Unfreezing the Cycle of Charity

The other day I was called out for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (more aptly dubbed the “Freeze Your Buns Off” challenge) by a very good friend of mine from college, who not only donated money, but also got himself sopping wet, to great comedic effect.

There’s been a lot of discussion floating around online about this, of course; there’s articles about how doing the challenge does or doesn’t make you a humanitarian (as a life-long vegetarian, I always thought that term seemed humorous, as it seemed to imply that one would be a cannibal); there’s the the “skeptical kid” meme (I’ve seen that same look from my choirboys); one that caught my eye was the mention by another friend about whether this would effect donations for other charities/organizations.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby

Ultimately, I accepted challenge, but decided to alter it a little bit. The ALS foundation has raised a phenomenal amount of money. And that’s great! Organizations like this deserve to have the funds they need to do research and raise awareness of their programs. However, I decided instead to donate to Alzheimer’s research in memory of my grandmother, who had Alzheimers for (as far as we know) the last ten years of her life. Even in the advanced stages of the disease, my grandfather could still get her to smile with certain phrases or absolutely horrendous puns. I remember her walking in to their living room after my brother or I would practice piano, and she’d be a little more lucid for a moment, and she’d sit down and play a hymn or two. (I also remember working on my Dohnanyi technique book and my grandmother asking my mom if I could play something a little more interesting. The lesson: don’t mess with Norwegians.) 

Regardless of what organization I gave to, or whom someone else gave to, or who you give to, if you decide to, (perhaps you should give to the “don’t end clauses with prepositions” foundation; my grammar-sensitive grandfather would have shuddered to read that last part of the sentence), though, the whole Ice Bucket Freeze Your Buns Off Challenge is really remarkable because it shows that gift-motion is alive and well in the 21st century – or at least it can be, in the right circumstances. Lewis Hyde, in his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (since retitled), considers a variety of scenarios about gift-giving, particularly how it runs counter to a commodity culture. A commodity culture is based on rules, regulations, fixed amounts, and boundaries; gifts destroy these. In fact, gifts create and cement community. And, frequently, gifts are costly: in time, or effort, or price. This is because costliness helps create meaning (though meaning doesn’t necessarily have to be costly); if you see a male peacock strut his stuff, he’s sending a reliable (but incredibly costly) signal about his ability to survive predators (and therefore the relative success of his genetic stock) despite that tail he has to drag around. By dumping ice on our heads, or by giving some of our hard-earned money to organizations who will work hard with that money, we are aiding in circulating reliable and costly gift-signals that are working counter to a commodity culture, and lifting up a gift-culture. (We’re also creating some phenomenally awful fail videos, available on Buzzfeed.) It’s creating a bubble of culture wherein it’s not the money or action that we spend that becomes the measure of our social-network-worth, but what we give, whether it’s a monetary donation, a costly signal, or an overly long post. And if we could continue to foster that in our everyday culture – that giving is “worth” more than spending – then that’s a pretty good thing.

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Relative Value

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The Manhattan Skyline

The nature of a blog is, more or less, to offer an outlet for (or a centerpiece for the formation of) opinion. As such, the value of one’s opinion is necessarily variable, dependent upon the predilections of the beholder. Personally, I try to eschew overgeneralized opinion in writing (e.g., “cake batter ice cream is the BEST”) in favor of revealing a thought process that can serve to inform (and, perhaps, inspire, or incite) a reader (e.g., “the richness and smooth texture of the dessert served to emulate the nature of a cake batter, offering a delectable experience to the pallet so inclined”).

Overgeneralized or revelatory, opinion frequently serves to influence the lives and careers of artists of any strain. Painters, writers, composers, performers, actors, dancers, directors–all are subject to both a (likely, ever-changing) set of internal opinions that may serve to make up their own “voice” or “style,” as well as the (welcome or not) judgments of the outside world. Intersections of internal and external opinions can serve as revelatory artistic experiences when one is awake enough to be aware of them.

“Winning,” “Losing,” and In-Between

Recently, the 2013 BMI  Student Composer Awards were announced, honoring a number of rising stars in the compositional community. The youngest winner of the competition was Michael D. Parsons, who also received the Charlotte V. Bergen Scholarship from the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards (the award for the highest-scoring composition from an entrant aged 18 or younger). From the excerpts I’ve heard, the work that placed him in both competitions–Trio, for flute, bass, and clarinet–displays a creative grit that balances gestural force with flexible metric approach, creating the sensation of at once feeling that one has lost one’s sense of direction, yet is sure where one’s next goal should be.

