A journalist from out of town attended our first Mozart Requiem rehearsal on Monday night. He was interested in the mechanics of the WAC lockout of the Atlanta Symphony, and found a moment to ask about the concert planning activities I’ve been involved in. He asked about scheduling, staffing, programming. I’ve been neck deep in concert planning, so I didn’t have much trouble giving him details, anecdotes, horror stories. But then he asked me a question that stumped me, left me without cogent response.
“Why do you do this?”
Up till that question, I had been quick and thorough in my responses, verbose-ish, at times perhaps approaching the outskirts of eloquence. But this question derailed me.
What does that mean, why do I do this? I’ve been playing music, promoting music, composing music, teaching music for more than four-fifths of my life, and while I often consider how I do it, and fill my calendar with when I do it, and lately a lot of thought has gone into the question of where I do it (since I’m locked out of my place of employment), I’m not sure how much thought I’ve ever devoted to answering why.
It’s an important question, necessary even, if I’m even a bit interested in self-knowledge. Though I confess, I’ve often avoided self-knowledge, in the interest of blissful ignorance.
So, more ignorant than blissful, I sat with the journalist who’d just posed the question that flummoxed me, and I flummoxed ponderously for a bit, wheels turning. Why?
“If you ask someone why they breathe, they can’t even answer you without breathing. Also, you had to breathe to ask the question in the first place.”
Did that make any sense at all? Did I just rip off some Zen koan? Was there somewhere nearby a single hand clapping for my display of wisdom? No, I think I probably sounded like a pretentious ass.
But in a way, it explains the why. Music is necessary to me; it’s not what I choose to do, it’s not what I love to do, it’s what I must do. I’m not sure I even have a choice. Most of my colleagues, if they could pinpoint the moment when they chose to devote their lives to music, would admit that music somehow made the choice for them, that they couldn’t imagine being any other way. I imagine every kind of artist feels this way, and I’d wager there are many people in other professions who would agree, educators, social workers, public servants.
So why are some of us naturally compelled to pursue something so esoteric? After all, most of these pursuits aren’t particularly profitable. No one goes into teaching to get rich; social work wouldn’t be possible without public support and grant money; arts organizations are so notoriously unprofitable that we’ve created special tax status to ensure their survival.
Why do you do this? If I’m right, if the why can only be answered existentially, then the more germane question is: Why must this be done?
Maybe god or the universe or whatever is trying to preserve and perpetuate our species planted these seeds of socially beneficial imperative in our DNA. Maybe our evolution, maybe our very survival depends on crazy people willing, no, needing to create, to express, to connect people trapped in the present with the most beautiful gifts from civilization’s past and the promise of a future filled with even more beauty, truth, connection, love.
A community needs art, because art connects us to one another across time and border and belief in ways that greed and partisanship and conflict cannot. And if it loses those connections, a culture that should thrive will instead wither. And the greatest art has always needed the support of those who understand that it has value beyond its profitability.
Atlanta has a symphony orchestra that has, with the generous (and necessary) support of generations of music lovers, built a legacy of exhilarating performances and benchmark recordings of some of our civilization’s greatest artistic achievements. The ASO has served for decades as an ambassador of the best of our culture. That’s why we do this, because we must. The next question we must answer: Why have we entrusted the nurture of this legacy to those who would tear it down?