Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Music: Entitlement, Possession, & The Gift

Music: Entitlement, Possession, & The Gift

            Sunday’s Gospel in mass got me thinking a bit about music as a gift. For those of you who didn’t attend mass, or may not be Catholic, don’t worry. I wont be diving too much into scripture. I would start, however, with a small summary. Matthew 25:14-30 (the talent parable) basically describes a situation where a master grants three servants various “talents”. The first receives five, the second two, and the third one. In short, the first two servants double their gifts after delving into some trade, and the third servant keeps his only “talent” and buries it in the dirt. When it’s time for the “reaping of talents”, the first two are rewarded and the second is essentially thrown into Hell….because punishments back then were really harsh.

            I have been playing music in some form or fashion for 19 years now, 10 of them professionally, and have had the great pleasure of performing with people and personalities as various as the genres in which we played. I want to talk, first, about entitlement. Entitlement in music, for my intent and purpose, will refer to the “right” which an artist may assign to his/her craft by merit of it being “earned” and “deserved”. I want to disclaim any potential misunderstandings here before I move forward. I am not advocating that an artist’s craft is not of his or her own countenance and person, or that it shouldn’t belong to them in a legal sense. What I am saying is that, while you may have been given the gift to be able to compose, perform, arrange, and create music, you have not been given the “right” to it. Hard work may have created the opportunity for it, the law may say you own it, and it may have your name on it, but you have not been given a gift so profound to you to say anything but “Thank You” to the one who has given you that gift, and also to however many people adore it. You would have nothing if the gift had not been given to you, and you would have nothing (speaking specifically about music) if you did not have anyone to share in it with (like an audience, or a band member). The master in the parable did not give his servant “talents” because they deserved them. Further, the servants did not embark on any campaigns where they cited the “talents” as being earned by their own actions. Instead, the two servants were successful because they bartered gifts that they proclaimed WERE GIFTS.  My thoughts on entitlement intertwine deeply with my next two points, so let’s talk about possession in music and also about the gift itself.

            Do not possess your gift. Did you ever have those friends growing up where if a guy and a girl were dating and one of them, let’s say the girl, wanted to go out one Saturday night with her girlfriends, she had to check with her boyfriend first? By the same token, did you ever know a kid growing up whose parents wouldn’t let them go out and have fun because they could get hurt? I see artists cling to their work for dear life. That’s not always a problem, but when you let that interfere with the art’s ability to grow and influence people, then I take issue with it. The successful servants in the parable did not let their “talents” lay dormant for fear of them being tarnished or stolen, or because they wanted the gifts for themselves. Instead they proclaimed that their master has blessed them and dignified them with beautiful purpose: to share the gifts that they have been given, and allow the gifts to reach as many people as possible. I have been blessed to be able to create and compose music that I would call beautiful, but I have paid my bills by helping other artists perform theirs. In order to be successful, I have had to go up to big important people, introduce myself without shame, and ask them if I can play music with them. My encounters are a lot more tasteful than I make it sound, but basically, that is how I have had to do it. While I believe in the adage of “being in the right place, at the right time”, I don’t believe that it is a practical method for musicians who want to support themselves. Rather, you need to make opportunities for yourself. On the whole, I have been very successful in my appeals to artists and employers. I meet many of them who are willing to take a beautiful risk on me, and it has always paid off. More importantly, they have almost always resulted in great working friend relationships. The times where it hasn’t worked out have been less dignified. There have been times when my appeals have been returned with nothing, which is somehow worse than “No”. Realistically, I cannot expect every artist to be open to what I have to offer him or her musically. Further, I cannot always expect that when I make an appeal, it will be the right time for it. What we should expect from every artist as his or her supporters, however, is that they are open to allowing their gifts to grow and be shared. We are not given gifts so that we can bury them and have them for ourselves, but instead we should be responsible with them by taking risks in sharing them.

