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Exploring the Transit Between Music and Other Art Forms

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Last year, 18 years after graduating from Juilliard with an Advanced Certificate in violin, I went back to school. I wasn’t one of those people who get an M.B.A. or a law degree because their musical career didn’t really work out (although mine really hadn’t), nor did I go to brush up on my tech skills or re-encounter the great books. I did something most Juilliard-trained instrumentalists will never do, regardless of how their musical career turns out. I went back to music school.

Celebrity photographer Greg Gorman took this photo of alum Paul Festa in the course of his interview for Festa’s movie Tie It Into My Hand.

(Photo by Greg Gorman)

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I didn’t relish the idea of auditioning for Juilliard again––once was enough, thank you, and I stood a significant chance of being turned down (embarrassing enough for me, but think how awkward for the School, to judge me to be worse than when I first arrived). I had no money, so I didn’t want to pay for lessons, and while I was designing this tuition- and audition-free musical-educational utopia, I decided that the school would be, like Juilliard, a School of Schools, with music working cheek-by-jowl with dance, drama, and a few others (painting, sculpture, poetry, performance art, arts criticism, and history, to start with). My school––and let’s not call it a utopia or fantasy anymore, but the Art School of the Future––wouldn’t just put its various divisions in proximity, as Juilliard does. It would merge them. At the A.S.F., I would study with a modern dancer one week, a theater director the next, and then a pianist-poet-painter. Anyone, actually, but a violinist. 

I founded the A.S.F. and enrolled as its sole pupil almost entirely by accident. What I intended to do, and have nearly done, was to make a film, called Tie It Into My Hand, about the repetitive-strain injury that curtailed my musical career and set me down paths in journalism, fiction, and film, and to refract and enrich that story through interviews with other artists. 

The idea for this film came at the end of a four-year period in which I lost three great mentors (the second of whom was my Juilliard chamber-music coach, longtime harpsichord faculty member Albert Fuller, who died in September 2007). It occurred to me that, for the purpose of drawing out these artists and perhaps uncovering something about the mentor-student relationship, a violin lesson could be an ideal interview device. Not only did it establish a relationship more intimate and complicated than interviewer/subject, but it also gave the subjects something to do—a challenge sufficiently absorbing that they might be lured into forgetting the camera that was recording their every word and gesture. 

There’s something undeniably odd about having a poet teach the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to a Juilliard-trained violinist. But the lesson-as-interview format seemed both right and familiar. Particularly in my studies with Robert Mann at Juilliard, it was a rare lesson that was taught without recourse to a story, an anecdote, or at least a quotation. Teachers talk. They like doing it. They’re pros.

So when these lessons succeeded as interviews, I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me was how good these interviews were as lessons.

The first thing I noticed with my new teachers was that all artists appeared to use the same vocabulary. My first lesson was with a painter. Big deal––my music teachers have been talking to me about color, texture, contrast, and clarity of line for years. Dancers spoke to me about movement, breath, and balance, all terra cognita from music school. And what musician doesn’t perform, think, and teach with the same words as the actor? Emotion, psychology, affect, phrasing, and character are our common concerns. 

And maybe that’s enough. Maybe music absorbs all it needs from the other arts through some combination of language, intuition, and osmosis. But in the lessons—which were mostly with nonmusicians—I came to understand the value of going to the source of our shared vocabulary: alongside the words affect, texture, and waltz lie elaborately developed techniques and exercises for manifesting these things on canvas or stage. And those methods, in my experience at the A.S.F., proved as useful to me as a musician as anything I learned from the great violinists with whom I was privileged to study at Juilliard.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Tie It Into My Hand in which a filmmaker (Stephen Winter), an actor (Peter Coyote), a dancer (Robert La Fosse), and a singer (John Lease) coach me through the opening of the concerto. 

Winter: Even though you’re playing the same notes, improv in your head a real-life situation that happened to you.

Coyote: How old were you? How old was the boy or girl [you’re remembering]?

La Fosse: Where you are, what time, what year, who that is, what happened, what colors are in that memory?

Coyote: Let’s try it. [I play the first two notes.]

Lease: Right there it’s much different than when you first did it—it’s lush! I felt it here from you, inside! [I play further into the exposition.]

Coyote: Even within one pull [of the bow], you modulate the sound in little ways that are different that make me feel like you’re grabbed onto evanescent little feelings, and you’re catching them as they appear. It just sounds totally different to me. 

In taking and thinking about these 120 violin lessons with nonviolinists, I’ve come to realize that my passion for the cross-disciplinary experience started with my studies at Juilliard. Why? Because Juilliard was where I went to film school.

It’s true! The fact that I’m a filmmaker at all is due to a habit I developed at Juilliard of staying up really late with Albert Fuller and listening to music with him and my piano trio at his duplex on West 67th Street. There Albert would narrate his interpretation of music as we listened to it. A Mozart string quartet became a new Da Ponte opera. A buff-stop bass in a Bach prelude turned out to be a washerwoman moving her hips at a formerly obscure intersection between voluptuousness and existential reckoning. The theater of Albert’s imagination was a place I was privileged to visit twice a week for three semesters at Juilliard, and periodically over the remaining 14 years of Albert’s life. It was the greatest show in New York.

Albert’s imagination was great, in large part, because for him the boundaries between music and the other arts were so porous. And the transit he showed me between music and other art forms wound up creating me as a filmmaker. That transit is the subject of my first film (Apparition of the Eternal Church, a Messiaen documentary), and arguably of my second (The Glitter Emergency, a silent-film comedy about a peg-leg ballerina in which my character, Stringendo, plays the Tchaikovsky Concerto as his dialogue), and most explicitly in this, my third film. So nearly 20 years after leaving Juilliard, I find myself thanking a harpsichordist for the best preparation possible for my life in film. It’s on the strength of that gratitude, and my experience at the Art School of the Future, that I urge you musicians to go take a lesson with a theater director. The transit is glorious in both directions.

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