Sunday, April 14, 2013

Living in the seventies

Eric Whitacre.  Have you heard of him?  I hadn’t until last night when I went to see him in concert at the Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University. He's a composer and conductor currently settled in London but originally from the U S of A. 

Eric Whitacre is a man of extraordinary talents but to my mind almost too good to be true.  It’s not his talents per se but the whole package.  Between conducting his songs and music he talked briefly and wittily about his life, his wife, his passion for music and poetry.  The audience loved him, encore after encore.  

My daughter was singing in the choir and glorious singing, too, but Whitacre stole the night.  His wife, he told us, was for once able to be there and she added to the overall allure.  Here was a man in love with his wife, after a fifteen year marriage.  In love too with his seven and half year old son who came along to the concert as well.  His wife, Hila Plitmann, is a famed soprano with her own extensive following of admirers.  

See how often I write the words 'also' and 'as well' here.  These attributes pile up, one on top of the other.  

Before the performance began the son scrambled past me with his beautiful mother as I flattened myself back into my seat to make room.  I had noticed this young boy as he approached from one side of the theatre.  I could not but notice him.   As he slid past each person already seated he pointed to their programme on the front of which an image of his father took pride of place. 

‘That’s my dad,’ he said.  ‘That’s my dad,’ and he squeezed past me while his mother half apologised, half laughed at the antics of her proud and equally beautiful son. 

All three were blond, the son, the darkest in hair colour.  All three beautiful in that movie star way.  Whitacre's hair reminded me of this advertisement: men using women's shampoo.  Hilarious and almost surreal.   

Ash, the son – Whitacre told us his name during the performance but I may have spelled it incorrectly –  wore a grey suit not unlike the suit his father wore on stage.  Ash featured in many of his father’s stories about how Whitacre came to compose this or that particular piece of music.

I'm not usually taken in by so much beauty but as I say it was the entire package.  Not only the man’s ability as a composer but also his ability to present himself to the public, his warmth and generosity.  It took me by storm.  

A voice inside kept saying this cannot be.  It cannot be so picture perfect.  But why spoil it with my doubts?  Am I envious?  Why want to tone it down with a few hard edges?  Even the overall effect for me became a hard edge, but why can I not trust to the appearances and enjoy the ride?  Why so cynical?

I stood around afterwards for at least half an hour chatting to my daughter and her friends and when I left there was still a queue of people waiting to ask Whitacre to sign copies of his CD.  The queue stretched the width of the Blackwood hall and I felt for this man who after the fifth round of applause had raised his hands to his mouth in a gesture of drinking.  He then looked upwards as if to say to the audience, enough adulation no, let’s all go upstairs for a drink. 

No drink for him I imagine till well after midnight, but I suppose it’s all part of the deal, the price of fame, and it sells CDs. 

I gave a talk myself on Friday afternoon to a small group of psychology students at Swinburne.  I’m not an accomplished speaker but I tried hard to present material in such a way that they might be interested. 

From the onset, as I spoke, I noticed a man directly in front of me about five rows up who sat beside another man.  Both were older men, older relative to many of the students, and they chatted openly to one another during the prepared part of my talk. 

I had the impulse to stop speaking and to ask them if they had wanted to leave.  For the first time in my limited lecturing experience I knew what it felt to be a teacher with unruly students.

At one point the instigator of the chats, at least as far as I could see, stopped chatting and turned  to face the side of the small lecture theatre away from the other man.  He sat that way for at least half of my talk.  I kept waiting for him to leave.  I wanted him to leave, however much it might have seemed like a public thumbs down from him. 

This man gave me no sense of confidence in what I was saying but I ploughed on.  I knew in time I would play some you tube versions of therapy and that we could discuss them altogether and that the event might become more alive, more alive than having me simply drone on.  

Not that I droned on but I had worried that students these days do not value being lectured to.  They prefer interaction. And indeed things came more alive after I had explained where I was coming from and launched into a discussion of other people’s performances as therapists as portrayed online. 

To my surprise when it was all over the disruptive man came down to me at the podium and expressed his gratitude for my talk.  He introduced himself and offered to show me his written feedback, which he must have written during my talk.  

It was the strangest of feedback wherein he described the first part of my talk as like ‘Skyhooks - Living in the seventies', because I had described in some detail my origins in the field, and then he told me that the discussion part where I explained my position had completely changed his view on ‘this caper’, as he called it, this caper by which I presume he meant psychology. 

He was fifty years old he told me and new to the field.  How strange.  I could not get him out of my mind for some time. I still do not know whether he was critical or pleased.  He seemed to hear my words despite his chatter but what he has made of them I suppose I will never know.

The person organising the course made a fuss of distributing the feedback sheets before the talk and her intern collected them after the event.  Somehow to me the collection of feedback sheets so close on the heels of my talk felt a little like people throwing money at me as if I had become a busker.  The more money paid the more successful I would be.  The better the feedback the more I deserved to be paid.  Another strange feeling. 

I do not intend to make a habit of these talks and so I tell myself the feedback is not of such huge consequence  but of course I dread the thought I may have bored them silly. 

I am no Eric Whitacre, such a talented man, but I thought I had something worthwhile to say.  My only hope now is that I could be heard.  Isn’t that why any of us do these things?  To be heard?  


The Weaver of Grass said...

I shall ask my son about this composer as he is really into modern composers.
Re your talk - I often talk to groups locally about local things and what always puts me off is when people sit with their eyes closed. And as you say - these are often the folk who come up to you at the end and say how much they have enjoyed it.