            As artists, you have not been given rewards or prizes. You have been given gifts. Behold the gift, take risks with the gift, do not possess the gift, receive the gift, and be responsible with the gift. You are not entitled to anything, not least of all in a ministry position. We don’t need more celebrities, we need more charities. We are a culture thirsting for things that are just beautiful and selfless, but beautiful because they are selfless. If you have a gift, always be the first to proclaim it to all saying, “Behold, the master has granted me a beautiful gift, come a share in them with me so that, together, we may see it grow.”

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Charisms in Art and Beauty

Receiving the Charisms of the Holy Spirit through Art & Music

     I did not grow up in a charismatic environment. My first exposure to the gifts of the Holy Spirit occurred at a youth conference in 2003 during adoration. To this day, I am very thankful that I was surrounded by people who could help me fully understand what was taking place. For some, it is often difficult to comprehend the Holy Spirit’s manifestation through human vessels as being both miraculous and beautiful. Gifts such as tears of joy and healing, laughter, resting, wisdom, and tongues are not often expressed in your regular Sunday liturgy.

     Full disclosure: I, personally, have never received any of the beautiful gifts of the Holy Spirit in the context of Sacred Liturgy, Adoration, or any prayer service. However, I will never forget the first time I received the gifts of laughter and tears on stage. I was performing Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, specifically the “Jupiter” movement. Apart from most of the movement sounding brilliantly whimsical and grand, there is a slower section in the middle where Holst quotes the hymn “Oh God, Beyond All Praising.” It is meticulously orchestrated, and builds in both intensity and voicing through to the end. I did not anticipate receiving gifts in that moment, but as the slower section began, so did I begin to weep. For those of you who are musicians, surely there have been moments on stage where you have been able to taste Heaven. This was my first. It has happened more times that I can keep track of since, and in many contexts including: orchestra, folk groups, big band groups, gospel groups, rock, and even r&b. It has happened to me on both sides of the stage, and has helped me grow in both my vocation and faith.

     The Holy Spirit authors beauty through the artist. The artist creates and gives the gift of his/herself through his/her work to the bride, the (in the case of music) listener. The listener receives that gift of self and also receives the Holy Spirit through the work. The bride is inspired. This beautiful cycle is only possible is the artist is able to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I believe that he/she can only receive the gifts if his intentions with his/her artwork are pure and honest. In order to receive, we must be willing to receive.

     While I believe in a God that can make all things possible, I also believe that this will be the only way for me to receive the charisms of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t discourage me by any means, but instead, affirms me in my vocation to music and beauty. I was beautifully and wonderfully made to create beautiful and wonderful things that are also authored by the Holy Spirit through me, and that is the same for any man or woman who is gifted with the ability to create beauty and called to her vocation. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Beauty's Blur

Beauty’s Blur

            We are a people originally meant for ecstasy. Ecstasy is fruit of a pure union. A union is the product of beauty. Beauty is the gift of self. Apply this to everything, and hopefully I’ll see you in heaven! Kthanks.

Bad elevator music*….

