By the official tally, this is my 400th post on Vftp, a milestone I can only gawk at in astonishment. Have I really wasted so much time in the last 18 months?!?!?!?
The blog idea was originally suggested to me by the harpist of the OES (and founder of Harp Specturm), Joyce Rice. Although I could see the benefits to the orchestra and to me, I was a bit hesitant to take it on, and knew so little about blogs and blogging that I couldn’t really see the point. Blogs were something I’d heard discussed and had been described to me as “online journals” where people could share the details of their lives. I was not, at that point, particularly web-savy-I didn’t even have a website! Now we have the top-ranked conductor website on Google….
As it is, the journal aspect of blogging, which is what I thought of when Joyce spoke to me, is still, in many ways, the least interesting for me. What I have learned, is that the basic medium of blogging, with the power of linking and subscriptions and indexing is an amazing new force. I figured it was a very good sign when the mainstream press (even the mainstream music press) started complaining about blogs. It’s about time someone challenged their hegemony, whether in politics or musical politics.
What finally got me going here was the need to make something special happen in Pendleton around our first performance of a Mahler symphony. I was looking for a tool to get something going, and I found one. I was quite stunned at how fast we built a local readership of symphony fans, and musicians, as that concert approached.
The immediate result of that first series of posts was a strong audience response to our first Mahler at the OES, but I found a second benefit in it. The experience ended up reminding me of a seminal experience in my musical life. Over ten years earlier, my piano trio, the Taliesin Trio, was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Rural Residency Grant. A big part of our job as ensemble-in-residence in Union County Arkansas (at that time, the poorest county in the continental US), was school visits and concerts. Early on, we were given a rare chance to do a full-day workshop with a group of children of about age 6-8. In a moment of profound chutzpah, we chose to make the prime focus of the day the Shostakovich E minor Trio. We spent the entire day working with these kids, and talking to them, as simply but as honestly as possible about the music- how it’s put together and what it says.
The next day, we had a formal performance which included the Shosty. It was an amazing performance, if I do say so. I think we all felt that the work we had done to learn to express verbally what we felt about the piece had added a layer of depth to our performance. The adults at that concert hadn’t heard the rap we gave the kids, but they certainly felt the effects of it.
I’ve written a lot of program notes over the years, and almost always speak before at least one piece on concerts, but the Mahler 2 blogs opened up a new way of writing and thinking about interpretation, and, as with the Shosty so many years ago, I felt that part of what happened in that concert was informed by that process. It almost doesn’t matter whether anyone had read those notes, or whether they’re interesting or definitive, what matters is that somehow the process of trying to articulate my feelings about a piece took me deeper into the music.
To me, that’s still the most useful aspect of blogging- it gives me medium for that work. I suppose in that sense, it could be looked at as a pretty selfish endeavour, but the ever-increasing readership tells me that at least some people are enjoying reading those posts and hopefully, as with the audience in Blytheville, even if you don’t hear or read the rap, maybe you feel it in the concert because the investment of the performer pays off.
One thing I learned early on, but still have to remind myself of, is that it’s not just my old drinking buddies that read this thing- intelligent people I’ve never met read it (not that my drinking buddies are unintelligent). Some have become friends, others have helped me in amazing ways. In November of last year, I had an email from Gramophone magazine asking if they could make Vftp their featured blog for the January issue. It turns out I was recommended to them by their resident Mahler expert, Peter Quantrill, who I’d never met and had no idea was reading. I really do appreciate all the folks out there who’ve linked to me, especially those early on who gave this such a big boost. A special huge thank you to Jessica Duchen, who was probably the first really well-known blogger and critic to link to me. THANKS Jessica- all of you should buy her novels!
Of course, one can only be self delusional to think that all those folks out there reading the blog that I don’t know about actually like it. My basic editorial policy at Vftp is “try not to piss people off,” but every once in a while, I can’t help myself, even though I do live in the ultimate glass house. Sometimes, you just gotta throw those stones. I can think of one critic and one conductor and one “opera” singer who probably wouldn’t have liked everything I’ve said here. I can’t help but wonder if any of them have read about themselves here. Sorry if I hurt any feelings….. Still, who makes up phrases like “pure tone?” Does anyone try to play with “impure tone?”
I also have to bear in mind that there are people who will take anything a conductor says as proof positive that we’re all bastards and morons and frauds. Every so often, I get a nice vitriolic email, but I suppose the best ones are the ones they send to their friends “can you believe what that moron Woods says?”
The thing is, I’ve always had to accept that there are plenty of topics I’d love to discuss here that I can’t. Here are a few things you won’t hear much about on Vftp—
1- Politics. My friends know that I’m a very politically active and interested person with very strong views on world events and political trends. Especially in these strange days, there’s so much I wish I could say to the world at large, but I have a responsibility to the orchestras I work with not to do or say anything that would drive away listeners or supporters who disagree with me, and I also feel that as musicians we have a responsibility to bring music to everyone, not only those who share our worldview. Please, read Glenn Greenwald every day.
2- What “really” happens in rehearsals. I don’t want anyone I work with to ever worry that their efforts in rehearsal are going to become fodder for the blog. Rehearsals are a private environment where we all ought to be safe to learn.
3- Reviews (by me). I’ve bent this rule occasionally, but at the end of the day, who am I to comment on another musician’s performance
4- Music politics. There are some big stories out there, some downright outrages and some heartbreaking wrongs in the music world that need righting, but I want to keep making music, which means, for now at least, I can’t go there.
Other than the fact that I can’t always say everything I’d like to here, I guess my main frustration is that I don’t get that many audience members coming here other than the hard core fans and fanatics. More often they come here after a concert, which at least means they’ve enjoyed the show, but it would be nice if this could be a stronger tool for getting people to the concert in the first place. Maybe we need to have a separate blog at the orchestra that is specifically targeted to the interests of local audiences so that I don’t scare them off here with wonky discussions of musical technicalities.
There have been some truly unforeseeable uses of this space- especially when the OES office famously burned to the ground last spring. The response to the orchestra’s plea for help through this blog was really touching, and made all the difference in the world to the orchestra surviving the year. Amazingly, it was donations from all over the US (and the world, with people as far away as Australia and Israel chipping in) that got us through. Thank you EVERYONE who donated cash, music or just wrote in support. You saved an orchestra.
There are only so many hours in a day, and I couldn’t rationalize continuing to blog if I felt it was taking away from score study time. As long as I feel like, on balance, it helps me sharpen my thoughts about performance to talk about music, I’ll keep doing it. However, 400 posts represents a LOT of time, and there are other things I want to accomplish in life- I’d like to write some books, I’d like to compose more and I want to do more recording. I’ve got some great podcast projects for this blog in the works- maybe you’ll see fewer daily posts in the future so I have time to assemble some interesting audio and video projects.
Anyways, thanks for reading this, whoever you are. And remember, always fight the powers that be.
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods