Sunday, June 26, 2011

Expert Opinions

In a recent discussion among a group of professional musicians and artists, I was stuck by the comment, We're all experts at something...  It would probably be an accurate statement in any group, but it's quite different from a phrase often used by one of the leaders in another group with which I worked: None of us here is an expert...  I think these two very different perspectives open up possibilities for very different results.

The word "expert" has actually become suspiciously uninformative.  According to Tim Ferris, you can legitimately call yourself an expert if you've read the three top-selling books on a topic.  Perhaps in some situations that's enough, but it isn't always sufficient for me to trust my knowledge of a subject.  I am much more confident claiming to be an expert in the field of music, because I've been doing that for over 30 years.  I guess from my perspective, experience has something to do with the definition of an expert.  There are a few other niches that I feel qualified to call myself an expert as well, but there are also other people from whom I could learn a thing or two.  Even within the broad field of music, there are areas that I don't consider myself expert, like playing bassoon or crafting a violin.  So whether one is legitimately qualified as an expert sometimes depends on the context as well.

For someone to state, "None of us is an expert here," is intended to open up creative and full participation from everyone present.  If no one is an expert, then everyone's opinion is equally valid.  If no one is an expert, then no one can pass judgment on the ideas that are shared.  But if no one is an expert, then everything shared becomes reduced to opinion and decisions get made based on the most powerful personalities rather than the most accurate data.  If no one is an expert, then it actually devalues the collective experiences of the group. This is a great way to preserve the status quo, but not a great way to move forward and grow.

"We are all experts at something," is equally intended to encourage creative and full participation from everyone present, except with a bit more wisdom and insight thrown into the mix.  It begs the question, "What is my area of expertise?  What do I know more about than most people here?"  It means that everyone has something to offer, but it also means that everyone has something to learn.  You are an expert at something, and everyone else here is an expert at something.  No one is better than anyone else in that case.  Everyone simply has something different to bring to the table.

I'm not trying to hide which perspective I respect more.  The most productive, honest, and healthy situation I can imagine for a group is one in which everyone's expertise is acknowledged and valued.  In assembling a group for a special project, it makes sense to bring together people that have different pockets of expertise that are important to the task.  This is obviously more valuable than just a group of willing people without a clue. 

The trick is recognizing one's own strengths and weaknesses and being willing to bring both forward.  Some people don't want to bring their strengths to the foreground because they want to be modest or humble, or they think that their ideas will be shot down, or they doubt the value of their own experience.  Others live under the impression that they don't actually have any weaknesses, that there is nothing they need to learn and no task that someone else could do better.  Both are equally dysfunctional.  As the philosopher admonished, "Know thyself."  A wise person is willing to fully claim their expertise and fully accept the expertise of others.  And a group of people with that attitude in place could do something truly remarkable.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being Wrong

At one point, I worked with an organization whose members endeavored not to make other people wrong. It was an actual agreement among the leadership of the organization, but it was also a practice encouraged among its members. Not making other people wrong may seem like an awkward turn of phrase, but it essentially means accepting the validity of someone else's feelings and perspectives without insisting on being right. When we get into a right and wrong mindset, it is usually ourselves we would prefer to be right and the other person we'd prefer be wrong, so agreeing not to make another person wrong is a way of saying, "I don't need to be right. I'm open to other perspectives and ideas."

The intent, of course, was to encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, as well as receptivity and open-mindedness.  If I won't be criticized for what I say because no one going to make me wrong, then I'll be a lot more likely to contribute my ideas. The problem is that sometimes people are wrong.  Sometimes, people have faulty or incomplete information, and sometimes people draw erroneous conclusions from the information they have.  There are people and groups that continue banging their heads against proverbial walls because no one tells them that they're not looking at useful or accurate data. 

Now, you may conclude that there is a way to indicate that data is inaccurate or incomplete without insisting that an individual is "wrong".  That may have been the whole point of the agreement not to make other people wrong.  But when a person is on the receiving end of that communication, it can be pretty easy for our minds to translate even well-thought-out criticism as, "I'm wrong".  On top of that, one can spend so much effort verbally distinguishing a belief from the believer that any real meaning is lost. 

