Höchste Lust: music as the opposite of social distancing

In dem wogenden Schwall,
in dem tönenden Schall,
in des Welt-Atems
wehendem All—
ertrinken
versinken—
unbewusst
höchste Lust!

(In the welling waves,
in the sounding swell,
in the world-breath’s
infinite All—
to drown
to sink—
unconscious
highest bliss!)

—Richard Wagner

 

it is a necessity to have a plan, a manifesto, an alternative. it’s a question of life and death for our species. as a musician i feel i can suggest the musical poetic angle which is that after tragedies one has to invent a new world, knit it or embroider, make it up. it’s not gonna be given to you because you deserve it, it doesn’t work that way. you have to imagine something that doesn’t exist and dig a cave into the future and demand space. it’s a territorial hope affair. at the time, that digging is utopian but in the future it will become your reality.

—Björk

 

Oh, hi. Weren’t we just chatting? Was it really only last month that I was here on the blog, smugly linking to positive reviews and broadcasts, projects I had in the pipeline? Was it really just a few weeks ago that my first performances were canceled due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across Europe, and I was hoping (despite more emails and apologies coming in every day) that the loss might be limited to my March and April gigs?

… Well. Here we are, in a different reality. So many people are losing so much, so quickly. I am currently healthy, in a well-functioning country, riding out the uncertainty in a comfortable house with my husband and two close friends (one of whom is a wonderful pianist, so I can even carry on with music at home). I feel fervently grateful for my good luck, and guilty for being so lucky when others aren’t. I don’t know how to be adequately grateful for the doctors and nurses risking themselves every day to care for sick people, or for the public-health folks and epidemiologists who are working to lessen the blow around the world. The scale of it all is staggering.

In the context of an international crisis, my little privileged problems feel irrelevant. But I do worry about my own prospects, of course, as we all do, especially as it becomes clear what a long trajectory the disease will likely have. I’m facing profound unknowns. Half a year’s worth of painstakingly cultivated work, income, and career structure/momentum is gone, and more will follow. The prohibition on public gatherings, though necessary, is a crippling blow to the performing arts. It’s hard to know what to do, how to spend my time, amid so much uncertainty about the long-term future of my field. Companies are shuttering; planning is grinding to a halt; friends are mourning their performance careers in the past tense, because they can’t afford to stay in the field for an indeterminate amount of time without work. It is a frightening moment for the thing I’ve lived and breathed my whole adult life.

Art always survives one way or another, and unexpected, unstructured free time is a gift—so I’m not despairing, not yet. As the world has stilled, people who normally don’t make time for art are watching our makeshift living room performances and the free streams offered by larger organizations and finding pleasure or comfort in them. Music is entertainment, but it’s also a way of gathering, a form of ritual, political action, even worship. Everyone is overwhelmed right now—I have plenty of dazed moments when I can’t imagine how we’ll move forward, and I sympathize with everyone who is coping (or not) in their own ways. But I also have moments of cautious optimism and productivity. I’ve been able to start work on projects I’ve had in mind for years but seemed impractical. I can take time, whole days or weeks, to slowly listen and assimilate and think. I can dig a cave into the future (as in the wonderful Björk quote above) and demand space for this thing that I do, for the power I know it has to unite, to comfort, to challenge. We all can.

Still, the most bewildering loss for many of my friends right now is singing or playing in the same room with other people. Communal music, for performer and audience, concentrates sound and hormones uniquely in time and space. Watching a performance on a screen, or recording a metronome-led track that will later be digitally stitched together with others, isn’t the same. To me, music is breath, reaction, being deeply, radically present with those around us. It is a chance to forget our individual preoccupations and join a collective, physical flow of energy. We are all learning how lucky we’ve been to inhabit that kind of flow so often, because its absence feels like a gaping shock.