            Ok, I’ll elaborate. Why is the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s second piano concerto considered so powerful and emotive? At the time Dmitri Shostakovich was finally able, after many years, to compose music free of censorship. His audience could finally realize the composer’s full countenance through his music. What you hear in this movement is, what I believe, the full gift of himself. It is tragic, romantic, and a little cynical simultaneously. That’s what makes it beautiful. When I hear it, I can relate to it. I make it my own, and am able to empathize with Dmitri. That is the union. The ecstasy is the great sentiment of consolation and gratification the piece leaves me with.
            Why is it so important to know what constitutes a beautiful thing? If there is one thing that will destroy the world, it will be the complete and total misunderstanding of what beauty is. The line that clearly defines what is and is not beautiful in this world is that which is the most skewed by evil. Now, for the sake of simplicity across different beliefs, lets just refer to this evil as dark forces, the Sith, Saron, the devil, and/ or Roger Goodell (I’m still bitter about bounty-gate). His method is to take something that is not, by my definition, beautiful and give it the illusion of beauty. Why is this his method? Well first, we are a people who were made to desire beauty. This method plays to our desires, and fools us into thinking that his cheap imitation of beauty is an authentic one. For example: the greatest and most beautiful thing ever created, in my opinion (and I’m not fishing for points here), is Woman. As a man, I have an imbedded desire for a woman because woman is beautiful, and I desire beauty. The fruition of a truly beautiful experience with a woman will be my complete gift of self to her. An alternately lesser experience would be for a man to give himself to an image or form of media that reduces the beauty of woman to her base parts. The line becomes blurry when the temporarily gratifying experience with the “reduced” woman is perceived as beautiful one and not a cheap and quick imitation.
            That’s just an example. My biggest issue on the matter deals primarily with when this process is applied to the arts. Music, visual art, dance, film, theater, poetry, and architecture can be the quickest paths to experiencing true beauty. Take the opportunity, and don’t settle!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Thank You

     “That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.” - Saint John Paul ll

     If I inherit a full understanding of my vocation, my mission, and myself it’ll be because you have made me more conscious of my own “gift”, and therefore, my ability to give thanks in a complete and full way. This message is to indicate that we have, indeed, reached (and surpassed) our goal of $11,000 in order to support “Small Things With Great Love”.
     However thankful I may be, I feel obliged to point out what this really means to me. Yes, I reached my goal, and yes, it means I can create my debut album, but there’s more than that here. I have spent so much time feeling a bit isolated in my dreams and my understanding of beauty in a convenient world. Now, I do not feel alone anymore. It’s one thing for you to believe in me, it’s another to believe in what I am doing, and that is far more important than any thing money could support.
     My friends, I have a gift for you. I have the gift of myself to give to you through music. The music is simple, but it is loved, and it will be produced in a loving way. You will receive the fullness of this gift, and hopefully, it will point you to the greatness within yourself.

Thank you all,
James Rosenbloom

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Music, Photoshop, and the Burden of Perfection...

“Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves.” - Saint John Paul ll
         I remember the day my heart broke for contemporary music. I’ll preface this, first, by saying that many of my thoughts pertain to a larger, more general, set of circumstances in the music industry, and that there are certainly many heroic exceptions the code of faux-ethics by which many music salespeople live by. That is to say, too, that I am not opposed to making money performing and writing music. Anyhow, I was performing with an artist a while back who asked me to listen to a song that he had recently written. He played it for me and asked for my opinion, to which I replied, “I think its catchy and rather nice, but also, that it has been written a thousand times before and sounded like everything else I was hearing on the radio at the time. His response was simple, “Great! That means it’ll sell!” This discourse left me a little disoriented, and I haven’t performed with this artist since.
         When we sacrifice the quality of music for the fleeting promise of quick recognition, popularity, and wealth all in the name of the burden of a perception we place on our listener, then we diminish our ability to create a beautiful experience effective enough to move our audience. Further, pertaining to many practices in music production, many have redefined the practice of sacrificing quality to mean, simply, that we are “perfecting” the music. Take for example, the cover of a popular magazine…let’s use Cosmopolitan. After Cosmo picks the image of the “woman of the month” whom they choose for their publication, the image is then sent to editing. In that process, the image is often augmented, diminished, darkened, lightened, and accentuated to no end. Often, too, the headshot is taken from an entirely different photo shoot…so add decapitation to the mix. The end result is an image of a woman that may be up to 90% altered from her original state. In the eyes of the media, it is then made “perfect”. What are some of the effects of this burden of perfection? For women, when they view this image, they can fall into the trap of comparison, often asking themselves, “Why don’t I look this way?” This comparison breeds insecurities that can prove to be too hard to heal from, all in the name of perfection. I wont even try to get into what it does to men, and the devastating results of when a man places this burden on a woman.
         The point is that this is happening in modern music. The burden of certain production practices places a tremendous amount of pressure on an artist to create perfection. Employing synthesized instruments opposed to the real thing, auto-tuning the voice and piecing together a vocal track which combines many takes, recording above and beyond your ability to reproduce that sound live are all examples of the way that music is “photoshopped” in the name of a false sense of perfection. When an aspiring writer hears a song recorded at the level, they may find themselves discouraged thinking that they could never amount to anything that perfect. I have seen countless artists turn from their intended journeys because the artist had lain to them.
         We are an imperfect people meant for greatness. We achieve greatness by accepting our imperfections as opportunities to bear them to the world through our music, and make them relatable. In that way, instead of nurturing a false sense of perfection, we embrace more inclusive relationships with our listeners. 
Be blessed.

