Music and a Minnesotan Millennial

Music Doodle

Source: northfieldartsguild.org

Today, for a moment, I’m going to deviate slightly from the realm of theater and focus on my relationship with music. This is kind of bio-post and a little odd to share, but it is very relevant to what I do as an artist and something that has been very relevant here recently with my work on shows such as Nina Simone and Complicated Fun, the loss of Prince, and my own realizations through my work and personal life. So, in reaction to the magic that was the Current’s 893 essential albums, please allow me to divulge into my relationship with music.

Back in high school, music was the thing that kept me caring. I found school boring and dull and kind of a terrible place for someone who had anxiety and social issues to be. Playing with the high school concert band gave me a place where I felt that I could fit in and be good at something, as well as developing better communication, finding true friends who would stick by my side and who I would stick up for, and also have the chance to create something amazing. Meanwhile, my own musical tastes were developing – with new technology such as iTunes and the iPod I got for my birthday, I was able to create my own music library and store tunes that influenced me in my childhood – Disney songs, various songs that resonated with me (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Brandy”), and my early Broadway show loves – as well as branching out into new music that would stick with me – Kansas, Green Day, Sara Bareilles, to name a few.

My relationship with music wasn’t easy – no matter how hard I practiced, I never felt good enough. No matter what music I liked, it wasn’t cool enough. By college, I would have a lot of tension with  my relationship with music – I’d audition for the School of Music at the U for music education and was rejected, which came as a relief as I’d come to hate the structure of formal music education. I’d be called a hipster or have my musical tastes be criticized as being “bad” or “too pop” or “bizarre.” I would learn to associate songs with people and have a hard time breaking those associations and struggle to listen to songs without being emotionally tormented with the memories they held. I’d have people assume my feelings weren’t valid about music or that my experiences as a musician weren’t serious. I stopped thinking of myself as a musician and I put aside much of the importance that music held in my life.

This was a terrible mistake. Fortunately for myself, I ended up in theater and remembered how important music is to me, through both observing as an audience member and working on shows as a dramaturg. Working on Complicated Fun has reminded me how formative music was for me in my teen years. Listening to the Current and to other stations such as Jazz88 has helped me to connect with others who have broad musical interests, legitimize my preferences without feeling bizarre or hipster-y, and feel a stronger connection to my community. Watching others perform has encouraged me to get back into playing and even branch out to new musical experiences. Though Prince’s loss has been difficult, it has reminded me that, even when the worst happens, we always have music to hold us up. When people leave us and things get difficult, we always have music to support us. “Purple Rain” will never sound the way it once did, but it is eternal and forever powerful.

I truly believe that Millennials have a unique relationship with music. With new technology, new music listening habits, new genres (and the loss of genres), and different relationships with the artists we listen to, I don’t know a single Millennial that doesn’t have a passionate relationship with music. I believe that for us, much like our Gen X counterparts, it is a way of dealing with a strange world and expressing ourselves, especially in counter to mainstream culture (this especially hit me yesterday when both Gen X-ers and Millennials rejoiced at Nirvana’s Nevermind being named the most essential album). And like other generations for since the 1950s, it’s a bedrock for how we identify and complicate ourselves. I’m still feeling the resonances of Kid Simple‘s focus on the importance of sound, and it’s important to take a moment to recognize that sound and music are two of the most important aspects in theater for me as an artist. Because, for me, it perfectly captures the heart of what we do.

The Critic as an Artist

oscarwilde

Source:thestar.com

This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at Oscar Wilde’s ideas of criticism and how it can become an art form of its own.

If you happened to see The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound at the Guthrie this March, you know how easily theater criticism can go awry and make it only too easy to poke fun at it. But put this behind for a moment and instead regard the critic differently – for instance, from the view of Oscar Wilde.

I am unabashedly an Oscar Wilde fan.  One of my favorite works of his (aside from the brilliance that is The Importance of Being Earnest) is The Critic as an Artist, an essay written as a dialogue between two men. In it, Gilbert and Earnest discuss whether or not artists should pay any mind to critics and what the whole point of judging art is. Earnest argues that art was best when there were no critics, while Gilbert says there have always been critics, explaining how ancient Greece was a society of critics that recognized “the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety.” Criticism from one’s self and others, in Gilbert’s view, allows for artists to find new ways to create and recreate while critics “record one’s own soul” by sharing their own impressions. Art becomes part of one’s personal experiences and can be enjoyed beyond what makes it technically great or meet’s someone else’s expectations.