I miss the way a violin’s sound at close range can make my whole head vibrate. I miss looking into another singer’s eyes and reacting to what I see and hear. I miss shaping my own sound around the expressivity of a conductor’s arms. I miss being nearly lifted off my feet by a dramatic orchestral brass entrance. I miss leveraging the strength and coordination of my own body to influence others’ feeling of a phrase. I miss my quartet Damask, the way we can intuit each other’s deepest intention through a breath or a swell or the traveling of a consonant, our effortless unity of purpose without words. I miss the look on people’s faces—features subtly rearranged, washed clean, eyes liquid—when they find you after a concert and say that you touched them, or made them remember a lost family member, or made them glad they left the house that day.

I even find myself missing all the less beautiful parts of the job—the travel, fatigue, negotiation, tedium, bad hours, low pay, complicated interpersonal relationships, misunderstandings, rejection. Yes, I would be happy to receive a normal rejection email right now, because it would mean someone, somewhere, had a job.

My work involves some tricky emotional boundaries. In normal times, being “professional” means being expected to do several contradictory things simultaneously:

1. to transparently reveal your deepest soul in performance;

2. to do this with bulletproof technical precision and polish;

3. to be unfailingly agreeable and reliable in all professional interactions; and

4. to keep your mouth shut about any adverse working conditions that interfere with 1-3.

It’s basically impossible to meet all these requirements equally all the time. Despite the public perception of artists as temperamental, fragile creatures, most of us are actually pretty level-headed, thick-skinned people, because we have to be; the music industry, like all of society, favors strength over vulnerability, and the job is tough. But although it’s terribly taboo to talk about it or admit weakness, we all struggle with these paradoxical boundaries sometimes. We all get confused and mixed up. I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve wished it were more acceptable to talk about the uncertain, raw moments when art and life overlap in uncomfortable ways, because I think it could make the music industry more bearable and the art we make richer.

Well. Right now, when all of it is temporarily gone, when actual life and death is on our minds, when we’re all groping outward through our devices for any semblance of the human connection we were taking for granted just a few weeks ago, it strikes me as such a privilege to have ever worried about showing vulnerability. What a colossal fucking privilege to have enjoyed close professional relationships, multiple languages of expression, collective experiences of beauty, and to have wondered how to cope with the emotional side-effects of engaging with and transmitting glorious art and stories to others. Maybe now is a good moment, when we’ve all got our guard down, to talk about some of these messy, dubious, porous moments of being a performer—to consider what art can give to us and what it can actually cost us, as humans. This is one of the caves I’m trying to dig into the future during this period of latency: a space to talk about connection and vulnerability. We all need that space right now. The business will need it urgently whenever we get back together in person, because it’s at the heart of what we do, and it should be at the heart of our discussions of how to rebuild the industry.

Here, I’ll start. I’ll tell you about two particularly vulnerable professional experiences I’ve had, reflecting on what they gave and what they took away.

 

 

First up: my last gig before COVID, which was a concert tour with the Nederlands Studenten Orkest conducted by dear friend Manoj Kamps. The program, “Extase,” was all about ritualistic transfiguration: the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and a commissioned piece for soprano and orchestra by Rick van Veldhuizen. The NSO is a once-a-year, highly competitive project group: students (ages 18-26 or so) from all academic disciplines take a month off school for a concentrated rehearsal period and tour, student-produced and student-run, amateur but at a high musical level. The gig was blazingly intense in every way, affirming everything I love about music and nearly pushing me over the edge.

I was nervous beforehand, although I’d been careful in accepting the project and was thoroughly prepared. Wagner makes unique vocal demands, and I’m definitely a lyric soprano, not a dramatic. Could I really do justice to this iconic, rapturous seven minutes of music, or would I hurt myself trying? Could I convince in these immensely long lines and thoughts? Was I musician enough, body enough, ego enough, to carry this epic material? People have OPINIONS when you tell them you’re singing Wagner, and none of them are reassuring. Some people thought I was committing career suicide by even attempting it.

On a rainy afternoon in early February, I joined the hundred-odd orchestra members and Manoj in a converted farmhouse in the Dutch countryside. They had a week’s rehearsal under their belts already, and anticipation ran high for my arrival. We spent the first session on Rick’s piece, which got everyone’s creative juices flowing—finally hearing it jump off the page was a jolt of pure energy. (I’ll write a separate post about this piece, which was so exciting and successful in performance that it will likely be released as a commercial recording. There’s a lot to say; it was an incredible privilege to help create and premiere it and to get to know Rick.)

