Why music? Why me? Why now?
Virtue ethics, the musical brain drain, and how my hands are not for nothing.
Monday, I traveled the labyrinths of pre-operative procedures, driving into Manhattan on quiet holiday streets. I repeated and confirmed my name and date of birth, multiple times. I was swabbed and stuck and wired to read the electrical activity of my heart. The women who performed the tests were young and kind. I told them I’m afraid of nose swabs and needles, and they indulged me with their gentle laughter, as though I were the child I feel myself to be in those moments.
The phlebotomist challenged me. “What’re you worried about?” She was smiling. “‘I’ve already had two brain surgeries, and I’m fine!”
Early tomorrow, I go for surgery. It’s uncomfortable to think about what happens when my body is suspended in the ether. I tell myself it’s like airplane travel: if you had to stop to think about it, you’d never believe that 100,000 pounds of aluminium alloy could carry you and everyone else into the air and across an ocean without colliding into other planes or flocks of geese or getting off-course, and yet before Covid I took planes all the time, thoughtlessly, and it was fine.
In the meanwhile, I’m waiting. I’ve been following various rabbit holes. I’ve been looking at the three of the four walls I can see from my position in my bed. I’ve been taking the measurements of my life against their dimensions: how it is I came to live here, and not somewhere else, because of music. I’ve been following the lines—literal and figurative—that trace the path I took to get here.
(Warning: this is a long, rambling newsletter. To quote Blaise Pascal, “Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Or, “I would have written this shorter, but I lacked the free time to make it shorter.”)
The Cold War
In the mid-1980s, the threat of nuclear annihilation was a daily presence in my life. It was the height of the nuclear arms race and the disarmament movement. At age 13, I the threat of nuclear disaster was as total and compelling as the threat of environmental catastrophe today.
My family lived in Calgary, then, and when I learned that the American military were testing long-range cruise missiles at the Cold Lake AFB in northeastern Alberta, I felt personally affronted by the sudden incursion of American warmongering. It was a violation of psychological sovereignty: as though we were nowhere, and nothing; an anonymous stand-in for Siberia. I’d been reading George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: I could smell the dystopia.
In response, I did two things: I started a petition, and I practiced.
At school, I approached kids with my vinyl-covered clipboard, requesting their signatures. After school, I went door-to-door in my neighbourhood. I sent off bundles of blank petition pages to every junior and senior high school in the province, and they came back with signatures. I collected thousands of signatures, stacked the pages in a box, and sent it away to the Prime Minister of Canada in Ottawa.
It was around this time—three minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock—that I decided I would become a professional musician. The near-complete détente between the superpowers prompted the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the “doomsday clock” forward by one minute:
It is a measure of the gravity of the current situation that only once in our 39-year history—in 1953 in response to the advent of the hydrogen bomb—have we seen fit to place the warning hand any closer to midnight than it stands today.
(Source: “Editorial: Three Minutes to Midnight”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January, 1984)
Add to this my dawning awareness of the relationship of oil to global warming, and the strong grip the oil industry had on every aspect of Alberta life. I could see few jobs that were not directly or indirectly tied to oil. Oil, I assessed, could only bring about the destruction of life. Music could only bring about nothing but beauty. I thought it my duty to become a musician.
It’s taken me until now to see how Cold War thinking—inherited traumas of the World Wars, the optimistic advances of science and technology, the doomsday clock, competition linked to survival, the sense of artistic obligation to make beauty as though the cultivation of the self and the salvation of humanity rests on it—all shaped my concept of what being a musician would mean.
My mother tried to bargain with me—“You can always play music on the side”—but I wanted a life with music at the centre. Both music and activism had offered a vantage point from which I could imagine a better world. To practice, to hustle, and to prove my critics wrong meant that world might be possible.
Why music? Why me? Why now?
What I wanted was a life of meaning. Petition-making and music-making were compelling and seductive; they used up all my time; they represented an unassailable good. I didn’t subject the claims I made to their value and results to any serious scrutiny.
I know now that I could have used a good teacher, in high school, to ground me in ethical literacy. Such a teacher might have helped me to better understand my values, to tease apart the assumptions embedded in my claims, to gain the language to clearly articulate my goals and their impacts, and to guide me towards understanding how music could connect me to what it means to be more fully human. A teacher like that would have asked me to consider the cases where music might not be able to fulfill the promises we make on its behalf.
