What about Relevance?

Art in a Changing World: A conversation moderated by Catherine Maciariello

Peter DuBois, Jake Heggie, Matt Haimovitz, Philip Kennicott, Michael Morgan, and Elizabeth Streb

Catherine Maciariello
This panel intends to examine the purpose and value of what we do from the personal, institutional, and public perspective. We ask your indulgence and ask you to fly with us at 35,000 feet. We are talking about relationships, multiple meanings, and civic dialogue that enable an exchange of ideas that elevate and enrich both art-making and civic life.

Our conversation today grows out of several others we had in preparation for the session in which we concluded that what we do does have value in and of itself, but this value alone is not enough. The minute we take public and private dollars for our work, the moment we develop institutions and complex systems for offering our work that place demands on our community resources, the transaction changes, and relevancy becomes not only important, but critical. If we understand that systems are neutral and that no one owes us anything, then relevancy and public meaning must matter to us.

To give a frame to this complicated set of questions, I'd first like to turn to the practicing artists—to Elizabeth, Jake, and Matt—and ask them about whether they see intrinsic value in the work they make, the relationship they feel to the public, and whether concern for how others respond to their work compromises intent and quality artistically?

Elizabeth Streb
Relevance has been plaguing me for the past eight years or so. In the first years of our careers, all of us as artists hope to be noticed and to build and sustain careers (and hope to get out of the restaurant business).

I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to work for twenty years on an idea of action, on a series of questions that attempted, from my point of view, to "defamiliarize" common things like gravity, right-side-up, occupation of space, changing base of support, what is movement in the real world, etc. I was able to perform in front of many audiences in very classy places. And only in the last five years of that stage of my career did I start to become concerned with the demographics of who walked in the room, what was on the stage, what I was presenting, what it meant to them, and how coded our edifices of culture were.

I came up with a lot of disturbing questions about my civic duty, about analyzing the difference between public and private, and I recognized the fact that the only public thing I did was invite all of you and others into a theater for $25 to $50. That isn't exactly for me, "public."

So, I decided I wanted to reestablish where I made the work. And it went off the stage, off the subject into context, into trying to establish a place where we could work "all public, all the time." I wanted to create a place that was small enough in scale that I could keep the doors open all the time.

I looked out into the world and asked, "Do you want to be a church or a 7-11?" Everyone goes to the 7-11 because they have things they need and want. And some people go to church, but they can only go on Sundays and at certain hours. Could you take high art and take it away from these ivory towers, slop it back down onto the sidewalk? Could it sprout little legs and run around and mean anything to anyone besides me?'

So we opened a garage in Williamsburg, about two years ago. It's called Slam. It's my model and I have to talk directly from personal experience. Now I understand why people don't leave the doors open all the time, because, well, pigeons fly in. And I understand how civilization became more and more and more private, with larger and larger yards and higher fences, and with more difficult codes to get a ticket and get in.

I thought, I'll just be there working, seven days a week, eleven hours a day, and have people come in and watch us. And who are these people? They're strangers. And how do those strangers look at what we do? They don't care, they have no agenda. And all of a sudden for the last year and half of operating in there and doing shows and this and that, I realized how deeply affected I am by their gaze, these unknown people who are neighborhood people.

We work with kids and the parents of kids. The demographics are pretty nonwhite. We have a humongous mixture of people who are coming in, from word of mouth, to see POP ACTION.

What's extraordinary is not only who gets to see it, but how I get affected. Now I say, "Oh, what move am I going to make up, given the environment of my new audience?" I have to be honest the way I had to be honest when I was young and a stranger to all of you, and I didn't have a whole lot to lose or win. I feel I've cut to the bone.

This urban barn, this garage, doesn't have a start time, you don't have to dress properly, you can come after it starts and leave before it's over. It's questioning duration. You can go across the street and get a drink and come back. I'm not sure that's legal yet, but people do that.

And all of the sudden, the vibrancy that I'm feeling is extraordinary! I'm working it as a pure experiment. And we've done Slam shows there. The last time we did four weeks, three days a week and broke even. All the dancers were paid.

This is my show-and-tell about scale. I thought, if I could have just the right size and just the right cost, and just the right activities, and we could diversify income in just the right way, it would pay for itself. Does everyone know about this [holds up a small orb]? NASA developed it, it's an ecosystem. There are four little shrimp in there. You can't see them, you have to come up and look at them. It's a perfectly balanced environment, but it's small. They can live in there for ever and ever.