After dinner, we ran the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod from start to finish. It was the first time anyone in the room, including me or Manoj, had tried it live with all forces present. The kids were in love with the music, desperate to please, and playing their hearts out. As the foreboding cello motive at the end of the Prelude segued into the Liebestod, the quality of listening in the room was so intense that I could almost whisper my first words, “mild und leise wie er lächelt,” tasting the consonants as they rolled across my tongue and teeth and lips. I enriched my sound in the next phrase and stayed grounded, my self-discipline and preparation keeping me in control despite mounting adrenaline, and the players responded. My entire body engaged, the cavities of my head humming with resonance, throat and neck free, chest and back muscles working hard in practiced coordination, abdomen quietly responsive, pelvic floor low, legs and feet stable and strong. Slow musical gestures quickened and accumulated. My breaths became faster, deeper. The rich palate of orchestral color, the sensuality of the text, and the breathtakingly erotic harmonic structure—a continuous build of delayed climaxes—heightened sensation, swept us inexorably forward, began to overwhelm us all. As the music crested at the ecstatic fortissimo of “Welt-Atems wehendem All,” I felt like I was flying, radically present, wildly elevated, physically and emotionally overcome, drowning in swells of B major, in the music’s shuddering paroxysms of tension and resolution. After releasing my final floated F-sharp, my breath came and went in gasps. I scanned the faces of the players, which shone with effort or concentration or tears. The last two chords, strings and brass and winds in expansive voicings, glowed with messa di voce underlined by sweeping harp arpeggios, then faded to an awed silence. I was shaking; my eyes swam. I looked to Manoj as his hands slowly dropped, and when he saw my face, his crumpled, too. After a long, breathless moment, the whole room dissolved into laughter and whoops and sobs, a collective release of tension and emotion. Höchste Lust!

I fell onto Manoj and hugged him like a maniac, both of us speechless amid the general pandemonium. Eventually we pulled ourselves together, and he announced to the orchestra that they were gorgeous, and that that had been unforgettable, and that perhaps now we all should take a little coffee break.

I’m so profoundly grateful for the gift I was given that night. People can say what they want about whether I was convincing in Wagner, whether it was or wasn’t quite the best fit, how I compared to their favorite recording; I don’t care. That run-through, though far from perfect, was one of the most joyous musical experiences I’ve ever had, and it was partly because the kids in the room had no professional expectations of me except that I would inspire them—which I did, because they inspired me. Many were already accomplished players, but everyone was young, receptive, not yet sure of their limits, willing to give their whole selves to make something beautiful and greater than the sum of its parts. They reminded me of myself at the same age. I was a shy kid. Music gave me a voice, a sense of myself, an environment in which to experiment, a place and purpose and channel. I was inspired anew that night by the awkward, beautiful grace of people laid bare and clarified through this art form.

Even so, after the rapture of that first rehearsal, the project had many moments of frustration, doubt, and tedium. The work of a musician is hard, requiring patience and humility. It took time for us all—soloist, conductor, orchestra—to master the technical aspects of the program together, but also to internalize and make habitual our own emotional responses to the music. The Liebestod evokes an extraordinary sense of release if we do our job well, but it requires us to gather our own extremities behind a boundary of self-control. I, the soloist, am paradoxically not allowed to experience Isolde-like bliss as I sing, even though my voice is her voice and my body is her body for the duration of the performance. I have to know my limits so intimately that I can repeat this technical and emotional high-wire act many nights in a row with a similar result, which means restraint, rigorous discipline, and decidedly un-blissful, un-diva-like daily habits.

Student concert tours are hedonistic blurs of hormones, gorgeous music, overstimulation, short nights, crushes, heightened emotions. The NSO tour was particularly uninhibited, with daily parties, endless gags and practical jokes, several drunken injuries, and a suggestive poster titled “Jij brengt mij in (s)extase” prominently displayed in the dining room and edited every morning. The Hookup Matrix, as I fondly called it, was covered in names and dotted lines mapping out a positive forest of new connections. I enjoyed watching the drama unfold from afar but mostly steered clear: the program was too vocally demanding and the schedule too densely packed to take many risks. Despite my best efforts, I got sick toward the end of the tour, along with everyone else.