On Nashville, beauty, and the drive home...

         On August 7th, 2013, I found myself bordering restlessness and a pending panic attack whilst trying to find a spot for my fishing pole in my car, which had been packed to the brim: two cellos, three basses, three guitars, one mandolin, one banjo, one sitar, one keyboard, one pedal board, one dulcimer, and now one fishing pole. In the next nine hours, I was in my new home, and within the following twelve, I was flying to my first show. In one year’s time, I have performed 102 times in 24 states. I have put 35,000 miles on my car, and after two or three more flights, I think I may have collected enough frequent flyer miles to fly to China.
           Nashville hit me like a storm, the kind that swallows up homes and whole cities built on shotty foundations and silt. It found me starving and hesitant, but soon nourished me with the extremely palatable and exclusive sights and sounds which lead all to believe that there is no place on earth near as perfect; to which I will never deny. It is a city of titans and mice, rock face barriers and flowing streams, poets, spinsters, and robots (speaking metaphorically, figuratively, and literally in some cases). The people are kind, the industry is firm, the talent is abundant, and it has proved to be, now, the greatest decision I have ever made for myself to date.
            When I first understood what a beautiful noise was and had the power to do, I was playing my cello upright in a cramped hospice guest room in Grand Rapids, MI. I was on tour with a composer named Eric Genuis, and we had just finished a performance for a larger group of guests at this medical facility. It has never been a mystery to me that I am a perfectionists, and I experience a great deal of anxiety when I know I haven’t played up to the standards I hold myself. This day was no exception. I pouted and protested for a time following that performance because I thought I could’ve played much better than I did. Eric mentioned that we would be playing for guests in hospice, and I had no choice but to be obedient (although, if he had said lets all just pile back in the bus and not talk for 12 hours, I would’ve been less combative). We played for several guests who I am sure have moved on at this point, but one in particular stood out to me. When we exited our last room, a young woman from another room approached us in tears claiming that our music (from the other room) brought a smile to her mother’s face while she passed away. A spirit of great indebtedness and responsibility, one that I try to nurture everyday now had then chiseled my hardened heart made stone by my blindness and standards. 
             Beauty is the new goal, conversion is the mission, and healing the motivation. I have come to understand and advocate for a diminishing of counterfeits and imitations in the writing and producing facets of music and modern art. The change is critical. Music has the potential to be harmful in the long run if it is created dishonestly and with misguided intentions. We have become obese in our listening, consuming music that is full of synthesized salt and audible artificial flavors, and we have become addicts who pass up an organic, simpler taste. I will not be so bold as to accuse and condemn those whom I pray for conversions, but will instead plea that you begin a conversation with yourself about the quality of the art you have been receiving. 
             My move away from Nashville has proved to be just as unceremonious as my arrival, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I will leave the best year of my life behind, only to embrace the greatest to come. The family that I have made there will never be far from my heart, and the experiences never far from my mind. If you were to ask me if I thought that I had been successful, then I would tell you yes. Success to me has little to do with an audience count, a decibel level, an extensive little black book, or the sticker in a passport. Success is living every day in constant awe of the beauty that exists around you, and is often unseen. My sights now are not on the road or the reward, but on your hearts.
Be blessed.