Hi from a Rotterdam kitchen table strewn with empty coffee cups, scores of Polish songs I’m learning, and a laptop open to an article about airborne missiles (Russian? Ukrainian? deliberate? accidental?) killing Polish civilians.
Life has felt kind of high-stakes lately. Just me? I don’t think it’s just me. 2022 has been so heavy, in fact, that I ran out of things to say here for a while. It was hard enough to stay present in my work and in my relationships, and no kind of music chit-chat came easily. Music was dwarfed by the enormity of everything else: the pandemic; a breathtakingly destructive European land war; climate inaction and denial; borderline-fascist power grabs; the erosion of individual rights, safety, and autonomy in many places.
I couldn’t write, but I kept moving through the months as best I could. I caught Covid (while on my first big gig with the Dutch National Opera, facepalm) and recovered without lingering issues. I experienced the usual ups and downs of work and travel more quietly than usual. I tried to stay focused on the people I love, tried to stay alive to the variations in texture of my little individual existence. In the summer, I took a long break from music, installing insulation and drywall and floorboards in my attic for weeks on end, finishing every day sore, thirsty, covered with dust.
Eventually, September arrived, and the music industry zoomed into 2022-23 at top speed, as though we weren’t all still traumatized from 2.5 years of life turned upside down. I clattered into work patterns again without much grace, feeling like I was barely keeping up.
By any objective measure, I’ve had a lovely autumn since my disoriented beginning. I am finding some ease and perspective again at last, and I’m plenty excited about upcoming projects and collaborations. But what’s finally gotten me back to this blog-place isn’t the shiny braggable stuff. Instead, it’s a lurking feeling that we all—performers, presenters, audiences, critics, and everyone else—are facing more highly-fraught choices than usual, and we’re all a bit fearful and bewildered (or numb) as we try to grapple with them. Right? Again, I think it’s not just me.
At many moments lately, I’ve been struck by how limited in scope my little bubble of experience is, how determined by geography and circumstance. As a result, I’m reconsidering assumptions about risk assessment—mine and other people’s. Here were a few of those moments.
Late morning. A yoga studio in Rotterdam.
I was curled on the floor in child’s pose—kneeling, torso bent fully forward at the hips, crown of my head resting on the ground, eyes closed: a posture of calm, vulnerable acquiescence. I surrendered into the stretch, allowing my breath to slow after a tough standing sequence. When I lazily blinked my eyes open, my breath caught as I realized the black blob coming into focus was a big spider an inch from my face, walking unconcerned across my mat in the space between my knees and forehead.
In North Carolina, where I grew up, a bite from the wrong spider can kill you. You’re taught young to recognize a black widow—smallish body, hourglass-shaped red marking on the abdomen. I know the instinct to scream, to flee, or to swat with a rolled-up newspaper. (I also know it’s better not to kill spiders if you don’t have to, because most are harmless and eat mosquitoes.) In the Netherlands, on the other hand, there are virtually none that are poisonous. After living here for ten years, after hundreds of encounters with harmless garden spiders scuttling away as I accidentally walk through their webs, I’m not afraid. In child’s pose, I resisted my defensive instinct and let the spider pass undisturbed by my sweaty nose, off my mat, and away to destinations unknown.
Evening. A concert venue in a Dutch city.
I was mid-sound-check in an resonant acoustical space, formerly a synagogue, for a concert that was being recorded for future release. Mics were being tested, camera angles analyzed, and stage positions tweaked. At some point, the producer had a whispered consultation with one of the performers—a gentle, generous man of Middle Eastern descent now living in the EU, someone I’d shared a free day with earlier in the project. That day, we’d walked in the sun for hours, talked about our very different lives, and learned how similar we are. It was the kind of day that music makes possible and that you never forget.
The producer slowly approached the stage and told the rest of us that this performer asked that we not film or photograph his portion of the concert. There was scriptural writing on the wall behind us; if an image of him juxtaposed with Hebrew text were to be shared online and seen by the wrong people, he could be in danger in his country of origin.
Everyone was silent as this sank in.
The recording plans were adjusted. We continued rehearsing, each with the quiet feeling that we have no idea, absolutely no idea, what it’s like to be someone else. An announcement was made at the start of the concert that photography was forbidden.
Midday. An apartment in New York.
I organized a coaching with a Polish singer I know slightly on some repertoire in her native language. She helped me refine the texts of Szymanowski and Bacewicz songs which I’d been intoning to myself every day for weeks. I don’t speak Polish, but the goal is to sound as though I do by the time I record these songs in the winter (burying the lede, yes; I’ve got a new CD project in the pipeline, eeee!). My Polish is getting less clumsy with time and practice, and every person I hear speak the texts gives me a new color to thread into my own sound. The beauty of this unfamiliar language is beginning to round the air passing through my throat, to jump to crisp, expressive life through my own tongue and teeth and lips.