I’ve never pulled out of a performance due to illness, but I’ve never come closer to my physical limits than the last few concerts of the NSO tour. Have you ever sat in a hotel room for most of a day, paranoid about your throat, making endless cups of tea, wondering whether you’re going to be able to do your job that night or whether you’ll have to disappoint a hundred colleagues and a thousand audience members? I have. I made it through the triumphant final performance in the Concertgebouw thanks to the first steroid I’ve ever taken in my life and very careful behavior throughout the day. It took me weeks to feel normal again afterwards, and I’ve since wondered if we were all passing around an early version of the coronavirus without realizing.

Singers cancel performances often. I know because I usually jump in for them. The stakes are high: money is lost, fans are alienated, and those with hiring power have long memories. On this tour, I finally understood why singers burn out and quit the profession when something goes a little bit wrong vocally. So much depends on the healthy functioning of tiny parts of your body, parts that are easily compromised by travel, stress, illness, or fatigue. When those parts don’t cooperate, it feels that your instrument—your body, your soul, your whole self—has catastrophically failed.

 

 

Because of this pressure, professional tours or long gigs abroad have a completely different vibe than student tours. People imagine that musicians lead very glamorous lives, but the reality is usually centered on sleep (or the lack of it), finicky Airbnb coffeemakers, transportation, disorientation, video calls with family on patchy wifi, and lower-back pain from sitting on a lumpy bed trying to keep up with emails and score study. Tour travel can be fun and stimulating, but it can also be exhausting and terribly lonely. I’ve commiserated with many colleagues about this over the years. No matter how cool the destination or how fancy the contract, being constantly on the road takes a toll on everyone, and we all have to decide eventually if the tradeoffs are worth it. Below are two accounts of unmoored musician life from talented friends of mine; both are quoted with permission.

I have struggled for many years to balance a life at home with my work as a traveling musician. I’ve often not handled it well and at times wanted to completely give up playing. After over a decade of running around, I’m tired. Sometimes it feels like we’re asked to sacrifice things like a family life and connection to local community for the sake of art. But what good is an artist if they have no life to share? How can I pour out my soul on stage and at the same time be so lacking in the natural and good things that are necessary to fill a soul? … By leaving home every other week, I constantly feel that I’m neglecting every community I’m in, whether my home community or the places where I’m playing.

—Steuart Pincombe, cellist

 

One of the biggest downsides of a career in the arts is isolation… we end up spending the majority of our time away from the family/friends/lovers who mean the most to us. This can get lonely and frustrating as hell, but I do find some consolation in the fact that many of my dearest brothers and sisters are also in the arts, and instead of keeping their time/energy/spirit within the confines of one small clique, they’re in various reaches of the world at this very moment–alone–working tirelessly to share their most intimate joys and traumas with hundreds and thousands of people at a time. This is an act of incredible generosity and sacrifice that brings much beauty into the world, and makes loneliness seem like a small price to pay.

—David Adam Moore, baritone

It’s no wonder that the performer-paradox—the contradictory pressure on artists to be both hyper-expressive in performance and emotionally unassailable in every other setting—sometimes gets out of balance when we’re away from home. We arrive in a new place for a weekend or a week or a month, and we’re encouraged to establish rapport and open up to a group of strangers as quickly as possible to facilitate the work. The hours are often punishingly long and irregular. We end up in comical situations of accelerated closeness: I’ve rehearsed love duets before I was sure of my stage partner’s name. I’ve studied someone’s body in detail (to guess how they’ll time a jump onto a chair, say, or to match their breath in a tricky phrase) or been moved by the stunningly personal music they’re making before we’ve had a conversation, before I knew where they’re from, if they were straight or gay or something else, if they have children, or if they’re happy to be on this gig or not.

