improvements in circumstances, the nature of the discussion itself has not changed all that much.
The very question, “Why aren’t there more female conductors?” shapes the discussion by implying that there is a clearly identifiable cause for underrepresentation and that the interviewee himself possesses a sophisticated and worthy understanding of a complex societal problem; this invites him to express his unconsidered biases and just make something up. When posed to a (specific) male figure who, it appears, has had no incentive to consider his male privilege, and who does not care about the underrepresentation of women in his field, the response is more a script than an exchange: a man exposing his inadequacy by claiming (yawn) that women are “weak.”
Consider a different question: “How do you go about fostering equity and respect in the workplace to make sure that the profession can ascend to the highest possible level?” I don’t for a moment think the esteemed gents cited here would start waxing poetic about diversity and inclusion, but it would take a step away from these unwitting invitations to proclamation one’s incomparable virility: “Why no women? Because my penis rules! Only I can wield the wand!” (Yawn again.)
And why is this called a “women problem”? (I know this may not be the author’s title.) Could NPR instead dare to title this article, “Gender discrimination persists amongst prominent male conductors”? Or, “Misogyny hinders excellence in classical music”? Or, “Male privilege still enjoyed by highly paid time-beaters?”
It is heartening to read, “I would like to hear the women in our community speak up as well, without fear of embarrassment, contempt or retribution.” And there are those of us who do speak up and write about such matters; I am only one who has done so. But the sad reality is that, in addition to the necessary burden of some of us (some women and a few men) taking on a second shift by addressing and resisting unequal treatment, those of us who advocate for equity do experience retaliation every day. And women are socialized to downplay the intransigence of inequity, encouraged instead to internalize the Ayn Randian notion that those who are tough enough will succeed and those who speak up about discrimination are just whiners—to focus on individual will and determination instead of systemic mechanisms that render some more equal than others. Ask a woman in a male-dominated field whether she has experienced discrimination (another one of those cocked questions), and see whether she checks the box yes or no. It’s another script, and a reply of, “No, no, not at all; I’m too strong for that” is positively reinforced. So, inviting women to speak up without fear is laudable but may—although this is absolutely inexcusable—cause even more harm to women. Even in 2013. Sad but true.
For example, here is another prominent conductor speaking on the dearth of women in the field, ten years ago: “I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!” Who was that? Marin Alsop. It was posted on her site in 2003 as part of a
reply to the question, “Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?” It’s still there.
I was cooking right along in Robert Fink’s “The Musicology of the Present,” or so I—at least I think it was I—thought. Arriving at the end of the epigraph, I got stuck on something he did not say:
. . . the musicologists are all off doing gender studies . . .
Off where? The gender studies section is off somewhere? Where? And they’re all there? Can you point me in the right direction?
(This was a while ago, and third-hand, so I realize it may be difficult.)
And then, there was something he did say but really didn’t:
. . . we became caught up in gender . . .
Gender is something that one can “[become] caught up in”? Does that not mean it is something one can refrain from getting caught up in? Or become not caught up in? I suppose one can avoid going off, then. Where they all are.
Speaking of where, I suspect that this subject, “we,” is decentered. But I’m not sure, since I got my Lacan from “Žižek”—understandably, because Lacan tells me I do not exist. I think it has something to do with “the subject [referring] to some decentered other to whom he or she imputes this belief.” This sometimes gets confusing, because the externalized statement is mistakenly read as an earnest statement of the speaker rather than an implicit attribution to an absent but existent “we.”
Are you with me?
I predict there will be replies attributing this statement to Robert Fink. Yup, there’s one.
But he did not advocate this statement; rather he inferred it,—or, better identified it—as something that seems to be here and there. It can be worthwhile to reach out and grab these notions that float unacknowledged in the aether.
On the other hand, this he did say they said:
Richard Taruskin, like the equally prolix J.K. Rowling, has been adamant that the long narrative arc of his series is over, and there will be no sequels.
Well if the history of Taruskin is ended, we can at least probe a couple of years earlier into the history of musicology in order to consider the eminent scholar’s critique of John Adams’s “crybaby role.” That is a statement this subject did pronounce. More than once.
(Has J.K. Rowling weighed in on this yet?)
Kyle Gann reports a discussion about “narrative history”:
. . . there won’t be any contemporary accounts of history for future gender studies scholars to work from.
From accounts, to where? I am still finding it hard to locate things. I gather we (whoever that is) record the data here (wherever that is) and now (this concept I think I understand), and later on (got it), the gender studies crew (the ones who are all off somewhere) comes in (here? or do they stay over there?) to do the gender part. (Will there be gender studies scholars in the future? And off where will they be? [For that matter, will there be scholars in the future?])
There is a good example of this division of labor—accounting and gendering—close at hand. Of Gann’s excellent book, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33”,” Branden W. Joseph writes,
Refreshingly, Gann casually and straightforwardly acknowledges Cage’s homosexuality, although he relegates any reading of 4’33” as an act of thwarted expression in a period of widespread homophobia—as argued by Caroline Jones, Jonathan Katz, and, most recently, Philip Gentry, among others—to a footnote.(4)
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Gender is not where Gann’s silence is, but it is where some other subjects are speaking, and Joseph can point the way.
Cage, the man, is unlikely to have been glimpsed in person by anyone now under thirty, and few now living were present at the premiere of 4’33”, so he hardly counts as a present-day figure, except in his reverberations, which are loud. This makes for an interesting compositional and musicological circumstance. (Yale University Press anoints 4’33” an “icon”—alongside Wall Street, Joe DiMaggio, and the hamburger. I think the word “icon” may have had a different constitution when they instituted their series.)
It is getting harder and harder to tell where “here” is and who “we” is,—I mean, are—and how, if “all” are “off” it could be considered “off” at all. While I await further clarification on the topography, though I suspect it will change again before it is explained, here (!) are a few tidbits from my (I think) reading list:
Robert Fink on minimalism and opera; Kyle Gann on John Cage; Yayoi Uno Everett on Louis Andriessen; Naomi Cumming, and Sumanth Gopinath, on Steve Reich; Lydia Goehr on American opera (and John Cage); Michael Wyatt on Messaien; Majel Connery on Peter Maxwell Davies (and Thomas Adès); Lisa Coons on Laurie Anderson (and Diamanda Galás, and Antony and the Johnsons). There is also Alice Miller Cotter’s current research on John Adams; Stefan Weisman’s dissertation on Yoko Ono; and more. Oh, I have a few little things too, but I would not want to appear self-aggrandizing by recommending them. Plus, there is the Internet. And regarding 4’33”, don’t miss Branden W. Joseph’s “White on White” in Critical Inquiry, though it is not, strictly speaking, musicology (which one could say some of the others also are not). I am not sure where to put it. But I am glad to have it.
Where is “the near blackout of attention to contemporary composing?” Is it here, or is it off somewhere? How do I find it? And when you throw a spitball, is it from here to there, or there to here? I really want to know, because I’d rather not find one stuck on the back of my head.
Has anyone written about Laura Kaminsky’s opera “As One,” yet? (Or Susan Narucki’s multiply authored Cuatro Corridos? Or my Weakness, for that matter?)
Where is the data? Where is the gender? I do understand it comes second; that’s good to know. Does the second shift pay time and a half? And what comes after?
—Barbara A. White