Jake, people talk about composing as being intensely private: it would be hard to invite people to come in and watch "slam composing." I'd like to invite you talk about your process.

Jake Heggie
Well, first I want to address something general. You can talk until you're blue in the face about relevance, because who knows what that really means? Does that mean that it's topical? Does it mean that it's in the headlines?

What really, really matters in the creative process is resonance. Why is it that people will still pour into a playhouse to see Othello? Why do certain pieces still have power? Why does Romeo and Juliet still move us? Why does The Barber of Seville still make us laugh? And why do certain things make us cry and certain things leave us cold?

Ultimately, it's like Elizabeth said, she found a different resonance in her life. It wasn't working in one way, so she listened to what was inside and she found something that resonated in a different way that made her excited and stimulated. Because she's a creative artist, she was able to find a way.

Ultimately, that's what we try to do as artists: we try to be very still for a moment, and listen to what's resonating inside while we're still being aware of the times that we live in and what's working for us. I have a policy of never taking on a project unless it kind of terrifies me. Because I think any artist's greatest fear is that you're going to start repeating yourself or do something predictable, and you know, art dies when it's predictable.

The world of opera is very much about looking at pieces from the past that still resonate with audiences, and giving them a new buzz so that there's a different view of human relationships and human dynamics and human conflicts. Fifty percent of the projects that I get involved with start with a great idea, with a great story that you want to tell and that you want to again look at from a different perspective. I guess I live in my own world, but I don't live in an ivory tower. I'm out on the street and I'm reading the news and I'm affected by world events, just like we all are. But, when I write, I can't write because I think, "Well that's going to strike a chord for that group."

I have found recently that my interest is in exploring spiritual crises—the things that we all go through ourselves and as a society. I've been looking for those in song cycles, and there's a lot of spiritual crisis in my first opera, Dead Man Walking. Somehow the music that I've been inspired to write through those works and those subjects has resonated with other people.

But I think that is something that has to be left up to the artists to figure out. Sometimes it's a contemporary theme, and sometimes it's very ancient. But finding that human resonance makes it relevant.

I'd like to turn to Matt now and ask how these questions play themselves out in your approach to making music.

Matt Haimovitz
Well, I've dealt with the idea of relevancy ever since I can remember making music, in that I started to perform publicly when I was very young. I grew up in a classical music household where that's all we listened to, and I didn't realize there were other genres of music until my first year in college.

Growing up in this way, I felt pretty irrelevant among my friends and fellow students in high school. They didn't understand what I was doing as a cellist, going around, playing with different orchestras, practicing five hours a day, all of this was very mysterious to them; and I found it mysterious that they found it mysterious. Then, looking out into concert halls for years and years, I didn't see my generation there, and I couldn't understand why a genre of music that was so meaningful to me was not important to them.

Finally, about four years ago, I began to consider the idea of changing the venue in which I was presenting the music that I believe in. I'd just recorded the Bach cello suites, and we were looking for venues where I could perform this music and celebrate the release of the recording. My wife, Luna Pearl Woolf and I were living Northampton, Massachusetts where there is a wonderful folk music and jazz venue called the Iron Horse Music Hall. We presented the six suites in this folk venue, rock club.

You asked about conflicts, I had many, many conflicts with that initial performance. I was terrified. I was groomed in the kind of romantic tradition of going out onto the stage, not showing any vulnerability, being kind of a heroic performer, and presenting the music, taking my bow, and walking off. Here I was in an intimate setting where the public was used to being entertained—not only presented with music, but also entertained. Having to expose a human face—that was completely new to me.

I also had conflicts about the idea that I had to use amplification. I play a wonderful acoustic cello from 300 years ago, a Venetian instrument, and I always thought, "It can project in a 3,000 seat hall, aren't you distorting things by adding amplification?"

And I wondered what it would do to the music itself, because you know, you're trained to constantly perfect and to be at your best and to play under the best conditions. Here I was totally exposed to an audience, forget about a dressing room—sitting there with the audience before, during, after the performance. All of this was completely new to me.

But when I looked out that first time and saw that here was a broad audience of new listeners to this music, young listeners and old, classical music lovers who were experiencing and hearing these pieces for the very first time, as though for the first time, everything else just faded away, and I realized that I had found a certain purpose as a classical artist.