Of course, belief is the whole issue.  Once I look at a set of numbers and draw a conclusion, that conclusion quickly becomes a belief of mine, whether it's accurate or not.  Challenging someone's beliefs is a big deal.  It's understandable why a person would feel attacked when personal beliefs are on the line.  As you might imagine, many discussions degenerated into whether or not someone had made someone else wrong and never really got back to meaningful topics.  Sometimes everyone just drew different conclusions, and there was no way to reconcile them all into one perspective.  Even when you know that someone's information is inaccurate, if you don't want to be accused of making them wrong, you have to come up with just the right way to convince them to reexamine what they believe without having the tables turned back on your own beliefs. 

The result of that seemingly noble agreement was that everyone's ideas and perspectives were not equally considered, and everyone's conclusions were not equally scrutinized.  Nor should they have been necessarily, except that the claimed framework for interaction suggested otherwise. Just having a policy of honesty and maintaining an open forum where being wrong was OK would have been much easier and, I think, more effective.

I am sometimes wrong.  Everyone I know is sometimes wrong.  We get information and draw conclusions.  When we get more information, we confirm or adjust those conclusions.  We're doing this constantly.  There's no way that anyone can go through life without believing something that's a little bit off at some point.  The challenge for me is not to avoid making other people wrong; it's to be willing to accept when I am wrong about something.  It's not the end of the world.  If it's a big deal not to make someone else wrong, that becomes a threatening situation.  If someone suggests that I'm wrong, I have to defend myself because they're out of line?  Not really.  If we never figure out where we are wrong in our conclusions, we can never improve anything, unless it's sheer luck.  

There isn't necessarily a right and wrong in every situation, and some people will point out a perceived mistake when they don't have accurate information themselves.  Sometimes, there is absolutely a gentle way to let someone else know that they've jumped to a conclusion that doesn't quite make sense, and I'm all in favor of providing more useful data to someone if they're willing to hear.  I think words spoken in love will always be easier to hear.  But the biggest thing is not being afraid to be wrong.  It will happen.  Best to have trustworthy people around you who will send up the red flags rather than perform semantic acrobatics.  

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Taking the Music Where It Wants to Go

Earlier this year, I started work on a woodwind quintet.  I had been thinking about the piece for awhile, but it wasn't until a few months ago that I set aside time to actually put notes down on the page.  For a few weeks, the writing was going well.  We were busy with a move and getting settled in a new city, but I was able to work on the piece consistently enough that the ideas were cohesive.  Since I had a clear impression of the musical ideas I was using, the composition flowed fairly easily.  That is, until it didn't.

At one point, in early May, I hit an obstacle with the piece, and I didn't know what it was.  I was simply dissatisfied with what I was creating.  The piece was becoming complicated, unwieldy to perform, and overly demanding to the listener.  I was not enthusiastic about working on the music, and I found myself making excuses or finding distractions to avoid the piece.   I knew that I had somehow gone astray with the piece, but I wasn't sure what to do about it.

So, I worked on other things for awhile.  I allowed myself to set the quintet on a back burner and started doing more with recording, focusing on a completely different kind of piece.  After a few weeks of wrestling with computer issues, fine-tuning virtual drums, and learning more about vocal recording, I had a good start on a recording of an original song.  Somewhere in the midst of that process, I also realized something about the quintet: I was trying to take the piece in a direction it didn't need (or want) to go.

Although it may be a strange way to look at musical ideas, there are a few natural directions for them to evolve over the course of a piece and there are tons of awkward, tedious, or uninteresting directions they can go.  In working with the quintet, I had begun to make things more complicated than they needed to be, taking the music in directions that were forced and unnatural.  Once I realized that by keeping things simple I could actually create a more effective piece, I was ready to dive back into composing the quintet.

At this point, I'm expecting to complete the writing-the-notes-down-on-the-page portion of the compositional process in the next couple of days.  Then there are some other performance elements of the piece that I am eager to tackle, keeping in mind that these things can be both simple and effective.  Working with creative ideas is a partnership of sorts, whether it's music or color or words or movement.  There are certain traps I sometimes fall into about how complicated or difficult a piece of music has to be in order to be considered "legitimate".  When I remember that I care more about the music being an effective and compelling experience for the listener, my choices almost always become clearer.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lessons from "Hydrogen Jukebox"

Photo by Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Opera
I attended a performance of Hydrogen Jukebox presented as part of Fort Worth Opera's 2011 Festival.  The music is by Philip Glass, and the text is by Allen Ginsberg.  The two of them actually collaborated on the project; it wasn't just a matter of the composer grabbing text he liked and running with it.  I think that sort of partnership can really pay off with presentational art, even though I don't really know how well they worked together.

