On Artists With Opinions // The Sunday Reading Roundup [2.26.17]

One of the things I most often have to defend (sometimes to others, and mostly to myself) is the relevancy of all my non-musical activities to classical music. And lately, as our current socio-political climate has gotten only more charged, I’ve seen an alarming rise in a certain sentiment towards non-political figures who choose to offer their thoughts on the crisis du jour.

Said sentiment, often in need of being cleaned up, can be summed up thusly: “Shut up and go back to making music/dancing/acting/[insert verb for other forms of art-making here].”

The idea is that if you’ve chosen to create art (“art” here being used as a catch-all phrase encompassing all forms of creative expression), you only have permission to create things for others to enjoy, and that you have somehow ceded your right as a thinking person to share your thoughts and opinions with others.

So, before I dump my laundry basket of weekly reading on you, I want to say a couple of things about what art is, and what it is not.

Art is not created in a vacuum.

Art is not meant to be consumed in a vacuum.

Art is not solely a vehicle to beautify the world.

Art is a distillation of its creator’s worldview, shaped by personal experience.

Art is a reflection of the world in which it is created.

Art is meant to challenge as well as inspire.

An artist who uses their medium as a form of expression (and not merely a craft that exists for its own sake) has a responsibility to observe humanity in all its terrible beauty and wonderful dysfunction, and to think critically about that beauty and dysfunction. An artist’s task is to tap simultaneously into that which is personal and that which is universal, and one doesn’t do that by pretending the outside world doesn’t exist.

So don’t give artists grief for thinking about things outside of their craft, because that’s their #$@%ing job.

Now, here are some of my favorite things that I’ve read/watched this week. Some slightly different themes emerged, so I’ve categorized accordingly.

Articles

Excellent pieces whose weird clickbait-y headlines are a disservice

Washington Post: “Refugees are already vigorously vetted. I know because I vetted them.” by Natasha Hall

During nearly four years as an immigration officer, I conducted in-person interviews with hundreds of refugees of 20 different nationalities in 10 countries. I saw countless refugees break down crying in my interview room because of the length and severity of the vetting process. From that experience and numerous security briefings, it’s clear that the authors of Trump’s order are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system, U.S. laws, international law and the security threats facing our nation.

Huffington Post: “I, Too, Am An Immigrant. I, Too, Belong.” by Raj Panjabi

(Found, upon reading this one, that the article was primarily an excerpt from a commencement speech, and that while it is indeed a powerful immigrant narrative, its focus was on the power of selflessness, neither of which were reflected in the headline. Oh well, HuffPo, you do you.)

Like many other refugees and immigrants, my journey has not been ”self-made.” As I share below, I believe the Americans who acted selflessly — providing my family with shelter, helping my parents secure jobs, sponsoring our green card applications, and mentoring me as a teenager — helped make my journey possible. I believe the selfless acts that shaped my life matter, as ever, for the lives of refugees and immigrants across America. And I believe no person, no policy, and no institution can strip the power we each have to act selflessly.

Pieces whose headlines could honestly have used a bit more clickbait

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber” by Susan J. Fowler

(This blog post has gone viral without resorting to having a clickbait-y headline, so really, who am I to fault it?)

When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.

Lowrider: “Richard Montanez — Raza Report” by Henry De Kuyper and Mike Landers

(This article is from 2011, so really they’re forgiven for not being clickbait-y.)

His [Richard Montanez’s] enthusiasm is contagious, and his empathy for human struggle is genuine. He’s the product of a low-income Latino family and knows all too well what it’s like to work hard and barely make ends meet. Now he is far removed from that struggle, as Richard is the executive of multicultural sales and community activation at PepsiCo North America—a far cry from his initial job as a janitor with Frito-Lay. 