Suddenly, in the coaching, this singer-acquaintance made a comment speculating about Szymanowski’s personal life. I clammed up, my head buzzing with conflicting thoughts, such as:
She knows Szymanowski was gay, right? Wait, how well-known is that fact? How accepted is it inside Poland versus outside? Has that acceptance changed over the decades? His non-straightness seems obvious from his music (especially his homoerotic and very sexy opera Król Roger) and was pretty well-documented by his friends in his lifetime—we have stories from no less a source than the pianist Arthur Rubinstein. But was he ever “out” in the way people are now? The vocabulary we have now to talk about gender and sexuality is so rich—it’s becoming more expressive and more nuanced all the time—but in Poland in his lifetime, it was taboo. How would he have described himself if he lived today? There’s a revealing fragment of his own poetry dedicated to a teenage boy he loved: “I seek for love — endlessly. / What we love, we disparage. / Oh, I am in no way austere!”
What can I say, I thought, to this person standing across from me, a relative stranger—a Polish citizen living in New York, an artist, a woman? Can I guess what she might know or think based on the intersection of her immediately-perceivable identities? Does it matter how we talk about a dead composer? Does it matter if we don’t agree? Who do I put at risk, if anyone, by openly discussing Szymanowski’s sexuality? Looking ahead, how will I talk about this in the liner notes I will assuredly write for my CD project? How safe is it to assume that everyone accepts this fact about a composer revered with nationalistic pride in a country that hasn’t legalized gay marriage, that has in recent years let many new homophobic policies take root unchallenged?
A little later in the coaching, she mentioned it candidly, and I felt sheepish that I’d worried. A week later, back in the Netherlands, the news about the civilians killed in a Polish/Ukrainian border town felt terrifyingly close. I continued practicing my Polish texts and tried to understand the difference between NATO’s Article 4 and Article 5.
Late afternoon, a Thursday. Rotterdam.
Plink! A text from my agent. “Dear Katharine, urgent question: could you rehearse tomorrow under Teodor Currentzis for Trois Chansons de Mallarmé of Ravel, chamber music setting? Concert Saturday.”
I get this kind of call relatively frequently—a job offered at the last minute because another singer is sick. My repertoire is large, and I learn fast; I’ve gotten some of my best work this way. The decision to accept is usually a quick, almost instinctual calculation of logistics, the likelihood I’ll be able to sing the music creditably without prep time, the profile of the job, and the possible disruption to other areas of my life. If I’m available, I usually say yes.
But in this instance, I paused. Would the gig trigger moral compromise? Political fallout? Currentzis—a Greek-born, Russian-naturalized conductor, whose musical work I’ve admired in the past—has been in the news lately for (among other things) staying silent on the subject of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when many other Russian artists who frequently work abroad have spoken out against it. It’s not necessarily a case of outright support for Putin, as with some (Gergiev, for example). But the music world is increasingly antsy that someone with Currentzis’s platform has offered no condemnation of the war beyond a boilerplate statement calling for peace. If I worked for him, would my decision be viewed negatively by colleagues? Would it create obligations or tensions that I couldn’t resolve later?
My internal questions broadened. What do I actually know about this person? What sensationalist headlines do I believe, or not, and what’s the motivation of the people writing them? Who do I know who’s worked for him in the past? What do I see in his music-making that’s compelling, that piques my interest, that makes me want to be in the same room?
I tried to find out what the funding sources of this job would be. This concert, an evening of chamber music in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, was part of the first tour of Currentzis’s brand-new Utopia Orchestra, an initiative separate from his other projects. As far as I could tell, the orchestra seemed to be sponsored by subsidy funds in Germany plus many individual donors. Not the Russian state, anyway.
I texted several friends to ask advice, and within minutes had three different reactions.
1. Absolutely do it—he’s famous and fascinating.
2. That’s your gas paid for the year, lol.
3. Hmm, tricky! Read this nuanced think piece published this week that will give you context and help you decide, plus a bunch of other articles.
Finally, I talked about it with a close friend who has worked in war and conflict zones. Her take was: who are we to judge? It’s one thing to say from the safety of our own couches, in countries not currently under the control of fascists or dictators or verifiable psychopaths, that we would speak out in the same situation. But what considerations go into anyone’s words or silence? What considerations have gone into the public declarations of those who have canceled Currentzis but still employ others with questionable political ties? We can’t know what his own risk assessment has felt like, what proportion of his silence is due to fear for his professional prospects v. fear of violent reprisals toward himself or his Russian colleagues. We can’t know what it’s like to be someone else. We (especially white people living above the poverty line in reasonably stable democracies) can’t know what it’s like to live with our safety dramatically compromised, as many people do every day.
