A friend of mine and Choral Chameleon’s, Tony Asaro, admonished me for positing this on Facebook. He felt that it, perhaps, sends the wrong message about what it means to be a professional musician, particularly to students of music. He said: “…it does so with a cutesy cartoon “wink”. This elicits a “Yup. Things are bad for artists. You have to do art for the love, because it sure doesn’t pay.” response. And that’s the dangerous message, I think—the one in which we romanticize the poverty and terrible conditions, then laugh, with our arms around our impoverished brethren. I want to spread the message of “Be excellent, and expect compensation.”
Keeping in mind that Tony and I are longtime friends and companions in music, and that we love each other fiercely, especially when we’re arguing (!!!), I’m sharing my response to him:
Different people interpret things differently. In my interpretation of this, when I saw it posted by a friend, I did not infer what you describe here and what you apparently saw in it. I inferred that the job of an artist is —just as important in the world— as that of a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, or a corporate mogul, and therefore deserves the same status, pay, benefits, respect etc. in society. That is a message I have no problem sending to anyone, especially my students. This did not invoke a “Kumbaya” poor me/poor us response on my end. I don’t think this sends any message about being excellent as artists or not. I don’t think it romanticizes poverty. I think it asserts authority. And the fact that it is a “cutesy cartoon with tongue firmly planted in cheek” means that it does so in a way benign enough for at least some people to have it sink in. I think “Avenue Q”. Seeing the message in this format removes human defenses long enough for a person who may not have thought of it this way in the past to wake up and think of it from the artist’s perspective. In the bigger picture though, I do believe that art —is— a labor of love. No matter how you slice it, what we have to give and sacrifice for it means it is undoubtedly more than an industrial career, regardless of money. Being an artist is a way of life. I wouldn’t trade my life for any other in the world. I personally feel that the real danger lies in giving in to the pressure to be perfect, industrializing what we do to the point of losing our sense of self and what connected us to the art in the first place, and altering what we organically create or desire based on our perceptions of what the public wants to see or hear. I’m an artist. I make art full time for a living. I’m not impoverished. I believe that the reason I’m not impoverished and why I am gainfully employed as an artist is because my focus, for my whole life, has not been on the money. I’m not making money at this by being a hustler. It’s always been about the music itself, the people, and the love. I’ve allowed myself to remain “just naive enough to be able to stay in love with music”. To me, simply “being excellent” is pressure and is a very objective mindset, which can easily be inadvertently separated from actually —focusing on one’s craft— and also can create deep feelings of anxiety. We do have to do art for love -not because it “sure doesn’t pay”- but because that place of love and connection with each other is where the best art happens - through life’s experiences: trials and successes. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be where I am. I wouldn’t be doing this. So for me, even though this cartoon focuses on money and pay for what we do, it’s ultimately not about that. It draws attention to the importance of art in the world and equates the career of an artist to other careers that the average person would see as “important”. That’s why I posted it. Yes, it’s a little flippant, but I personally do find that funny enough for me to absorb it’s message without feeling attacked. Additionally, it IS difficult to swallow the notion that someone sees what you do with your life as sheer entertainment-only, or a novelty. Surely there must be others who feel that way about it. However, I’m not interested in banding together with my “brethren” to —fight the man—. I am definitely interested in promoting the message that Truth and Freedom are the only two things an artist ever needs. If he or she has Truth and Freedom, the rest will always come. It won’t come because we “expect” it to. I’m a living example of this. There is no “expectation”. There are no “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts”. Those three words alone lead down the wrong path for me. And I certainly wouldn’t ever lead anyone down that path.
The Truth and Freedom thing is something that I learned over a casual lunch in Seattle this summer with the great Craig Hella-Johnson (Founder and Director of Conspirare in Austin, Texas).
The bottom line here is that in Choral Chameleon, we do what we do for people - the people who make the music and the people who receive it alike. We are making PEOPLE MUSIC. For People, By People. It’s not about the money, fame, awards, or anything like that. Period.
On November 21st, 2013, the world lost an important lens with which to view itself. It’s hard to put into words the impact that Conrad had on my life. It started with a wounded musician answering a phone one day to hear the voice of a composer he had never heard of tell him that he was his new teacher; and it became an unexpected and joyful musical and personal friendship which knew no limitations nor harsh realities of “real life.”
To say that the fire of his imagination was always brightly burning is an understatement.
Conrad lived alongside all of us in a simultaneously existent other world, full of the sprightly, the fanciful, the mystical, and the profoundly serene. He fought daily for his right to always remain there. The only glimpses of it that any of us ever got were experienced through hearing his beautiful music. He made no apologies for this and no allowances for any outside forces or people whom he felt may have threatened his ability to remain there always. There is no doubt in my mind that he is eternally there now, with absolutely no worry of ever having to step outside of it.
Knowing this and knowing him has made me the most imaginative person I can be, always striving to go deeper into my own creative self and push the comfort boundaries further and further. This is his gift to me and numerous others fortunate enough to have worked with him. Years ago, I wrote a song called “Departure” which Conrad heard. He liked the following lyric, which I think is an appropriate way for me to sum up my feelings on his passing: "No one there to hold so close to their heart, the cold wind blows a chill to your stride. Real life now approaches you with worries and fear. You find nowhere to hide.
Gazing back, you see the mist rise into your view, blocking your only way to see who’s there. Filled with regret, you close your eyes to dream - but in your dreams you can feel them everywhere. Oh the pain. Oh the time. Teardrops are falling like rain as we cry. But Oh, the hope. Oh, This Life that carries us on and on and on.”
Rest in peace my beloved teacher and friend.