In this digital age, the days of receiving a new piece in the mail are gone. There is no sheer glee at ripping open the envelope and eagerly taking out what awaits inside. Instead there is an email in your inbox that you’ve checked while doing who knows what, and opening up the attached PDF and looking at the score within the ridiculous constraints of your iPhone is certainly not ideal, but it will suffice for the moment because you are just that excited.
It is the most amazing thing to have people write music just for you. It feels like an honor and a privilege. But it is truly something special to have your close friends write for you, because of course in the best scenarios those pieces end up being aural representations of the friendship you have with that person.
Nico Muhly wrote me a new piano piece called Perpetual Motion that I premiered a few months ago. I had crazy delight in looking at the sketches of it he sent me and having a dialogue back and forth about it.
So imagine how excited I was to finally receive the completed piece. Nico has written two excellent pieces for Eighth Blackbird, but a solo piece is something different. He obviously knows my playing well, and the strengths of my playing, but a solo piece written by good friend sounds like an awesome combination of the composer and the performer. After playing the piece for Nico in person for the first time, I said, “I so love it. It’s so ME, but it’s also so YOU.” And Nico was just like, “Well, that’s what happens when you write your friends music!” He’s right, of course.
Nico is a close friend, collaborator, and an important part of my community. He is also a connector. He loves to introduce people that he thinks will like each other, and he does it quite passionately. I am the same way. It gives me great joy to connect people. Some of my close friends are a result of a mutual friend simply saying to me, “Do you know so-and-so? You should. You guys would really like each other. I’ll introduce you guys over email.” The musical niche that I operate in is small. I am the founding pianist for eighth blackbird, and this our 20th season together. And even though the community of people in this niche has definitely expanded, it is still, relatively speaking, not that big. Therefore, it is actually incredibly easy to connect with and be connected to others within this hub.
I have definitely had the advantage of feeling like my own community developed in large part because I was already part of an ensemble. Being in a chamber-music group gives you a built-in community immediately. Your band mates are like your crazy, fun, dysfunctional musical family. With a group of six, that is a lot of existing relationships and connections that are available to you right off the bat. Looking back over my 20 years in this group, the thing that is most apparent to me is how initial relationships in our fledgling years are still there now. In 1997 at the Norfolk Chamber Music contemporary music seminar, eighth blackbird had the great pleasure of meeting David Lang. David has been a friend and mentor to us since then, and we are about to premiere an evening-length work by him, the second big piece he has written for us.
I have countless stories like this. And when I am in educational settings and students ask me or the group what is the best career advice we have for them, I always say the same thing: “Look around you. These are your people. Your peers and friends are your network. Be nice to everyone, because you never know who your friends are connected to.” Seeing it written out, I suppose it looks cliché or trite – but damn, nothing could be truer.
I recently did a crowd-funding campaign to help raise the funds for my first solo album. I had never done this before, though I certainly have been a contributor to my friends’ campaigns. My presence on social media is average: I don’t do Twitter though I love Instagram, and I use Facebook somewhat regularly. At any rate, I was actually rather astounded and humbled by the support my campaign received. So many people shared my link, not just once but multiple times. People who I hadn’t heard from in years gave generous donations. People from high school, people from grad school, people who I have met recently. My strategy was very basic: I wrote personal emails to my community of people, and asked them directly to give money. I think that strategy typically yields a large percentage of return, and I turned out to be right. But what was surprising to me was the amount of people who gave contributions that I hadn’t even personally asked for money. That was truly amazing to me. My community turned out to be much larger than perhaps I was even aware.
I use this story not as way to demonstrate how to run a successful crowd-sourcing campaign, but rather to illustrate my point about the importance of community. Your peers and your friends and your family are your community, and they’re all you’ve got. Be a connector, introduce your friends to people whom you think they are simpatico with. Follow up with people you’ve said you’d follow up with; write actual snail-mail thank-you cards to presenters and friends who have helped you. I guarantee that your life will only be enriched. Mine certainly has been.
Born in Motown, Lisa Kaplan is a pianist specializing in the performance of new work by living composers. Kaplan is also the founding pianist of the Grammy Award-winning sextet eighth blackbird. She has won numerous awards, performed all over the country and has premiered new pieces by hundreds of composers.