My curiosity got the better of me. 12 hours later, I was traveling to Vienna, Ravel score in hand. I had a gorgeous, exhausting weekend of intensely special music-making that required every ounce of imagination and mastery my mind and body could muster. I returned home with several new friends (lord, the players were astonishingly good, they came from everywhere, and everyone I talked to was thoughtful about the complexity of the situation but had decided to participate anyway); with a sense that I’d dipped a toe into a very attractive cult; and with no easy answers.
Who are we to judge?
Vulnerability feels different to every person, but it can create a similar set of physical and emotional fear responses no matter what the trigger. These fear responses aren’t rational: they come directly from the central nervous system.
To me, vulnerability sometimes feels like opening my mouth and heart in front of hundreds or thousands of people to sing about very private feelings. I’m living intimately with Lili Boulanger’s song cycle Clairières dans le ciel at the moment—that’s for the next album, along with the Szymanowski and Bacewicz—and that piece is SO vulnerable, gets so close to what real heartbreak feels like, that I have to work extra-hard to keep my composure as the thirteenth song reaches its devastating conclusion. It’s a weird paradox of performance: we think we want to see something super-personal from performers, but if my feelings as I sing are more visible to the audience than the music’s own pathos, the performance is less effective and less moving. (Also harder: crying on stage is no fun.) This kind of vulnerability is actually a finely calibrated balancing act. Still, as I said in an interview in the Volkskrant that came out today, music isn’t brain surgery. If I flinch or make a misjudgment, no one dies.
But that’s just one type of vulnerability. Vulnerability sometimes feels like choosing honesty with a friend when silence or avoidance would be easier. It sometimes feels like opening my mind to an idea or person I find repugnant. It sometimes feels like opening my legs (in yoga, or wherever else) with trust. It sometimes feels like navigating a conversation with someone I don’t know well who might judge me too quickly or say harsh and hurtful things. It sometimes feels like calling out bad behavior in someone else. It sometimes (thankfully not often) feels like trying to judge the risk of actual violence: once in a while, all my nerve endings do go taut with attention as I eye someone getting physically aggressive or try to ignore the under-the-breath mutterings of a drunk man on the metro with lust in his eyes.
These experiences are of course less extreme than those endured by people living in war zones, giving aid or making art or fighting, protesting in Iran this month despite the real risk of being killed by the state, or walking out of the house any day, anywhere, in a body that doesn’t align with somebody else’s assumptions about race or gender presentation.
And to make it even more tricky to judge, it’s also not true that every fear response, every twinge of vulnerability, is valid. There are lots of people in the US, for example, who see something/someone almost certainly harmless—a person in a hoodie, for example—and feel fear. Some of these people carry guns, and use them. Thousands, millions, of innocent people die because of someone else’s biased, bigoted, or simply inaccurate assessment of risk.
We can’t possibly know, any of us, what it feels like to be someone else, but it’s so important that we try to imagine and empathize.
After I’d rambled about my goals and frustrations and interests and highs and lows for a solid hour, the final-ish question of the interview came: what’s next? What do you want to achieve? What are you longing for or planning in your career now that certain things have been established?
Of course I’m still full of ambition, but I fell quiet for a minute because my mind has been so weighed down in the last year (or several) by stuff that feels bigger than me. We can’t pretend ignorance any more, can we? We can’t pretend that the glittery way of being a successful musician a few decades ago is still viable—jetting around the world constantly, commissioning fawning PR stories and believing them, staying quiet about politics to placate donors with money who might be turned off by our bohemian attitudes, staying quiet about abusive behavior that’s been tolerated for a long time. We can’t, and we don’t need to. We can decide, any of us who can afford to lose a little, to shape the industry and its impact in years to come to be a better responder to the splintering crises all around us.
I found myself saying, haltingly, to the sympathetic journalist across the table that the next step I wanted to take was to try to increase my own impact. I don’t know exactly what that means. It could be something big and outside of music; it could also be small. This question and answer didn’t make it into the final article, unsurprisingly. It’s too vague.
For the moment, one thing I’m sure we can all do is tell stories that are real to us. Another is to make space for stories that are real to someone else, even (especially) someone who hasn’t been listened to or taken seriously. Another is to believe that storytelling is a real calling, one that can have a real effect on how we live. Stories are how we develop empathy, how we open our minds, how we begin to understand the experiences of others.
This weekend in De Doelen, I get to tell stories by a young French woman who wouldn’t live long enough to experience a relationship as passionate as the one she brought to life in Clairières, and I get to tell stories by a Polish man who may never have found public acceptance for his loves and longings but did find a musical language to express them, a language that others thrill to and recognize themselves in a century later.
I hope people want to listen. I hope that listening makes them feel a little less afraid, a little less alone. I hope that feeling a little less alone creates space for a moment of compassion for someone else who’s busy with their own fear response, risk assessment, heartbreak, or posture of vulnerability or self-protection.
At this moment, since I can’t individually solve any of the big problems, at least not this week, that will have to be enough.