I found myself lost between those two feelings–sure of a goal, yet feeling lost regarding direction–as I anticipated the announcement of the ASCAP awards earlier this year. I had submitted a large-scale piano cycle entitled Colonnades which I had presented on a concert tour three years ago and had finally gotten around to revising this past fall. Social media, which moves faster than the speed of a press release, let me know before I received any other notification that the piece had not garnered an award. Having been sure of the personal import of the piece, I was dismayed that it had not found favor among the judges of the competition. However, a few days following, I received a welcome phone call from the ASCAP foundation informing me that I had been selected as an honorable mention recipient. Though I had originally wished for the (perhaps more formalized) recognition of a “win,” I was elated to have the piece–which had resulted in much sleep deprivation to write, learn, and perform–recognized at all. Had I not found out earlier that I had not “won,” though, the honorable mention might have (read: in all likelihood would have) been experienced as a blow to my ego, and not the professional validation that it was. (Though, it’s interesting to note here that the recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Composition, Caroline Shaw, never received recognition from either ASCAP or BMI.)

(Speaking of relative value, perhaps one of the most personally highly prized moments  from the ASCAP awards was this: a chance to share bunny-ears with the intent musicologist behind P.D.Q. Bach, Peter Schikele.)

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The Call (for Scores) of the Wild

While we can recognize intellectually that awards, prizes, and competitions present a value that is inherently relative (based, as it is, upon opinion, expert as that opinion might be), the emotional impact is often very real. In one sense, these events provide validation for creative endeavors. As committed as one might be to the personal value of the creative act (Beethoven put it less subtly: “What do I care about your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me?”), it can still sting when someone (particularly someone one trusts or admires) does not approve of your work, and it can feel particularly meaningful when someone else finds meaning in your art. But another, more insidious issue, is endemic to a large-scale, partially commercialized, artistic culture: status.

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Toque Macaques

Status, of course, is present in all social species. The trope of “alpha” has influenced “Western” society from kingships to corporations. Frequently, though, the “alpha” figure in a group is not necessarily a leader for the pack, though these roles can go hand-in-hand. For macaque monkeys, the alpha is a social role that determines which male has dominion over mating rights. David Attenborough documents that this can lead to “sneaky” behavior in non-alpha individuals in order to mate, the upshot of which is that the macaques not only have knowledge of social roles, but also figure out how to behave in relation to the knowledge of an other’s mind. Though this is revelatory in and of itself regarding humanity’s place in the natural world, it can also inform us as to what status is all about. It’s not about importance in the social order; it’s about agency. The higher the status of an individual, the more freely they may act within the societal world.

The Last Five Years

This is certainly true for the arts. It is not so much that status means that one is any better or worse an artist, though it can certainly translate into having greater agency to collaborate with others, to bear witness to certain experiences, or even to garner a specific paycheck. For instance, my last five years have been focused upon the work for my doctoral degree in composition. A friend with whom I will be hooded in the commencement ceremony later today described the degree as an essential “calling card” for the 21st-century composer. Though this statement has an obvious and intentional reductionism to it, it’s not far off the mark: the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in Composition is, in one way or another, a mark of intellectual and/or creative status by which one may be judged for certain positions or collaborations.

I did some quick calculations regarding my musical activities during the past years that I was engaged in doctoral work, working out how much music I learned as a church music director, how many hours I had led rehearsals, how many classroom sessions I had taught as a professor, and how much music I had written or arranged. The actual numbers were not important for this exercise, as ultimately it was meant more to self-affirm, to demonstrate to myself a personal benchmark. The act of self-affirmation could certainly be dismissed as pop psychiatry, but I believe it to be essential–albeit sometimes difficult–in competitive artistic climes (e.g., New York City, pictured above). The reason self-affirmation can become wishy-washy is that it can simply be used to “feel good,” rather than being balanced alongside self-awareness. Though I can look at the benchmark numbers I calculated and feel a certain sense of pride in accomplishment, I am at once aware that there were only a fraction which represented moments that exceeded my own expectations in creating a musical experience that I truly, whole-heartedly, and unabashedly loved.

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El Greco, “View of Toledo”

One frequently cited (though arguable) statistic is the 10,000 hours  needed to achieve mastery. Though this may certainly be true of technical skills (scales, pedalboard work, counterpoint, pedagogical theory) artistic pursuits have a subjective element–opinion–that is not so easily quantified. In truth, it would not do to calculate the number of minutes that one is inspired by a friend, brought to tears by Mahler, brought to laughter by Haydn, or enraptured by El Greco. Mastery is ultimately relative, as its status is dependent upon the relative mastery of others. However, devotion to one’s craft is absolute, not because there is one ideal “devotional standard” that exists in some a priori realm, but in that only oneself can judge whether one has met his or her own standards of devotion. In this sense, devotion allows an escape from status, and an entrance to agency. One does not need awards or other forms of status to engage in creative acts, though one may seek teachers, training, or experiences to guide the development of one’s devotion. Status may, for better or worse, influence the societal agency, but one’s creative agency is internal: utterly incomprehensible at times, but ultimately emergent, personal, and wondrous.