If you’ve followed the career of David Lang, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and co-founder of the revolutionary activist new-music collective Bang on a Can, for any significant amount of time, you might…umm…worry just a little bit. Not about his talent, originality, or capacity for innovation, certainly. But if you’ve been around from near the start, you kind of have to wonder about Lang’s seeming preoccupation with cruelty, extending from early works up to the loser, the 60-minute opera for solo baritone, piano, and small ensemble presented in its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House Sept. 7-11.
Okay, I’m kidding – I’m not actually concerned about Lang, a friendly and generous member of the musical community. Still, it’s hard to overlook the darkness that runs through several of his prominent works. Remember the unsettling start of his 1987 piece Are You Experienced? “Hello, I’m David Lang,” the composer recites, deadpan. “I know you were looking forward to hearing this piece, but something terrible has just happened. While we were busy setting up, someone crept up silently behind you and dealt a quick blow to the side of your head.”
What follows is droll, clinical, and morbid by turns, set to some of Lang’s most insouciant, peppy music. Further examples would follow: the ominous mystery of the difficulty of crossing a field, the chilly anguish of little match girl passion, the amorous torment of love fail, the livid guignol of anatomy theater. Lang seems fascinated by dark matter, responding with settings that are not just provocative, but also distinct, individual, and strikingly empathetic.
For the loser, which Lang not only composed but also directed in its premiere staging for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, that empathy extends beyond the score. Everything about the presentation underscored sensations intrinsic to Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel (distilled by Lang from Jack Dawson’s English translation), in which an unnamed narrator, formerly a promising pianist, recounts meeting Glenn Gould in a Salzburg master class led by Vladimir Horowitz.
Its considerable historical liberties notwithstanding, the story details the impact a brush with the incomparably brilliant Gould would have on the narrator and their fellow student, Wertheimer – in the process prompting reflection on the destructive potential of both genius and its absence. “When we meet the very best, we have to give up, I thought,” the narrator says, his declaration followed with a pregnant pause. (That he regularly appends such self-reflexive tags to his observations emphasizes his solitude.) Spiritually scorched by Gould’s incandescence in Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, both the narrator and Wertheimer – the “loser” of the title – would abandon artistic paths; the narrator contemptuously, Wertheimer self-destructively.
The versatile, charismatic baritone Rod Gilfry, in the lone vocal role, performed tuxedo-clad and spotlit in an otherwise darkened house. He stood perched atop a 20-foot platform planted in the orchestra-level seating, singing to an audience confined to the mezzanine. An arresting tableau, the arrangement emphasized the narrator’s comprehensive isolation and smug, self-important demeanor, feigned or otherwise. Gilfry sang with potency and nuance, working further wonders with facial expressions, gesture, and posture. Amid unconventional constraints he delivered lacerating bravura, his haughty declamations regularly moving audience members to laughter.
Below, hidden from audience view, the conductor Karina Canellakis guided a tiny consort (violist Isabel Hagen, cellist Clarice Jensen, bassist Lisa Dowling, percussionist Owen Weaver) in pithy music that paced, juddered, stabbed, and sometimes sang. Framing Gilfry’s busy delivery rather than mimicking or pushing it, spare instrumental lines established mood quietly: sometimes in accord with the narrative thrust, elsewhere seemingly contradicting it.
Close to the end of the loser, the pianist Conrad Tao comes into view, lit gently on the distant stage. A ghostly apparition, Tao represents the specter of Gould, and more pertinently of Gould’s idealized, unattainable genius. Wisely, Lang provides the pianist with crystalline, meandering original music rather than quoting Bach, assuring that his audience isn’t wrenched out of the intensely concentrated microcosm he has created.
Further credit is due: to set designer Jim Findlay for helping Lang to realize his unlikely and evocative construction; to Jennifer Tipton for lighting of exceeding subtlety; to Jody Elff for effective sound design; and to Suzanne Bocanegra for smartly severe couture. It all added up to an encounter that was strangely engaging if not wholly comfortable: a striking meditation on brilliance, mediocrity, and the cruel toll that can be exacted at either extreme, in a production whose every aspect illuminated its core obsession. Less jarring than a sudden, unexpected blow to the head, certainly – yet the impact was equally indelible.