I just want to tell one recent story if I may. In Boston at a club called T.T. the Bear's Place, I was on this "Anthem Tour," playing living American composers. I arrived and underneath the club was another heavy metal club, and I was hearing through the floorboards this bleeding, thumping bass of one heavy metal band after another.

I was doing a sound check, and I thought, "My God, what have I done! I can't present these composers like this. It requires some attention and nobody's going to be able to hear what I'm doing."

But the public turned out, it was packed. Three hundred people crammed into this little rock club in Boston. The thumping bass continued, and I started to play. And through the course of the evening not a single person left. I couldn't believe it.

That was something triumphant for me personally. Well, not for me personally, but for the genre of music that I was playing, that it could stand up in this "battle of the bands." And that people through it all focused on what was going on with just a solo cellist in a rock club.

Now I'd like to turn the questions to my colleagues from the theater and the orchestra worlds and ask them what happens when these questions have to be considered at an institutional level. I'd like Peter and Michael to talk about how relevancy, meaning, and value play out within their organizations, and to give one powerful example of how they've manifested this conversation by connecting the work to the public in new ways.

Peter DuBois
I've been lucky enough to work at two theaters that are deeply committed to being theaters of place. One was Perseverance Theater in Alaska, and the second, now, is the Public Theater in New York. I have two thoughts, one on content and one on the context within which the work is happening.

As I look for meaning, often I come across two different kinds of plays. One may be an earnest pursuit of a specific topic, but others have that thing where the playwright or the artist is able to touch the ineffable. Tony Kushner does this gorgeously in his work.

In many ways, as we look at programming we're asking, "What are the mechanics of releasing the imagination? What are the mechanics of inspiring empathy in an audience member?"

Then—and Elizabeth was talking about this—I look for relationships with artists who consider the audience to be a player in the creation of the work. It's not enough to just express meaning; you have to push further to a level of communicating meaning. The expression of meaning can happen, I believe, without an audience, but the communication of meaning cannot. I firmly believe that the tree doesn't make a sound if no one's there to hear it.

In terms of context, when I was in Juneau, Alaska, I remember getting a phone call. I was proposing my first season, and I wanted to direct Waiting for Godot in February, and I got a phone call saying, if you program Beckett in February, you'll be driven out of the state of Alaska because no one wants to hear Beckett when there's no light and it's blizzarding outside. So I realized, oh, let's do Pippin! (Laughter)

Over time I began to understand how the seasons worked on people's psychology and emotional life. Literally, you're driving down the street and you can look inside the windshield at the person driving and there's that look in their eyes like, "God, won't this winter ever end?"

There's a sadness and vulnerability that you're able to touch in one another that the programming attempted to access. As spring approached, we focused primarily on new works and works that would take advantage of the kind of opening up that people were feeling emotionally. I don't know what this means yet for New York, but I know what it meant for Alaska.

The other challenge in brokering this relationship between the artist and the audience is, with the most challenging work, how do you eliminate that layer of opacity, without eliminating mystery? How do you offer the keys to the audience for the most difficult work, without eliminating the mystery of the work, without eliminating any sense of surprise?

And when it comes to work that perhaps is less challenging, how do you elevate the work and reveal the art in a piece of theater that may feel is more celebrity-driven or taking advantage of popular hooks?

My last thought is about how work changes depending on who's in the audience. One amazing example I saw of this recently was, we just programmed the 25th anniversary of The Normal Heart, the Larry Kramer play, which is one of the first great AIDS plays. It was, at its time, a kind of "ripped-from-the-headlines" piece of work that really indicted the City of New York and its slow response to the AIDS crisis.

What was amazing, over the course of the run, was seeing three generations of gay New Yorkers in the audience. You saw the holocaust generation, the generation that lived through the first wave of the crisis; and then the middle generation that was aware of the crisis early enough that a huge proportion did not get wiped out; and then a very young generation—and you'd hear their conversation in the lobby of "Oh my God! I had no idea!"

This range of people was grieving though the work and people were getting a revelation through the work about their politics and about their history. That was one of the most incredible and rewarding experiences I've had so far at the Public.

I think we're seeing a pattern emerge that is about the need to move toward a real dialogue that connects a personal passion about work with the impulses we see in the community. And nobody's been better at that than Michael Morgan.