Truth be told, I don't really like putting on a set of headphones and listening to Philip Glass compositions.  In some institutions of higher learning, his music is ridiculed because of its simplicity.  Heck, I've made fun of his music with a room full of theory students.  Though it may not be explicitly said, the message in some composition programs comes across as, "Write whatever you like, as long as it sounds complicated enough to impress someone."  Minimalism a la Philip Glass certainly does not apply.

What they don't bring into the conversation, though, is the fact that so much of the music Glass writes is only part of the overall experience.  There is also choreography or staging or other engaging presentational elements that go hand-in-hand with the music.   In the context for which it was created, the music becomes not only highly appropriate but incredibly effective.  I walked out of Hydrogen Jukebox thinking (among other things), "How has this work not been programmed in this country for 20 years!?"

The music is rather repetitive, although there is a fair bit of variety over the course of the entire piece.  Still, just looking at the score could trigger all manner of preconceived notions of how boring minimalist music can be.  It is a widely-held belief that if an arts organization dares to program "new" music, it will lose a significant portion of its audience.  I don't know how true that actually is, but if that concern exists, then an organization is likely to consider a minimalist composer so niche within the realm of "new" music that it would have additional hurdles to clear.  Convincing a ticket-buying public to come and see something they start off thinking they'll hate is not an appealing prospect.

It also doesn't have a real plot.  The official term for Hydrogen Jukebox is 'melodrama', and as such there are no clearly-defined stock characters involved in typical operatic relationships.  There are singers, and there is action, but it isn't easy to say what the story is about.  Even the most convoluted traditional opera can be summed up in a couple of sentences well enough for a potential audience member to know what to expect.  It can potentially be more of a challenge to interest people in a relatively unknown work that doesn't fit neatly into a pre-packaged formula.

The subject matter is also mature, which to some people means unsafe.  Ginsberg's poetry challenges society to a potentially uncomfortable level of self-examination which only becomes more poignant when set effectively to music.  Compared to just hearing the poem read, music allows for longer pauses between sung lines.  Instead of waiting for someone to say what comes next in the poem, an audience can accept that instrumental space between the words is part of the setting, and this allows the words a few more moments to sink in.  And what sinks in is challenging.  In a time when some people are looking for a reason to complain, a piece that is blatantly more than sheer entertainment is ripe for criticism.

Don't get me wrong.  People complain plenty when their entertainment isn't exactly how they expect it to be.  Heaven forbid a work of art should actually make them think as well.  Even though that mindset only describes a very small portion of the art-viewing public, it's no fun for an organization to defend itself against such an onslaught of ignorance.  When there are safer works out there with more widespread appeal and less preconceived opinions to fend off, I suppose I can see why Hydrogen Jukebox isn't programmed somewhere in the country every year.  But it should be.

Photo by Ellen Appel/Fort Worth Opera

The themes about war, gender identity, societal values, love, environmentalism, and homosexuality are as appropriate today as they were when the work premiered in 1990, if not more so.  The music is accessible, and as I have said, impeccably engaging in the context of the work.  And whatever fears or preconceived notions may send up red flags for a company considering programming the work, the Fort Worth Opera's production was completely sold out before the festival even opened.  Considering all of the potential challenges that seem inherent with a work like Hydrogen Jukebox, it's worth noting that most of the handful of complaints about the production came from people who didn't even deign to attend a performance.

I take a lot away from all of this.  Once again, I am reminded that music does not need to be complicated in order to be enjoyable or effective or "aesthetically viable," and I have an opportunity to reassess some of my current projects.  I am convinced even more strongly of the power of theatrical elements to attract an audience to a live performance in an age where music can be downloaded for a dollar.  I also see how insignificant potential potholes can turn into mountainous obstacles in my own mind, how a few ridiculous complaints from self-important individuals can cast the illusion that the entire world is against something, and how much more powerful authentic art is than any amount of ignorance or prejudice.