“Put your money where your mouth is,” went the advice of a musician friend after reading my first blog post from January and witnessing my prep for the upcoming Summer@Eastman “Sonic Cluster” concert. Well, the concert aimed to do exactly that, but a bit of post-concert reflection may be an interesting exercise. Interesting both for myself, to lay out in writing, point by point, reasons, challenges, expectations and experiences (or, in some cases expectations vs. experiences) and to serve as a point of curiosity or comparison to anyone who has attempted or plans to attempt similar escapades.
The reasons for launching this project were manifold, at times possibly contradictory, and originating both in a positive vision of an artistic conception with a potential for inclusiveness, open-mindedness, and expansion, but also from some frustrations with aesthetic and real-world domains.
Inspired by histories of past collaborations between iconic artists (the Ballets Russes, Stravinsky and Balanchine, and Cage/Cunningham, were a few that immediately fascinated), I wanted to, for a change, take a path that pointed a completely different direction from the standard classical repertoire I had been focusing on in the practice room.
As an audience member, I increasingly found myself seeking out performances that did something unexpected and worked with creative forces in a different way than concerts of traditional classical music. I was and am fascinated when an artistic product is interdisciplinary and it works! “The Old Woman” with Baryshnikov and Dafoe, I think, was such a product, which I got to see by a rare stroke of luck in New York: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/24/theater/the-old-woman-with-willem-dafoe-and-mikhail-baryshnikov.html?_r=0
I also found myself practicing classical music during the day and coming home to turn on The Mars Volta, The Velvet Underground, or one of the other myriad things on my “Jazz/R&R+” playlist. Maybe this music speaks to us in different ways, maybe it speaks more immediately or not, maybe it’s effective for reasons different from those of classical music or not, but what I know is that I enjoy comparing the styles of various rock artists as much as I enjoy listening to classical music.
Finally, innovative programming has been a buzzword in classical music circles and cannot be claimed as a new idea. But from my vantage point, I have witnessed surprisingly little of it. Perhaps others have had fantastic experiences with such programming, but I have not. A great performance of three distinct styles of piano works, a chamber recital with Beethoven and Brahms trios, an orchestral concert with a concerto and symphony by… Beethoven, or a concert devoted to the music of Chopin are fabulous ways to spend an evening. Quite frankly, I wanted more diversity than that; and, breaking out of my mold, I wanted to experiment. So came the idea of rock along classical, two pianos and songs, a new piece commissioned especially for the project, and a dancer, and with it all a desire to attract a varied audience, some of whom may never attend a concert of traditional classical music.
The original vision was to have a large production in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music, to utilize both of its gorgeous concert Steinways, the stage extension for the dancer, great sound reinforcement for the rock set, and light effects to put the event on a different plane visually as well. I wanted to advertise the event to the community through the local papers and radio stations and hoped for a great and diverse audience. I wanted the concert to be fresh and edgy, well rehearsed, and well done to the last detail. Of course this is always our aim.
A few months after booking Kilbourn Hall and being overjoyed that it was available, we found out that it was, in fact, closing for renovation for the duration of the summer. After many circular emails between myself, my collaborative partners, the director of Summer@Eastman, and the Eastman Concert Office, it was finally agreed that, given the amount of stage space our various selections require, our best bet would be the Ray Wright Room (Room 120) at Eastman. This space brought its own unique challenges: the fact that its primary intended use is as a recording studio, which means very dry acoustics, the absence of a stage, rake, and backstage area, the greater unevenness of the two pianos, and a PA system never intended for the sound reinforcement of a rock band.
All in all, the organizational aspects of the project were more than I’ve ever had to face. After finally deciding on a space, the next priority was scheduling a photo shoot and rehearsals with nine people, four of whom were traveling to Rochester from elsewhere. The photo shoot, therefore, had to begin at 12:30am and run to around 2:00am on a “brisk” November night. The good news was that we pretty much had Gibbs Street in downtown Rochester to ourselves. A couple of “Cluster” members drove in that very evening from New York City and drove right to the shoot. Scheduling rehearsals meant coordinating all of our schedules, room, and equipment availability.
Finding a space for the rock band to rehearse on a regular basis was occasionally a challenge as well, but a greater challenge was for the classical pianist with no previous experience to figure out how amplification and balance work in her new context. I found that amps send sound out in one column and, depending on the acoustics of the room, nothing gets sent back to the piano bench. That meant getting an extra amp to point in my direction in order for me to hear what the bass and guitar were doing in rehearsals, while friends who listened to a couple run-throughs were getting plenty of sound. I also learned that even amplified piano has a tough time cutting through drums and electric guitar, and that a good engineer is a must.
Then, of course, there were other nuisances and tasks: There were the last-minute rehearsals of the commissioned piece because two days before the concert was the first time all four players for the piece could get together in one geographical location. Lets just say we needed to learn to count very well very quickly. There were flight delays and missed connections, an impromptu drive to Buffalo and back four days before the concert because of one such travel fiasco, and of course, the story that takes the cake is the one about one “Cluster” member driving from New York City the day before the concert, having to turn around half-way to retrieve his wallet left in his NYC apartment, driving again to Rochester, and missing the dress rehearsal. (That story is my favorite now).
Vision vs. final product
As I put some of these details in writing (oh yes, there were many more!), I realize even more than before that any artistic product, especially one that involves live performance, is a compromise between a vision and the resources available, along with circumstances behind any such performance. Most audiences are unaware of the work that goes on behind the scenes and the Pandora’s Box of issues that surrounds almost any performance event. Nor should they be aware of them. Let us keep the inner-workings of concert life to ourselves; after all, we are partly in it for the lifestyle and the warped kind of excitement it produces. And surely, some performances run smoother than others.
In the end, the performance was a success. At the very least, it generated more discussion than any concert I’ve played before. People were interested in giving feedback, openly shared their impressions of the various aspects of the “show,” and seemed to genuinely enjoy our effort at alternative programming. They also liked the rock set, which pleased me almost more than anything, since that was the limb that stuck the farthest out for me personally. Several people asked us to do it again. Many people could not get in to hear the concert after standing-room-only tickets were sold out.
At times I felt like I was spending more time organizing everything that had to be done than practicing. I wished for more practice time, and I wished for a more relaxing week leading up to the performance. The team effort of this venture was mind-boggling. Friends were willing to travel, rehearse, perform, help with last-minute details and feedback during the entire period of preparation, and most of them for no pay – just an interest in being a part of something different, an interest in collaboration with like-minded musicians, and an interest in supporting friends. Incredible.
I am thankful to the Frank Faculty Development Fund, funding from which was allocated by Dr. Howard Potter, the former director of the Eastman Community Music School, to pay for the creation of the commissioned piece by composer Jung Sun Kang. The ECMS administration, Eastman Technology and Media Production, Concert Office, Instrument Office, Facilities, and Public Relations all provided essential support, as did the mentors to whom I mentioned the project. It is my hope that there will be at least a second “Sonic Cluster” concert.
July 20, 2016 “Sonic Cluster” members:
Jung Sun Kang
Olga K. Shupyatskaya