“Moving At the Speed of Thought”—Or, A Drop of Liquid Sunshine

[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013

[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging.  Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won.  But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]

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Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.”  He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion.  He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles.  I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.

[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]

Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).

[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard.  The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression.  And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later.  I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]

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Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”

[Indeed.  One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma.  I marvel at my profession's expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess.  My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called "a vale of soul-making"—

—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, "You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]

Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward.  He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.

There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential.  “What would equality look like?  What would it sound like?”

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Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts.  She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma.  I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.

Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules  in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended)  that  the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around.  One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”

[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.”  Perhaps its exit is also messy.  I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine.  I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work.  I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format.  Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma.  I have had enough bleeding for now.  Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]

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Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.”  The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.”  Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.

Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach.  Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about.  He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.” 

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It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated.  Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all.  Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year.  I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.

These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”

March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness.  Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating.  The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while.  I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly.  Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together.  I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit.  Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.

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“The speed of thought”: the speed of my thought, I see, is slow, its path recursive, its destination hidden.  Sometimes it feels less like a path and more like a gangplank.

March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world.  Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists.  It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.

April 1: a good day to post at face value.  Time to listen to the birds, head out,  and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.

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*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs.  ”On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.