Preludes and Fanfare

It is an early August evening in northern Michigan. When I first arrived at Interlochen seven weeks ago, the daylight stretched until after 10 p.m, and we watched late-night campfire sparks before midnight caught up with me. Now the evenings have a chill as the sunset creeps forward each night. My goosebumps are a reminder that fall and my real life are just around 800 miles or so of bends in the road.

I’m waiting for the concert to start with a crowd of hundreds, and with Dave and his 5-year-old son Alex. Last summer, while we waited for the same performance to start, Alex could not sit still.  He squirmed in his mom’s lap, he shrieked, he kicked the chairs of other audience members. This year, he sits quietly in his own chair and plays Angry Birds with no volume, until a girl a year or two older comes up from behind and ruffles his red hair. Then he is off to admiringly follow her up and down the rows of seats, but never too far or out of sight. Alex is growing up.

The works of Aaron Copland were a theme this summer, and tonight’s final concert will feature Fanfare for the Common Man. Every morning on my walk to the studio, I passed the practice rooms where the percussion students who will bang the emblematic drums rehearsed. They have been working hard on the timing and tone for six weeks now, and I can count my steps evenly between the booms. 

I read in the program that Copland created Fanfare in 1942 on commission for the director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, who asked eighteen composers to create brass and percussion fanfares that would be “stirring and significant contributions to the war effort.” Copland chose a title that made no lofty tribute to the government or military directly. “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army,” he said. “He deserved a fanfare.”

In a place like this, it is not hard to imagine that art might have so much impact. 

Les Preludes 2015

Les Preludes 2015

Here, the “dirty work” is celebrated. The fanfare is the acknowledgement that art is not magical thinking or based in lofty talent – it is part of our everyday human experience. The students are not prodigies (even when they are). They are campers who scratch bug bites, swarm the ice cream table, and chant cabin songs. The essential humanity of art is part of daily life – from backbreaking hours in the studio, to lunchtime discussions, to late-night talks and visits back to the studio to check a project just one more time. The summer’s fanfare is not magical. It sounds like the drummers working on timing at seven in the morning. It looks like my potters covered in mud, helping to recycle pots that collapsed into new clay. It feels like the tension in my shoulders after a day hunched over the wheel, or a writer’s headache after spending hours reworking a sentence. It is intense, complicated, messy, and rewarding.

Away from here, in real life, we might recognize Copland’s Fanfare for its wide reuse. But the lifestyle that embraces the dirty work of art feels increasingly uncommon. 

The artist Ai Weiwei once said, “Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught.” I worry that by trying to force-fit the dirty work of creativity and art into practical means of supporting entrepreneurship, we sanitize it. Hours of practice and hard work hardly matter when castigated as a means to an end of support for business goals. To practice craft does not mean to make common or practical. Take the “create” out of creativity – or de-value creation into something based in pipe cleaners and minus all craftsmanship – and we unteach that art is part of who we are. In such magical thinking, there is no practice time, spilled glaze, fourth drafts, or cleanup. As a sanitized term or a supporting criteria, creativity is a lot less messy, a lot more practical. We can condense it to 140 characters, share it with a photo, and move on to the next initiative. Where will we find the new masterpieces when art is simply one limb of an entrepreneurial machine?

Here is what I want to believe: Art is the fanfare that makes us less common. But in order to feel that fanfare stirring in our chests, we have to “go there” – to dive in to the hard work, to fully acknowledge that art is part of who we are, to recognize it as both distinct and connected to our full human experience. When we go shallow, shallow is all we get in return.

Lately I have felt defensive about my practice as a teacher and an artist. I think my reactions have been charged because I sense that things are changing so fast. I wonder if Alex will have a shot at his fanfare, or if his world will honor creation only as it applies to the next innovative idea? Who am I kidding – Alex will be fine – both of his parents are hardworking and successful artists, and he is growing up in that year-long Michigan utopia. But what about the rest of us, for whom life is necessarily a little more common, and education’s goals seem necessarily a little more practical? If it doesn’t fit neatly into a rubric or a business plan, will it still matter?

Back in reality, I am preparing for the dirty work of another year in the studio, feeling more common than ever. I’ve resolved to start the first week of the school year playing Copland’s Fanfare – the Les Preludes version – every morning as I brew my first cup of coffee. It’s a much-needed reminder that the dirty work is still worth a dramatic overture.

Fanfare for the Common Man / Aaron Copland

Performed by the World Youth Symphony Orchestra

Posted at Interlochen Public Radio

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