Pieces whose headlines got it just right

The New York Times Magazine: “The Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs my Chinese Mother Made” by Francis Lam

This paragraph is, as the kids say, my everything:

I knew that I wasn’t going to figure out a recipe for it, because I realized that my not knowing how to make this dish was akin to my Cantonese getting rusty, to not knowing when Chinese New Year is every year. It’s because I’m not an immigrant, only a son of immigrants, and so I know only the frayed facsimile of the world that my parents grew up in. Being part of a culture without living in it is like being in a long-distance relationship. You can make it work with grand displays of affection and splendid visits, but you don’t get to have coffee together on a Sunday morning — the little things, the stuff daily life is built on. 

[Note: my mom (and grandma and aunt) also made this dish, and taught me to make it, but their version is vastly different.]

The New Yorker: “When Immigrants Are No Longer Considered Americans” by Hua Hsu

The history of immigration policy is filled with moments like these, when a group goes from subhuman to superhuman within a few short years, because of political winds beyond their grasp. […] It’s a reminder that the “Creed of Democracy” contains limits—that no amount of assimilation or integration will protect you when an alien requires conjuring; that being a model citizen means little when laws can be enforced arbitrarily, and you no longer qualify as one. Yet many of us still try to live up to such impossible standards.

Language Realm: “Translating Puns in Harry Potter” by…?

So how do you translate a pun? Although there is, obviously, no one solution to this problem, there are strategies and tricks that help. You can hope for a happy coincidence between your source and target languages, unlikely though this is; you can find a close alternative, which sometimes is obvious but often requires considerable thought; or you can recreate the entire pun in a separate fashion, which requires a lot of effort and may fail. 

Buzzfeed: “Muslims Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Good’ to Be Granted Human Rights” by Sara Yasin

had to smile, to be polite, to dissolve the hostility of those who thought Muslims were savage, alien creatures. I had to accept the explanation that these incidents were either less significant than they felt or just evidence of one individual’s ignorance — and that it was my responsibility to change their minds. I was never supposed to see them as the product of all the vehement anti-Muslim narratives in pop culture and the news that helped justify the surveillance and arrests our communities experienced in the aftermath of 9/11. Over and over again, my non-Muslim friends told me to brush these things off because they didn’t really see them as part of a bigger, systematic inequality: That would have meant thinking about what role they had in changing it.

I don’t know what’s going on, but Cracked is killing it

Cracked: “6 Big Differences That Turn City Dwellers into Liberals” by Loey Nunning

Suddenly multiculturalism isn’t some failed, politically correct agenda, it’s just your neighborhood. Cities are diverse because this is where people come to find jobs, and the vast majority of immigrants, both legal and illegal, live in them. By the time you show up in town, this huge kumbaya-world stew has already been boiling for ages. When you live around people from all over the world, you get to see first hand that most immigrants are normal, hard-working people, just with cool accents and better food.

Cracked: “The Real Reason for the Trans Bathroom Panic” by Ian Fortey

The idea of people being out there who are transgender is difficult for some to deal with. It’s a relatively new idea for some folks. But those people also need to appreciate an important point, and that’s who gives a shit? Who gives a shit if you’re not comfortable with gender identity and trans rights? If it’s not about you, why does it matter to you? 

Cracked: “6 Surprising Things You Learn in the Alt-Right Media Bubble” by Robert Evans

If you want to build a movement, here’s the first thing you should know: The best way to convert someone to a point of view is not to get in their face and scream inflammatory slogans. It’s to simply filter the facts so that they arrive at the conclusion you want on their own. Modern white nationalism has mastered this.

Documentaries

Lately I’ve been binge-rewatching Parks and Recreation and Veep (what can I say, there’s comfort in TV shows centered on ambitious and conflicted women) but I’ve ventured back into the wonderful, beautiful world of documentaries.

BBC Earth’s The Blue Planet

I know this series is going on sixteen years old (!), but I haven’t rewatched it since it came out, and all I can say about it is [heart eyes emoji]. It’s on Netflix!

SOMM: Into the Bottle

Highly, highly recommend. It’s beautiful, it’s informative, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s an inspiring reminder that art is art is art—that the drive and the struggle to create is universal, and that there is meaning to be found in toiling to create something that, in the end, exists for only a moment.

