Ready, Set, Go: Why Intelligence Trumps Intellect in the Arts—an Apologetic and an Introduction

After cheaply throwing about musical and philosophical mandates via my all too convenient internet blog, I eventually ran into a wall of questions considering my writings.  Why do I write?  What am I trying to prove?  Who am I writing for?  The answers centralized in expressing and refining a worldview that could stay meaningful through time and serve others in their journey towards becoming better musicians, or at least enlighten and amuse them along the way.  Concerning the blog, I eventually ran out of one-stop shopping list ideas to coherently discourse about save the occasional interesting trip recounted in a literary fashion.  I began to reflect on what was important to me and decided that my interest in music needed to be disseminated, not based out of some intellectual glut of superiority but out of practicality, a carefully considered perspective for guiding someone else who might dare to try something along the same lines as I do.  I found myself surrounded by teachers who encouraged in the details of knowing the score at hand without addressing in broad brushstrokes the challenges of a modern career.  It is precisely that issue which I craved to grasp: a twenty-first century blueprint, a thoughtful proposal for the path of an artist.  For all of my one-cent concerts and thousand-dollar recitals, diploma-laced essays, independent investigations, and continent hopping travels, I still had not launched out my ideas and taken off my pants to world criticism for all to see.

Ready, Set, Go: Why Intelligence Trumps Intellect In the Arts is not about nasal lectures and cerebral discourse nor does it consist of magical formulas and ninety minute fix-it programs.  It is made for people who want to do something musically meaningful in their life, but might not have any idea how that could develop.  Like the main title, this book has three parts to it.  In Ready, I aim to cultivate a mentality and worldview that is worthy of the career to which the reader feels compelled to pursue.  In a world featuring many shades of gray, the artist must take a black and white stance towards their pursuits.  Indifference and indecision remain one of the most damaging positions one can take in the world of music; this attitude of not knowing what is good and what is not suspends decision-making and leads to aborted musical encounters.  The artist must prepare themself in advance.  Set will set the table of experience to place the reader in a position to succeed.  At this point, the chapters will concern taking surrounding elements such as friends, resources, and the community to the highest level of efficiency.  This is not about using people, it concerns engaging others in order to build and improve on abilities.  Any success obtained comes in no small degree from the help of others, and this reality drives to the core of this discussion.  It is the people around us that make us the individuals capable of completing the work required to achieve our goals.  Go does not concern instant success, but it will discourse a way for forward progress.  In this section, I begin by discussing how to know when the time is right to leave behind the apprentice mentality, the value of location in building successful projects, and model notable examples of other artists gone before.

Ultimately, this book is written with one goal in mind: to empower the musician to find their own solutions.  Successful performing in the arts does not require a fine arts degree or the right teacher; it requires an evolving work ethic and a keen ear.  Ready, Set, Go will make provision for those important details along the way.

The Right to Sing?

One recent performance by the Eastman Saxophone Project (ESP), a transcription by Dannel Espinoza of the Rite of Spring, has recently gone viral on YouTube with over 11,000 views in two days.* Thirteen saxophonists along with five percussionists join together to interpret this Stravinsky masterpiece in a riveting performance dedicated to making century-old music in a new way à la timbre of the saxophone. The execution is compelling, the memorization shocking, the interpretation rampant and unrestrained. No longer a ballet nor orchestral work, Espinoza has effectively transformed the Rite of Spring into chamber music. Such a charismatically executed performance speaks volumes concerning the state of the modern affairs of the saxophone—an adaptable instrument demonstrating a capability for authentic recognition in most Western musical settings.

Perhaps today, the response to this rendition remains comparable to the premiere of the work and the uproar caused by the Parisian audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. In that commotion, the tradition-embracing aristocratic elite found much to differ with in the enthusiastic position of the bohemian revolutionaries also in attendance (paraphrase of the Wikipedia entry on the subject). The conflict between the groups eventually directed its way towards the stage and while Steven Walsh contends that such outbursts were “targeted as much at Nizhinsky (whose choreography of Debussy’s Jeux two weeks earlier had been disliked),” (quote found in the Grove Music Stravinsky bio) the music made a primordial exhibition of the angular accent placed over ostinato phrasing.

One hundred years later I find myself pitted against a posh musical milieu interested in revering the past by performing chic saxophone arrangements of Bach, Handel, Khachaturian, and Stravinsky; ESP is certainly not the first to do this although they may be among the most talented to realize it. In my experience such concerts often receive enthusiastic audience approval, but what does such a performance truly accomplish? Rather than proposing original repertoire that builds on the standards of great musical predecessors, these musicians choose to bask alongside those same whitewashed cadavers and blinding legacies of tradition. History will not remember such parasitic endeavors! The reward for such a performance finds its full and fleeting weight in thumbs-up YouTube votes and friendly backslaps found in a far too often innocent and undemanding public.

No, the solution for the concert saxophonist cannot nestle in the repertoire and history of other instruments, but rather must embrace its own reality and potential in classical music. Saxophonists accomplish nothing by ogling at outlying performance settings and glorifying the history of a genre not their own; an inherently versatile instrument does not necessarily merit its exploitation into every possible performance situation. Such musical masturbation may be useful as a learning tool as I imagine ESP saxophonists now know the Rite of Spring better than most orchestral musicians, but the end result still leaves me yearning for the real thing.

*Since the publication of this article, Boosey & Hawkes music publishers has eliminated the video from YouTube on grounds of copyright infraction.