When a project is nice, friendships can grow astonishingly quickly. It can feel as though someone you’ve just met understands things about you that you’ve never been able to explain to anyone. Conversely, a difficult dynamic with a colleague can make it impossible to do your job, because the work is so dependent on chemistry. Singing a passionate duet in sexy sixths, or staring intently into someone’s eyes on stage, or being yelled at by a director who feels he’s not getting through, or reaching out with all your senses to try to match the energy and timing of a player you can’t see—it’s all theater, but those situations still release very real, powerfully strong hormones.

 

 

Which brings me to my second story, the most personal of any I’ve ever told here (which is saying something), about a time long ago when I fell in love with a colleague.

We met on a gig and got along right away. We had a similar sense of humor and many interests in common; we admired each other’s work; we were both happily partnered, both level-headed, and we could talk thoughtfully about many things. At some point I noticed a shift in the quality of attention between us—a marked preference for each other’s company, surreptitious glances of appraisal—but I didn’t worry about what felt like a little gig crush. They happen to all of us. I’d had plenty of practice managing them before, on both sides. Again, contrary to public perception of artists, most of us are quite conscientious and careful about letting anything get out of hand; again, we have to be.

The friendship continued to intensify, though, along with the challenging and stimulating work. One evening, we discussed how complicated it is to discuss our jobs with our partners. How do you keep a cool head while away from home, engaged in highly expressive material with talented and attractive strangers? The work requires so much intimacy, on and off stage. How much do you share, and how much do you keep quiet about? Have you ever been tempted? We drank wine; our gazes lengthened. Finally I made a joking comment that I thought would close the topic safely. The reply was crystal-clear, vehement with frustration and desire. It startled me, made my vision blur and heart jump. I murmured something noncommittal and turned blindly away, and the moment passed, but that night, I lay awake for hours. As the gig drew to a close, I felt vividly, physically alive and perilously disoriented, a surreal jumble of hormones, sleeplessness, and the emotional and physical intensity of the work. After the music ended on the final night, we clung to each other backstage, choking out fragmented, inadequate words. The next day, everyone scattered.

I hoped fervently that out of sight would be out of mind, but later, in a new place and busy with another project, I found myself totally unable to forget. My head and heart were as painfully squeezed as they had been during the last hug. I cried a lot; I battled insomnia; I seethed with guilt. I tried to minimize the feeling by compartmentalizing it: I sternly told myself that what I felt had probably been just physical attraction, or just friendship blown into intimacy by loneliness, or just admiration, or just normal grieving over the end of a satisfying job, or… or… or. But it was more, and I knew it. I also knew that if this happened once, it could happen again, which was even more horrifying to realize. I wasn’t immune; a happy relationship didn’t protect me. It felt like a sudden collapse of long-held beliefs about who I was. I was deeply ashamed that I had let something get out of my control—I, the level-headed one, the one who could resist temptation!—and I feared for my marriage, even though I knew this had nothing to do with my partner, who I loved as much as ever and didn’t want to lose.

What had I actually done wrong, I began to wonder? I hadn’t been cruel or selfish or unreasonable. I had done my best, in a particularly vulnerable professional environment, to find satisfaction and meaning in my work, to be open and reactive, to protect what I love, to be kind. I hadn’t chosen what I felt; that had emerged naturally from the work, time spent together, a lovely friendship. Eventually I decided that my guilt, and my instinct to try to hide and squash a forbidden feeling, were rooted in toxic assumptions about partnership that I hadn’t ever truly questioned.

So I gathered my courage and confided in my partner. Our conversations are beyond the scope of this post, but several takeaways are worth mentioning in public. First: it’s worth marrying the kindest person you can find. I’m so glad I did. Second: my honesty made a new level of trust possible, because we didn’t have to brood on impossible questions in isolation; we could decide together how to manage complex realities. Much later, we’re still talking compassionately about difficult things, and we’re still happy.

Looking hard at received assumptions and setting aside the harmful and irrelevant ones also helped me as an individual, and as an artist. It made me stronger and more aware. It enriched and clarified my emotional life and increased my empathy and acceptance. Now, I can more deeply understand conflict in the characters I embody; I can cherish strong feelings without fear of losing my identity or the life I’ve built. I’m also vastly more comfortable negotiating delicate professional interactions because I am so much less afraid, less inclined to blame myself unnecessarily for what others say and feel.