(Photo taken by me, from a 2015 trip to Paris.)

Continue Reading

Death of a Snob

Photo I snapped of Hamo Thornycroft's "Lot's Wife" at the V&A in London last month.

My mom mentioned the other day that at some point when I was young, I went to a playdate at a house that had a piano. So I sat down and played a difficult little piece for a very polite audience, and when I was finished one father said, “That’s nice. Hey, can you play anything by the Beatles?”

I think that’s about the time I became very stuck-up about music—I’d realized at that point that outside of my parents’ house and my piano teacher’s studio, no one seemed to be listening to the type of music I was playing. So, like all young people who feel misunderstood when they like something non-mainstream, I became very snobby about music.

Like many quietly horrible things, like gelatin-based salads and casual racism, the music snobbery came from a place of misguided good intentions. Classical music had always captured my heart, lit up my imagination, and described all the complex emotions that defied language, and I couldn’t understand why people would turn their backs on so sublime an art in favor of the nonsense that came out of the radio. I erroneously decided that such ignorance had to be intentional, and as such deserved mockery.

I like to think that I was a nice kid, but my snobbishness knew no bounds, and got worse the older I got. It’s a miracle I made it out of high school with any friends left. If someone told me they liked “the Moonlight Sonata,” I’d snort. “You mean you like Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2 in C-sharp minor, right? Have you even heard the third movement, or are you one of those people who just listens to the first and thinks that’s the whole thing?”

I was also so utterly convinced of the objective superiority of classical music that I was certain that, if one blasted Liszt’s “La Campanella” enough times in the hallway, the sheeple would snap out of it and recognize true greatness. Come to think of it, I think that’s the exact same reasoning that explains why people stand on street corners waving signs about Jesus.

Luckily for all the people who stuck around to put up with me, I had a couple of realizations:

1. The obvious thing: classical music, like all forms of art, is deeply personal. There’s no one magic piece, genre, or style you can use to get everybody hooked. My gateway drug was a “Classical Masterpieces” compilation CD set, but for somebody else it might be a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Fantasia. I spent so many years pooh-poohing John Williams as a Hollywood hack that it came as a surprise to me that his movie scores have led many people down the rabbit hole and turned them into real fans of classical music. Even after you’ve discovered the wonderful, wacky, colorful world of art music, what turns people on can vary wildly. I’m pretty sure there’s a dopamine center in my brain that’s exclusively activated by Beethoven, yet I know plenty of people for whom his music doesn’t do anything. (I have since repaired my friendships with these people despite their obvious shortcomings.)

2. The hard truth: if you exclude other fans of classical music because their reasons for loving it aren’t good enough for you, you’re not going to have a lot of allies left. You know, besides the really pedantic purists who analyze everything to death and insist you won’t truly appreciate this piece until you’ve read this one book in the original German by candlelight. I have met people like this (heck, I’ve been one of those people) and they are not very pleasant. Classical music lovers are classical music lovers, and concerts are way more fun with more people in the audience.

3. The really uncomfortable truth: classical music gets painted as an exclusive institution because it is. As much as we musicians and music lovers like to trumpet (pun intended) the universality of music, it is an unpleasant fact that the groups of people allowed to write, perform, criticize, curate, and preserve art music have been, and still are, limited to a small cohort defined by privilege. Often, when we talk about “classical music,” we really mean European and American music, and when we talk about European and American music, we really mean music written by European and American men, and when we talk about music written by European and American men, we really mean music written by European and American men of the upper and middle class and…you get the point.