Michael Morgan
I have two orchestras, one in Oakland, California, and one in Sacramento, California. Both of those cities are extremely diverse. And I grew up in Washington, D.C., which is where I first started conducting. So, not only do I not think politics are evil, I embrace them. I actually love politics!

I look at relevance as being about communication on a large scale. I have a group of musicians and a body of music so wide and so diverse that there's something in it that absolutely everybody loves, everyone! Even people who think they don't, there's something that they love.

And then I use my orchestras as community-building mechanisms. For me this is where the relevance comes in. A symphony orchestra can do something that is really very special because we have a group of players who can do a lot of different things in different combinations. We can experiment all the time. And we go out on a limb. We tell people, we're going out on that limb, and we invite them to come with us.

My idea is to get out into the community and tell them what we're doing: "If you've been coming to concerts all your life, you're going to see things in combinations you haven't seen before." And we bring people together. So much of the entertainment we have in this culture seems to be directed at one little segment of a given community. I think an orchestra has potential to be an unbelievable tool for this sort of community building, for getting people who wouldn't ever see each other to just sit in the same room and shut up. To sit in the same room and listen to things.

Here I have this orchestra that can play a lot of different things in an evening—one of which you may think is like the greatest thing you ever heard, and another thing you may think is the most horrible ten minutes you ever spent in a seat, but the person down the row is having the time of his or her life. I use this thing to bring my communities together.

For me, the challenge for an orchestra is to make it possible for people in the audience to look up on the stage and see something that reflects them. What goes on, on the stage in Oakland or Sacramento looks like Oakland or Sacramento, even if there's 99.95 percent white people doing it, it still connects to all of these different people.

And you turn around and you talk to them and you let them in on what you're thinking. I say how I feel about it and how I want them to feel about it. And I tell them that they can come up and tell me they hate it. That's the other thing. If there's something they don't like, they have my full permission to say they don't like it and they know I'm not going to take it personally.

I'll give one example. A few years ago we did a piece by an Afro-Cuban composer named Omar Sosa, a wonderful pianist! He wrote his first orchestra piece for us. It had a jazz pianist, he was behind me. There was a didgeridoo player over here. There were some singers over there. There were bata drums all around over there, and there was a symphony orchestra in the middle. It was a 30 or 40 minute piece. Some people thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever seen in their lives, and some never wanted to hear another minute of any of it, and all of them are still coming to the concerts.

Communication and the community-building is the whole thing for me. Frankly that comes from my growing up in Washington around politics. And also the bottom line is that all conductors want to bring everyone together so that they can dominate the world. That is part of the job description. (Laughter)

With that, I'd like to turn to Philip, because, as a journalist, he's a major interpreter of meaning and an arbiter of value in the broadest possible sense. Do you think artists and organizations have successfully engaged the press in what they're trying to do? How might organizations elevate and expand the public conversation?

Philip Kennicott
Well, we've gone from peaceable shrimp [in Elizabeth's orb] to world domination in the course of this panel, so my head's spinning a little bit.

In the newspaper world we deal with words and we deal with news, which means, when we think about things like "relevance" and "cultural conversations," generally we do a pretty good job of including the kinds of arts that deal with words. And we tend to think of topicality as a definition of relevance.

We're good at looking at new work. If there's a première, if there's a new play, a new symphony happening, it's easy to go and argue with the institution about whether it's worth taking space and writing about those sort of things. I think newspapers contribute relatively well to that part of the cultural conversation. We don't do enough of it, but when we do it, we do know how to handle it.

But I think there are two kinds of "cultural conversation" implied in this panel. One is the topical version or the conversation about newness. And the other is demonstrated by public response: They will keep coming back, even if it is a completely abstract piece—because it has some sort of emotive power and explains something to them about the world or themselves or what they're feeling.

If we look at those two different definitions, obviously, popular music, movies, documentaries and so on are amazingly relevant in the sense of being big parts of what we talk about. If we use the term "cultural conversation," popular arts are "the cultural din."

I'll share with you a personal reflection. I used to write about classical music. I was a critic and wrote in several different newspapers. I stopped doing it because I didn't feel like I was talking to anybody anymore. I knew there was a small audience out there that was reading my stuff, and they were very engaged and very active and I enjoyed addressing them. But then I looked around and I saw that if you were writing about movies or books, you were engaged with so much more of the world, and more and more people would read you. So twice I've made a decision to stop—once I was a music critic and became an editorial writer, and then three years ago I stopped writing about music pretty much completely to write more about politics and culture.