Gilbert continues to describe the art of criticism, stating that “the actor is the critic of drama,” taking a writer’s work, studying and analyzing it and making it their own in their performance. Works of art are living things and, by interacting with them, we change them and allow ourselves opportunities to grow and complicate ourselves. For Gilbert, art is universal, not just for specialists. In fact, Gilbert argues that great artists cannot really judge their work or the work of others because of their vision. It is better then to be an outside observer who is passionate but not a part of the creation process. There’s a lot of truth to this and some fallacies – I personally think artists  make great critics, though there are instances where they can get hung up on certain aspects because of the work they do. Likewise, misunderstandings from outside observers can occur because they don’t know the depth and work put into an artist process. However, in Gilbert’s world where art is universal, it seems there would be better communication about the creative process and the amount of effort put into artist endeavor would not be overlooked.

Then again, Oscar Wilde isn’t concerned about effort and work levels maintained by artists the way my Marxist (i.e.: class)-tuned brain is (which thanks to my undergraduate degree, it’s a frequency I’m always tuned to). Oscar Wilde was quite the dandy and a hedonist. He focused greatly on aestheticism and the beauty of things over the socio-political importance. Much of his ideas of criticism are contemplating the aesthetic qualities of art. However, his arguments work to support the importance of the ephemeral, so to speak, and the socio-political and deeper humanitarian qualities that make art great, whether he likes it or not. Wilde’s ideas still hold up, even for Marxist theory (“Art is for everyone!” especially). I rather hope that he’d appreciate me taking his ideas and creating new concepts with them, rather than being upset for re-appropriating his ideas to philosophies he had nothing to do with.

Of course the real question about Wilde is does he care so much about aesthetics because people think it’s frivolous and therefore unintelligent and unimportant and is arguing otherwise, or does he really only care about that because he’s a dandy? Or both, because people can be contradictory? I vote for both. Regardless, his writing allows us as artists and critics to reevaluate how we see and interact with the art that is so much a part of our lives. It speaks to the communication between artist and audiences that I strive for and breaks down the pinnacle we place both artists (in terms of perfection) and critics (in terms of being the ultimate source of opinion in art). Plus this piece is full of some of Wilde’s best quotes:

  • “Any idea that is not dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea at all.”
  • “What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”
  • “Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

So if you’re looking for a quick, clever read, I highly recommend this. It celebrates art, the creators of it, and the observers of it in the best of ways and allows for a lot of thought, discussion, disagreement, and growth.

A Shared Experience: How Do We Discuss Art?

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Source: mspmag.com

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at how we think about the shows we watch and how our use of labels cam be harmful.

On March 19th, I attend Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The 20th Century Abridged. It was an incredible performance art concert that was incredibly thought-provoking and has kept me thinking long after I left the theater.

At the beginning of the show, Mac described the performance as a “shared experience, but not a homogeneous one.” We may be watching the same show, but we aren’t all seeing it the same way. As audience members, we were encouraged to embrace whatever we felt and that there was no one correct way to react to the show. In a culture that focuses on feeling just one thing or be only one thing or another, Mac explained, it’s important to embrace “both earnestness and cynicism.”

It’s refreshing to be allowed to accept what you are experiencing, especially the range, the nuances, and the contradictions of reactions, regardless of whether it’s what the rest of the audience is feeling or what the artist wants to see. As a critic and an artist myself, it’s often difficult to figure out how to deal with such responses. All too often, “professional” criticism and conversations about shows become focused on the right or the wrong way to see a show or whether it’s good or bad. I’m far less interested in these things. I’m a highly emotional person and I’m more interested in what a performance makes me feel, what it causes me to think about, what it’s saying about the world around me and what resonates with me.

However, those reactions can’t always be put into the categories we’re used to – art that’s good or bad, art that is happy or sad, art that is simple or complex. Mac, who resists normative categorizations, especially in terms of gender and uses judy as a pronoun, is the perfect voice to support the resistance of lumping art off in the same way. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever like all parts of a show and wrong to pretend we do. It feels wrong to use words that hold a moral stance – such as good or bad – to describe performances and it seems too final to think that our opinions on shows won’t change overtime or with further thought. There are many shows I disliked at the moment and grew to like overtime and shows I enjoyed until thinking of further contexts and realized their flaws. Final judgement in reviewing a show is a difficult notion but one that is expected and one that I am drawn to resist. As we shouldn’t segment people into static categories that never change (I’m thinking in terms of labels or personality classifications here), we likewise shouldn’t segment the art they make either.

Mac stated during the performance that judy focuses on humanity rather than perfection. I aim to do that my own creative work and reviewing. For when we put perfection aside, we can begin to think about why we create art, why we watch it, and why it’s important to us. And when we ask those questions, we deepen our understanding not only of art, but of ourselves.