Acknowledgement and honesty gave me much better tools for dealing with my ambiguous job, and the ambiguous relationships between people in general, than denial ever did.

Unfortunately, the person I had come to care for couldn’t handle it when I later admitted that my feeling had been more than a crush. We are no longer in touch. I still am sad about that, and I’m still trying to accept that my solutions are my own and that I can’t please everyone.

 

 

Um, thanks for listening (she says sheepishly).

I didn’t expect that I would ever want to share this story here, for obvious reasons. But ever since, conversations keep arising with colleagues, quietly, confidentially, about how tricky emotional boundaries in our work are. Everyone, it turns out, even the most seasoned pro, has a story to tell—a similarly bruising experience they’re terrified to talk about for fear of judgment. We’re all apparently walking around feeling like monsters because we loved someone we shouldn’t, or made an unorthodox choice, or got our heart broken on a job.

Why is it all so taboo? Why do we pretend that the work never affects us? It isn’t only loneliness that makes us vulnerable: the act of playing or singing music requires us to lower our defenses and expose ourselves to strong, dangerous emotions. But we’re under so much pressure to be “professional,” to keep our own currents of disruptive feeling out of the workplace, that we all assume that anything out of the ordinary must be our fault and must be suppressed. I’m starting to think that the industry-wide denial of vulnerability (which is inconvenient, takes time, and sometimes results in less-than-studio-perfect performances) is counterproductive, even toxic. It can block our hearts and our artistic work from honest processing and exploration. It can also normalize abuse. If we’re indoctrinated with the belief that emotional boundaries are solely a matter of individual responsibility, we’ll first blame ourselves and feel ashamed when a line is crossed or blurred. Predators and narcissists take advantage of these assumptions to victimize their colleagues, and they don’t even have to gaslight us. We gaslight ourselves.

The work DOES affect us. We’re not machines. Thank goodness! Acting as a channel for powerful emotions, nudging at the boundaries between performance and life, breathing with others in real time, intuiting their intentions, influencing them in return—our work is a huge privilege, and it can be a hefty responsibility. Music is the opposite of social distancing, and THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT. We can’t separate the joys of live music-making from its inconveniently messy aspects. A music industry modeled on the belief that we can, or should, is doing a disservice to the artists, the audiences, and the art. If we’re too terrified to let our guard down even to ourselves, if we can’t break open sometimes, if we don’t let gorgeous and troubling material change us, if we don’t occasionally fall awkwardly in love with the people or the process, then why do we even bother? What are we even trying to share?

I feel so lucky to have been Isolde in seven-minute increments every day for a month. It was indeed highest bliss—Höchste Lust—to be swallowed in divine orchestral sound every night, to reach the absolute limit of my breath and voice. And although this was less obvious at first, I also feel so lucky that a rich friendship with a colleague tipped over into an inconvenient love, because it made me finally re-evaluate what’s real and what’s imaginary, what’s important and what’s useless, why I chose this profession and how I can continue to exist safely in it. Both experiences also tested me more severely than I could have imagined.

Both seem almost like dreams to me now as I remember them at home, on my couch, with a pot of coffee, in comfortable clothes, isolated, distancing, longing to return to my tough, privileged job.

We all have bigger things to think about right now than music, actually. COVID will get worse before it gets better: this is a humanitarian crisis, and we don’t need to rush to find solutions for problems in the arts right now. We’re looking at a long period of uncertainty, massive loss, recession, re-evaluation. It’ll be a while before we’re all making music in a room together again (because 1.5 meters apart isn’t enough when you’re singing!). Until then, let’s support our health care workers, let’s not get people sick, let’s look after ourselves, and let’s dig caves into the future. Let’s use this time to normalize some conversations that were too scary to have before about what this art form can actually offer us, and what it can cost.

Music can break us open, change us, make us both stronger and softer. It can bring us deep joy and catastrophic heartbreak. It can’t heal people who are sick, and it can’t change the curve of coronavirus or prevent deaths. But whenever we can meet again, it can help whoever’s still here start to put our world back together.