To be honest, I could use a teacher like that now. Someone to guide me in the questions I’ve been asking myself: Why music? Why me? Why now?
I never had a teacher like that, but I can at. least try to be that teacher now. Last week, I brought a Ph.D. student from Harvard’s ethics program, Jessi Stegall, to help teach basic concepts in ethics to the students in my entrepreneurship seminar at NEC: concepts of duty (our moral obligations to others); utility (acts that maximize human well-being); and virtue (character-centered, the qualities of intrinsic goodness).
Duty-based ethics holds that actions are inherently right or wrong, and that people have a duty to act accordingly, regardless of the consequences of the action. We must do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. We must avoid doing wrong things.
My teenage self might have endorsed duty-based statements like these: It is my duty to cultivate my talent to its full expression; I have a duty to bring music’s beauty into the world; and I have a duty to refrain from actions (e.g. working in the oil industry) that will cause harm to human, animal and plant life.
Duty-based ethics provide clear moral guidelines that apply equally to all human beings. Problems arise, however, in situations where a good action might cause harm, or where duty might be in conflict. For example, my early single-minded focus on music meant that I did not discover my other talents until well into my twenties. My anxious attachment to the idea of “talent” meant that my sense of personal worth was attached to the judgment of powerful gatekeepers, some of whom were bad actors.
Results-based ethics (consequentialism, utilitarianism) suggests that the morally right action is the one with the most overall positive consequences; the one that yields the greatest amount of human well-being. Utility-based questions about music are questions like these: Is music a social good? How can I produce the most good? Does the good outweigh the bad?
Results-based ethics played a large role in my thinking, and in the thinking of my students. On the surface, it seems simple and sensible (as, for example, my conception of music as bringing beauty into the world). But it’s dangerously reductive. Future consequences are impossible to predict, and impacts on well-bring are often difficult to measure. (It’s only now, thirty years later, that I begin to register the impacts of my earlier habits of thinking.) A singular concept of “music” reinforces structural inequities (Whose music are we talking about, anyhow? Whose good? Determined by whom?) and introduces risk to those people whose well-bring you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as something you can provide.
Virtue ethics is person- rather than action-based. Instead of asking the question, “What should I do?” it asks the questions, “Who am I?” and “What kind of person should I be?” “Virtues” are attitudes or character traits that allow us to to act and be in ways that develop our fullest human potential. The language we musicians use to describe our lives in music is rich with virtues: honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, integrity, fairness, discipline, and so on.
When I thought I was going to be doing nothing but music, I thought my life would be brave, generous, truthful, innovative, spirited, and conscientious: I would be a warrior in defense of beauty. A number of years into my career, when I learned that making a living in music is not so much doing what you love, as loving doing what pays, I identified the virtues of a working musician: humility, utility, collegiality, frugality, imagination, persistence and resilience.
Virtue ethics centres on the person and what it means to be human—questions considered against the scope of a whole human life, and not only a discrete choice or action. But there is no general agreement on what human virtues are, nor what a virtuous musician might do in areas where their virtues fail to correspond to those of the professional culture that surrounds them. Virtue ethics gives no clear guidance on what to do in any particular situation. Presumably, a perfectly virtuous musician would know what to do when the contract terms of your carefully constructed musical life are swiftly revoked—as they were the second week of March, 2020.
There is no good way to calculate what virtues I might have cultivated had I not subjected music to an impossible set of demands: to be at once avocation and vocation; to be at once a path of personal salvation and the pass I use to transgress social norms; to be livelihood, lover, social club, art museum, bar room, teacher, banker, and best friend. I’m inclined to think that my mother had a point; that had I played music “on the side” I might in fact love it better, because I could let it be what it is.
I found our class’ discussion about ethics and music to be frustrating. I chafed at the ways in which the terms of philosophical debate assumed musical lives and choices unfolded in an orderly manner; as though all choices were rational choices, experienced in a neutral plane of thought, and not made haphazardly, in process, with incomplete information.