I really don't know what the solution is for arts that deal with abstract artistic objects or by composers who died 200 years ago. I don't see how they can be brought back into being part of the cultural conversation. If I limit my remarks to how to write about institutions doing older works and about the people running them, it strikes me that they really don't know what's of interest about what they're doing anymore.

About fifteen years ago a book came out called In Concert by Carl Vigeland. It was kind of a "You Are There" reporting on a year or six months with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It followed the efforts at the time of Seiji Ozawa to fire one of the musicians, one of the principals. It was a really compelling book. It laid out all of the stresses in that institution, why the conductor would want to fire a player, and where excellence drives an institution when it comes to things like personnel. It laid out the musician's problems, his absolute uncertainty when he went to work every day, the feeling that he could never please the boss, and the toll that took on his artistic confidence. It laid out a lot of his background of wanting to be a musician, ending up in an orchestra, and the tensions between solo playing and orchestra playing. It was a great book.

Try going to a symphony orchestra and saying, "I want to write about your effort to fire the principal flute player." They won't let you in. But those instincts are wrong. We could write about that really well. And it would humanize your institution. It would make your institution seem like a group of real people with—as every institution has—conflicts and different agendas, different meanings. I think that would do far more good than it could ever do harm.

When I was writing about music, I can't tell you the number times people, especially editors, came to me and said to me, "How much does the conductor make?" Well, when you were a music writer, you thought that question was kind of vulgar, and, of course, nobody will tell you what the conductor makes.

I realize now that that question represents something that people are really curious about. So why not say what they make? In fact, if people are focused on salaries and money in our society, then let's find out how much those people make. It will give some sense of where art fits in. I mean, if he makes $500,000 that may actually be received not as a scandal but as proof of the value of what he's contributing.

If I had anything to say, it's that if you want to be part of the cultural conversation, as Michael said, don't be scared of politics. We're an immensely political and partisan world right now. That's what we care about, that's what we're obsessed with. So find out ways to represent your organizations that show it as part of that world.

I have two final thoughts. The first responds to a question about whether the distinction between relevance and topicality is a false dichotomy. One of the most interesting things that I've ever had said to me in the course of interviewing an artist was from the theater director Jonathan Miller, who was doing a new production of a Janácek opera. I was a young writer and I asked him, "Well how are you going to make it relevant?" This is what you ask when you're twenty-two.

And he said, "Well, I think that relevance is a vastly overrated concept." What he meant by that was that in fact things that are old or remote from our condition take us outside of ourselves, they force us to learn about other things. You know, you can update an opera to look like it's happening at a 7-11, but you can also do it in period dress and there's learning and engagement that goes on in both.

Finally, I also want to say that we're in an exceptional moment right now in our society. I don't think we've been in this particular place since about 1968. Art isn't necessarily political, but what I see as a journalist is that many organs of civil society are breaking down, are not capable of policing themselves. I look at that in the government. I've looked at that in the military. I look at that in my own profession.

There is something happening in our society that none of these organs is getting at. I think the arts can get at it if they're comfortable and if they are courageous, and if they rethink what they do right now.

Catherine Maciariello is a GIA member and program officer for the performing arts, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City. Peter DuBois is associate director, Public Theater in New York City. Jake Heggie is a composer living in San Francisco. Matt Haimovitz is a cellist living in Montreal, Quebec. Philip Kennicott is culture critic, The Washington Post in Washington D.C. Michael Morgan is music director, Oakland East Bay Symphony in Oakland, California. Elizabeth Streb is a dancer and choreographer living in Brooklyn, New York.

The panel discussion from which the following piece was excerpted took place on Saturday, June 12, 2004 in Pittsburgh as part of the National Performing Arts Convention. The Convention was coordinated by four national service organizations each of whom held core national conferences within the framework of the convention: American Symphony Orchestra League, Chorus America, Dance/USA, and OPERA America. Eight other national performing arts service organizations participated and held special convenings and meetings. Many Pittsburgh arts and cultural organizations participated as convention hosts. Information about the convention can be found on the Web: http://www.performingartsconvention.org.

©2004 Grantmakers in the Arts
GIA Reader, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 2004