And hey, the classism affects audiences, too. While enjoyment of music can be had at all levels of familiarity, people with more music education and experience are more likely to appreciate and support the arts. But music education isn’t exactly universal. Most kids who get to learn to play music are kids with parents who can afford to get them lessons and instruments and take them to concerts. Music classes aren’t offered in all schools, they’re usually the first thing to go when the budget cuts roll around, and music appreciation often isn’t something that’s taught along with history, math, or science (even though it’s a direct application of all three things combined). Classical music is a massively important cultural keystone, but it’s also extremely daunting for those not familiar with it, and its reputation for snobbery can turn people off from seeing what all the fuss is about. Writing off people for having no knowledge of music when they haven’t been given a chance to be exposed to it is…well, it’s as exclusionist as you can get without straight-up building a #*%^ing wall.

This combination of epiphanies killed my inner snob pretty quickly. A couple of years ago, if I heard a snippet of the William Tell Overture outside of a concert hall (which describes 100% of the times I have heard it), I’d sigh theatrically and say, “Poor Rossini.” Now? Sure, it’s a little annoying that Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and Vivaldi’s “Spring” are constantly churned out by commercials, movies, wind-up toys, et. al…but it’s admittedly also kind of cool that tunes from classical music are woven into the fabric of modern culture and kept alive in the ears of people who might not otherwise ever hear those melodies.

So what does it mean that I’ve renounced my snobbish ways? It hasn’t necessarily changed my tastes—I’m still pretty picky about what I listen to and like, and I have a very limited range of tolerance for most pop music—but my attitude has evolved a lot. I make it a point not to condescend to people who don’t know much about music, and in fact it’s kind of fun to figure out how to explain something I learned very technically in a way that’s approachable and relatable. I’ve learned that if someone likes something even tangentially related to classical music—movie scores, video game music, classical crossover, or heck, Für Elise—it means they like music, and it gives me an opportunity to indoctrinate them into my cult introduce them to other pieces or composers I think they’ll like.

It’s also affected the way I perform; there’s less “Let me show off for you and make a point about how amazing I am by playing all these notes” and more “Let me show you how amazing this music is and why I love it so much.” I think it comes through, for performances that have a lot more heart and substance.

And if nothing else, being un-snobby about music has made it so much easier to get along with other people who, when it comes down to it, love classical music for the same reason that I do: because it’s awesome.

Continue Reading

Confession: I have no idea where this blog is going

I never know what to blog about these days. Despite the fact that I’ve been blogging regularly since I was thirteen (like all the other immature, whiny, platitude-spewing kids who don’t belong on the internet) I now don’t know what I’m supposed to say.

I do know what I don’t blog about, and here you may see my conundrum. I don’t swear on this blog and I don’t talk about topics I wouldn’t discuss in front of my six-year-old cousin or my boss. After all, this is a public blog linked to from my Facebook and website and I don’t want family, employers, or professors seeing anything I wouldn’t want them to see. (You guys know where to go if you want that stuff, anyway.)

Although I am highly opinionated about a lot of things, I don’t discuss controversial topics here. Honestly there’s nothing I could say that hasn’t been said already, and I’m not the most eloquent person around here.

Lastly, I don’t blog about personal aspects of my life here, even if they are “safe” topics. The fact of the matter is that this is, again, a public blog, and I don’t need or want just anybody to know about whatever personal problems or thoughts I have. Again, if you really want to see my extensive soul-searching and ramblings, you know where to go.

So having whittled it all down to nothing inappropriate, nothing controversial, and nothing deeply personal, there’s not that much for me to put on there that’s super interesting. Add the fact that anything that’s not original content goes on my Tumblr, and there’s almost nothing to put on here.
However, I don’t want to ever give up blogging. It’s therapeutic to just type something out and throw it into the abyss of the internet, even if I’m not some celebrity or internet personality. I mean, I know I do have a fairly interesting life–I’m not a totally boring person.

Me: […] i suppose i am just not a fascinating person
Ben: i would disagree
Me: really now
Ben: you’re going to be a famous concert pianist, right?
Ben: how many people do that
So what do you guys want to see on here? Funny stories, the day-to-day workings of my life? Me waxing poetic about various random things? The progress of my practicing? Whatever design-type projects I might be working on at any given time? Pictures, videos?

Continue Reading