There’s no telling what I might have become had I chosen to do something else, so I conclude that it’s best that I accept that what I am is a musician—as I am 50 years old, as I am Canadian, as another fact of my existence—and then move along at the speed of faith and doubt.
I think about music the way William Carlos Williams writes about poems:
Covid-19 and the Brain Drain
The impact of Covid-19, which has posed a profound interruption to the profession, and this CSF leak, which provides an immediate practical interruption to my life, have prompted me to evaluating many of my life choices.
For decades, nearly every choice I made revolved around a life in music. It was in my choice not to have children, the choice of what city—what country—in which I would live, the choice of where I would contribute my intellectual and artistic talents, the choice of where I would spend my time, and how, and with whom.
I haven’t always understood these choices. There’s been a general aporia in the creative music field wherein we were all doing what we loved, but some of us did it without having to worry that we couldn’t also save against our old age, and some of us got to buy real estate in the second most expensive city in the world while shrugging it off as “luck” and having “bought at the right time.” The further I go, the more I see just how un-level a playing field music is.
Every year, more of us melt away—off to other jobs, to lives in other cities. If I believe in music—after Williams, in the life-and-death importance of “what is found there”—then I believe it will be important for us, going forward, to name clearly the impacts of economic privilege. It’s not being “lucky” — it’s called inherited wealth.
One problem in a conception of music as an automatic good rests in the way in which your single-minded pursuit of its goodness can cloud your perception of the other factors at play.
I’ve thought I was doing an impressive job, being an artist (and a woman in a field that has not recognized women), teaching at reputable schools, holding down jobs with benefits, paying the rent on my apartment in the second most expensive city in the world. I have to reapply for my job every three to five years, in a tenure-like process, but this lets me know that I continue to stand on the merits of my work. I am rewarded for all this by being able to do, more or less, what I have wanted to do. Which was to play original music, and to dedicate four years to developing a piece of documentary theater and personal testimony about environmental crisis in Alberta. I have worked hard at teaching, and hard at being an artist: so much so that I have not noticed that all I was doing was working. I have not noticed that most people around me do not have to work this hard. I have not noticed how many people around me do not, strictly speaking, have to work at all.
What I have noticed is that it is an anomaly when I meet a colleague who comes from a working-class background—I can feel the ease and release of something I didn’t realize was tightened around me. I’ve noticed the anomaly when I meet a colleague, like me, who can’t afford an unsecured job in higher education, but who can’t afford not to work. I notice I am often the only one in a meeting who might consider the perspective of the people who earn the least.
As, for example, when I am the one person who suggests that New York City’s arts economy may not “snap back” after Covid: not for face-to-face workers in the arts and entertainment sector, where the employment level was down by 63 percent this year, by far the greatest net decline in any industry. Not for people of color, young workers, and lower-wage workers, who’ve borne the brunt of job and wage losses in 2020. Meanwhile, Wall Street recorded one of its best years ever.
I’ve drawn these numbers from a recent report prepared by the Centre for New York City Affairs, which makes plain how the worst impacts of Covid-19 are borne by those who can least afford them.
The partial rebound since last spring has been called a K-shaped recovery for good reason; many in the bottom half of the economy have lost jobs or earnings and are experiencing severe housing and food insecurity, while most of those in the top half of the income distribution retain their jobs, and many have seen their financial assets rise in value.
It’s uncomfortable to hold facts like these next to our cherished beliefs about music. But it’s not impossible. It’s responsible.
I’m afraid of my upcoming surgery, but I’m really afraid of this silence around wealth and its relationship to who gets to think about making a life in music. I’m afraid about the brain drain (no pun) — the knowledge to be lost as working musicians retrain for other jobs. I’m worried for people facing the total destruction of the lives they carefully built; in an environment that few people understood well in the first place. I’m not yet willing to leave music to those people who can afford not to work.
The 20th Century
It is my habit, when frightened by something, to pull back and enquire after its status and historical roots. What is it that I understand to be a “professional” musician? What does it mean to be an artist?