Birdie said...

Yes, we all want to be heard. We have often heard that we should listen twice as much as we talk but I am not convinced this is true. When we talk we can learn about our world. Just writing in my blog has taught me a lot about life and myself. And really, when we are listening it means that someone else is being heard. And round it goes.

Kirk said...

To be heard, and to be understood.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m familiar with Eric Whitacre’s work and not just the couple of tracks he worked on with Hans Zimmer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, most notably ‘Mermaids’. He reminds me of a cross between John Tavener and Karl Jenkins with maybe a bit of Arvo Pärt thrown in for good measure. If you enjoy choral music then you should certainly check out these three. I’m fond of choral music and have albums by all four along with some others. The problem with most choral music is that it tends to be religious in nature. I’m not saying no one writes secular choral music but there’s not so much kicking around and maybe it’s me but even the secular stuff feels religious; perhaps I just associate choirs with churches. Oh, and his son’s name is spelled A-s-h.

I can see why he’s popular now but I’d be curious to see if he’ll be remembered in a hundred years’ time. Pärt will without a doubt. Tavener’s The Protecting Veil might make the cut. Jenkins’ Adiemus will probably still be kicking around too. But what of Whitacre? Oddly enough I think his work for cello and orchestra, The River Cam might outlast all his populist choral pieces. If I’ve found the right thing I think that would have been included in the workshop you attended. Neither you nor I will be around to find out but it’s fun to wonder. For me Water Night is his best album, the most rounded but everything’s listenable-to.

Talent is important—I’m not suggesting for one moment that Whitacre’s not talented—but presence is another thing. Holst (another fine composer of choral music) was a terribly shy man but every bit as talented if not more so; I could never imagine him standing up and taking charge of a large crowd like that. Some people can command attention from a stage whereas for others it’s an ordeal. I’m sure exposure helps but I suspect that writers like Jeanette Winterson and Ian Rankin are just naturally comfortable being in front of a crowd or on camera. Confidence has nothing to do with talent, often the very opposite. I’ve done a fair bit of public speaking and I’ve been told I’m good at it but I don’t really enjoy it. I’m tied to my notes and I suppose it’s just the fact that I rehearse endlessly that I’ve been able to pull it off. I couldn’t do it now. My confidence is shot.

I get what you mean about the hair though. It’s polish. His music’s highly polished and so he is. Like you I’m always a bit wary of glossy people; they come across as artificial; I don’t trust ‘em. Give me a character like Vaughan Williams any day of the week. He looked more like a farmer than a composer! I don’t know if you’ve heard but the writer Iain Banks is dying of cancer—he’s been given about a year—and he’s another writer who shows no fear in front of an audience. I left a message on his website in which I mentioned his down-to-earth-ness and that’s something he shares with Winterson and Rankin. So what if they’re successful writers. There are no airs and graces about any of them. Glossiness smacks of pretentiousness.

Skyhooks I’d never heard of. The track didn’t impress me but I guess you had to be there. I’m sure most of the stuff I was listening to in 1974—Suzi Quatro, Mud, Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust—was every bit as bad but it formed part of the soundtrack to my life and so it’s hard to view it objectively. And which of them will be remembered in a hundred years’ time, eh?

MedicatedMoo said...

Eric is clearly very happy and your use of superlatives also shows us that he's grateful and contented with what he has and it's made him a bloody brilliant person to be around.

Your talk would have been much much harder as it was educational, complex and concerning issues of concern and relevance to you, so any disrespect in the audience was bound to hurt. Or puzzle or even rattle you a bit. Unlike, Mr 'caper' you DID get up there and make yourself heard. It takes real guts to do that, feedback sheets or no feedback sheets, so take some time to sit back and feel very proud of yourself.

Elisabeth said...

People who close their eyes during talks are not always asleep, I gather, Pat, and as you suggest. Sometimes they close their eyes to take things in better. But it is disconcerting to speak to a group of closed eyes, even one lot of closed eyes in an audience can be disheartening. I prefer audience participants who look at you directly and nod their heads from time to time, or shake their heads when they don't understand. At least they're participating.

Thanks, Pat.

Elisabeth said...

Being heard and listening go hand in hand as you say, Birdie. And we learn so much. That's one of the great things about speaking, writing and blogging.

Thanks, Birdie

Elisabeth said...

Understood, Kirk. Understood. thanks.

Elisabeth said...

Which one of us will be remembered in 100 years, Jim? I agree with your thoughts here about confidence as opposed to talent. Whitacre conducted the River Cam at the concert and it was the highlight for me, much as i also enjoyed the choral works.

This performance seemed very non-religious which i also enjoyed. Like you my daughter who follows these things reckons Whitacre is talented but not one of the greats. Who cares? He's having a good life now it seems and giving good pleasure to many.

I'm a bit overwhelmed this morning by all the awfulness I read about in the world. A five year old girl raped and abused in India, the stuff of the Boston bombings , the bombs in Iraq. It goes on and on.

If I think too deeply on it i feel depressed about the state of humankind. A little gentle music helps soften the cruelty.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I'm past the talk now, Kath, though thanks for the reassurance. Now I'm in the business of preparing for another one, this time to a smaller and hopefully more discerning audience on matters of feminism. So this time I hope people stay awake and keep their mouths shut unless it's their turn to speak.

Thanks, Kath.