Like most people, I have been forced to spend more time than I am comfortable with thinking about what it means to be an artist. I have been thinking about how and why we do what we do. We are living through a time where we question what our careers and passions look like and how viable they are. However, I would say that, virus aside, this is not a new conversation for many artists. The move to digital and away from in-person is something many artists have been dealing with for years. Any musician trying to get views on youtube, get spotify listens, and have people buy tickets to their touring concert while they simultaneously livestream it to facebook is more than familiar with a suite of online platforms. In lieu of a booming print business where peer reviewed journals and books are flying off shelves, many writers and researchers have been self-publishing and creating their own opportunities for years. Any artist without the support and power of a large institution behind them can tell you about the struggles they have to get their work seen by audiences. Given that there are fewer and fewer orchestras – complete with concert halls, subscribers, and union wages- in existence every year, scores of new music and independent artists have been banding together to make their own ensembles and take what income they can from a dying funding system for a whole generation. This virus has expedited (or at least brought to light) some of these challenges and inequities, but it has in no way been the only catalyst.
So, what are we to tell our students about working in the arts? Can we spare the doom and gloom and provide a realistic and fulfilling path to working as an artist in the coming years? I do firmly believe we can provide a rosy outlook provided we understand that the path forward in no way resembles the path behind. But, in its new look, we need not be afeared. The path is surprisingly well trod by many artists and it comes complete with well-lit signage along the way. Beyond the crippling fear of the new and unknown, there are few reasons why we cannot adapt. Even those bastions of “how we’ve always done it” the symphony orchestra have been adapting and updating for years. Attending an evening of a live orchestra playing the Star Wars soundtrack alongside the movie, a full light show, live actors, all while tweeting out clips and livestreaming it to instagram will show even a hardened critic how adaptive the arts can be. The difficulty is to then convince that audience of 3000 to come see an evening of Xenakis and Berberian or the even harder sell of a night of newly commissioned works by marginalized composers performed by people who are not wearing tuxes and black gowns. Imagine more than one show in a row that didn’t include Beethoven or Schumann. Imagine the budget of the Star Wars show being spent on funding new works and hiring more artists.
There is danger in thinking the classical arts are autonomous and self-sustaining (or at least self-preserving) during times of crisis. To think that if we hunker down and ride it out or wait for things to return to normal, that everything will be fine. What are other disciplines, businesses, and individuals in our local (and national) spheres doing to adapt? Not only now, but how have they been adapting for years? What connections, funding opportunities, and adaptations can be made that don’t involve Bolero multi-tracking ourselves out of jobs and meaningful creation?
About 10 years ago, I made the conscious decision that my career path was going to be as far from typical as possible. I had completed what was ostensibly a classical based undergrad as a clarinetist and conductor as well as a masters in musicology that was heavily focused on archival work and sociological research. However, while in grad school I was conducting musicals, music directing for theatre shows, playing piano in a band, and working with as many artists, performance artists, dancers, and writers from as many disciplines as possible. I found a job as a choir director and pianist at a church, but spent much of my free time using the resources afforded me (mainly a big hall, nice piano, and an empty booking schedule) to build a multidisciplinary production company. While I took my hymn and offertory playing from passible to perfectly fine, I was conducting opera scenes while actors corralled an audience into a dark room with mad scenes projected onto the walls and ceiling. While playing Mozart and Bach during the week, I spent my weekends working with poets to reimagine Gabrielli canzonas into graphic scores to be performed live by the audience and an orchestra. I took every job I possibly could and played and created at every possible turn. Some of this was unpaid. Some of it was not. All of it was an experience that taught me what working in the arts could look like. They were experiences I had while I watched friends and colleagues bemoan the fact that this year there were only 2 violin jobs opening in the whole country.
The classical arts are beginning to look toward other art forms and cultures to understand how to adapt. Admittedly, we have been trying to do that for probably 30 years, but that work is just beginning to pay off. We are seeing that othered peoples have been adapting and modifying their creation for generations. Although we should be wary of tokenization of marginalized peoples and cultural theft, there is a lot to be learned about how to work in the arts from queer people, people of colour, and artists who have lengthy, sustainable careers and artistic bodies but have never studied in a conservatory or classical setting. Or at the very least brought their own cultural artistic voices into the classical sphere.
In 2018 I founded www.classicalqueer.com. On the surface, the blog is a collection of stories from queer artists, but it has become a way of thinking and an ideology around creation. How do othered and marginalized peoples create? What is it about their way of thinking that brings them to a different path in the classical world? Why is the music they write different? What is it about the performance of an othered soloist that makes them compelling? Reading back through past interviews I’m struck that othered people and artists with non-linear careers have been working in isolation and confusion for a long time. They have been fighting uphill funding battles and lack of recognition for generations.
Last year, I took a job as music director for the Canadian tour of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I had loved the show for many years, but a childhood friend was playing the titular Hedwig (a transgendered rock star from communist East Berlin) and the time felt right for me to work on the project. Although this show presents as a rock musical not unlike Rock of Ages, or JSCC, there is a different road to travel with Hedwig. The show was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, during a deep recession, and was written by two queer artists who had both been shunned from traditional venues. Its contemporaries include Sunset Boulevard by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s A Grand Night for Singing. But also included Tony Kushner’s incredibly influential Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The show has since had runs on Broadway, the West End, toured across North America and Europe and even has a life selling out stadiums in South Korea. Hedwig’s story touches people. I have sat on stages across Canada and watched entire audiences of queer+ people and allies cry from the first notes to the final curtain call. I have watched from behind the piano as couples and chosen families needed to hold each other through the show to keep as still as they can while tears stream down their faces. Although written in the early 90s, Hedwig did not win a Tony until the 2014 revival with Neil Patrick Harris. It was shut out from national and international tours until the mainstream production revived it. But it survived. It adapted. Moreover, it is beautiful and fun, witty and tragic. With a budget that Andrew Lloyd Webber would throw away on a hotel room and a meal, a movie was made. Its creator, John Cameron Mitchell, last year premiered a complete several-hour long musical Anthem: Homunculus in the form of a podcast that was broadcast over months via Instagram and now lives online in full. With hard earned recognition and innovation at his fingertips, the stars of the show included Glenn Close, Denis O’Hare, Patti Lupone and Justin Vivian Bond. There is a power in that live-to-podcast performance despite how different it looks on the surface.
I have often said to students (as have many others before me) that we study arts so that we have an emotional language that allows us to deal with complicated emotions. Studying the arts in every possible way allows us the vocabulary to express and feel connected in strange times including wars, pandemics, personal anguish, love, anxiety, and everything in between. We have always made art and will continue to do so during good times and bad times, but we do need to be fluid. There are many great examples in front of us if we are willing to look. We in the arts have many allies, so long as we look at every single person, audience member, funding board, creator, and art lover as a colleague. We very well may be at a crossroads of creation, but we are certainly not at a dead end.