In this 2015 article in The Atlantic called “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” William Deresiewicz described paradigmatic shifts in the conception of the artist. As the highly skilled artisan of medieval and renaissance times gave way to the solitary genius of the Romantic era—a seer, a prophet, divinely inspired—art separated itself from craft to become a unitary concept possessed of a higher essence. The figure of the solitary artist (noble, enviable, distinct from ordinary concerns) gave way, by the mid-twentieth century, to a fully institutionalized profession. The United States, flexing its muscles as a new superpower, established museums, orchestras, arts councils, residencies, fellowships, and more. Art, artists and the training of artists became institutionalized.
The model of career that we now know as “the professional musician”—the orchestral player with a salaried job, the busy touring musician—is a postwar American construction. Institutions cushioned the artist from the brutality of capitalism. When I was in high school, I remember my stepfather telling me about sitting next to conductor Boris Brott on a flight back to Alberta. He’d asked Brott’s opinion about my professional prospects. Brott explained that if I was able to gain admission to Juilliard on my merits as a violist, then there would always be work for me. I used his assessment as a kind of bargaining chip.
A job in an orchestra was not my calling, per se, but that promise of security allowed me to maintain a set of ideas (truth, beauty, counter-culturalism) that could cushion me ideologically and economically. It was a kind of compromise position: I’d get to be an artist, but I’d also get to be middle class. Ever since, I’ve been in an uneasy relationship with that compromise. Instead of playing in an orchestra, I teach in conservatories: potato potato. The institution is my savior. The institution is my protector. The institution is my tormentor. A gig is a gig.
Inside the institution, we don’t perceive the impacts of digitization, illegal downloads, and streaming. Like labour rights and fair compensation, these matters rarely come up. Perhaps it’s because we’re focused mainly on the work of art-making: generating skills and craft. Perhaps it’s because my colleagues, insulated by their positions, have little first-hand experience of the gap between industry profit and musician penury that describes the modern music industry. Perhaps it’s because we don’t wish to examine the political economy of the music industry too plainly, because when we view technology as a two-faced Janus—our villain, our hero—we get to pick the aspects we like and keep complaining about the rest. Very few people seem to understand that the deep hits the music industry has taken in the last 20 years are not due to neutral forces of the market or technology, but to policy decisions: negotiations, alliances, and legislative deals. This should be nothing new. It’s always been the case that the record industry was designed to carry profits off of performers, and towards the companies that sell their products. There’s always been someone eager enough for the chance to be heard.
When I look at it darkly, I think “I teach professional development for a profession that no longer exists.” When I look at it kindly, I think, “I teach young people how to flourish as artists, thinkers and persons in a time when few people can keep hold of uncomfortable truths. I teach hope and action.”
The 21st Century
The idea of the solitary artist/genius is an artifact of the birth of modern industrial capitalism. Romanticism, whether in poetry, music or art, often represented a longing for a pre-industrial past. Think of Degas’ dreamy hazy landscapes with distant smokestacks in the background, or Monet’s Waterloo Bridge.
Think about Willam Blake’s rant in his preface to Milton: “England’s mountains green: and “these dark Satanic Mills?” Think of Percy Blysse Shelley’s “Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Think about Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The so-called “Pastoral” is often reduced to a kind of an afterthought to the radicalism of his Fifth, but hear it instead as his paean to a rapidly disappearing pre-industrial past. He’s luxuriating in a world where birds become prophets, where a symphony tells a story, where there’s time for his imagination to linger and flow beyond the formal constraints. Some musciologists argue heavy-handedly for the programmatic metaphor. The birds prophecy the storm to come and the storm is either the wrath of God or Beethoven’s encroaching deafness. I prefer to think the storm is the inevitable consequences of capitalism. The end of empire, the end of limitless progress, the rising seas, the wildfires, the spiraling divides of inequality, etc.
(To be clear: Beethoven could compose because of an unusual patronage agreement that freed him to live in Vienna and just… write. Some artists starved. Other artists had money. Poet Elizabeth Bishop was independently wealthy. Poet Adrienne Rich, writing about Emily Dickinson’s life in self-isolation, wrote, ““I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.” The critical point was that Dickinson could choose a life of self-isolation: she was born into a family wealthy and tolerant enough that they could afford her aberrations, a circumstance that most certainly made her astonishing productivity possible.)
Since the turn of the century, we’ve been undergoing another industrial revolution. You might give it various names: neoliberalism, surveillance capitalism, the age of the creative entrepreneur, the gig economy, late capitalism. The conditions: relentless privatization, ever-broadening inequities, the loss of state support and benefits, unemployment, underemployment, employment precarity, grinding austerity. The rhetoric: newspeak boasts about personal passion, excellence, imagination, and innovation.
The institutions that supported the professional musician are disintegrating and contracting. It’s likely that many will not return after Covid-19, but I’d love to be proven wrong. In many ways, I’ve been preparing for this my whole professional life. I’ve learned how to become adept at budgeting, buffering, and strategic planning—generally getting a lot done with relatively few resources. Still, when a colleague mentioned to me casually that they didn’t expect our university to re-open in the fall, I lost sleep. I know he was just verbalizing his anxieties, but at this point, I don’t have much left to lose.
I know nostalgia is the worst, but I wish I could hear in the life-and-death stakes in the music of our time. I want to hear music that take a defiant stance, not music that anxiously looks for more followers, and asks how it could boost its game on Instagram, and wonders whether it should consider the merits of Spotify’s latest experiment in pay-to-play.
The thing is, everyone’s an artist now. Earlier this month, it made the news around the world when a Brooklyn toddler released her debut album, recorded while she was still in the womb.
This is what we’re up against.
A 21st century technique
The concept of entrepreneurship is offered to us as an opportunity, when it is, for most of us, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that they don’t just hand jobs out to you when you get out of school. It wasn’t even true, what Boris Brott told my stepfather on the plane. It was a story that felt good to speaker and listener; that’s all.
One evening last week, I experienced a vivid image of what it could be like to play the viola, this time possessed of a technique entirely of my own making. I could feel my fingers responsive to an impulse that said to lean here and to bite there; to bend a single note in six different directions at once. I thought about my sound as being in an intimate dialectical relationship with my technique, so that each was informing the other. I never played a note the way I thought I should play it. I played it as it needed to be played, and my hands were trained in the image of my heart and voice and no one else’s image.
What was compelling about this vision was that it reminded me of something I’ve tended to forget during Covid, which is that I’ve done this already. I’ve produced compelling original statements as an artist. My hands know things. My hands know a lot. My hands are not for nothing.
(It is easy to suspect it is for nothing when you know how artistic careers are made, and how little they pay. How little chance there is that anyone makes a living from their art—as in, enough to weather an indefinite period of work stoppage like the one we’re in right now. If you understand what it is to try to hold one’s own in a field where it costs to work; where you work next to people who can afford a $1500 video, $1000 headshots, $2000 a month for management services, and $12000 for publicity; if you’re struggling to pay rent and health insurance and student loan debt; you might also wonder what all of this is really for. To be clear, I’m not questioning the value of art-making. I mean to effect a fundamental separation between the artist and the art market.)
It’s difficult to imagine a future where works of art do not become commodities; where people do not become personal brands. It’s difficult to imagine a future where enough people have access to the time and focus it takes to produce compelling, original artistic statements. Art—as a mechanism for coming to know oneself; for coming to know our differences; for asking difficult and necessary questions—is not some post-collegiate adventure. It’s not some phase you go through. It might be full of struggle, silence, reckoning, and it’s through all of this, that we might come to know our way.
I have come to think that in an era of surveillance capitalism, where our intimate emotional experience is up for tracking and corporate intervention—that’s what Spotify’s newest venture is about—that there will be a persistent need for artists as discerners of human truth. I’m imagining guilds of unaffiliated artists, advancing radical aesthetics of care; developing advanced techniques of imagination, memory and mutual aid. I’m still convinced in the critical value of artistic work, but I’m thinking I’m going to need to get very specific about exactly what I mean, and how I’ll know when I’m reaching it. Because I think whatever comes next, it will take everything we’ve got.
Last word to Adrienne Rich
A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what and when to burn, or even how to theorize. It reminds you . . . where and when and how you are living and might live, it is a wick of desire.
Any truly revolutionary art is an alchemy through which waste, greed, brutality, frozen indifference, “blind sorrow,” and anger are transmuted into some drenching recognition of the What if?— the possible; What if?— The first revolutionary question, the question the dying forces don’t know how to ask.
—Adrienne Rich, “What is Found There”