Thoughts as the day comes closerTom Lloyd | February 27, 2010
The days seem to come faster and faster as we get closer to our take-off date for Turkey, March 4. Surely I must be forgetting something important. From past experience I know that when the time finally comes, after so much planning and preparation, it will fly by and before we know it we’ll be back on campus wondering what happened – was it all for real? was it just yesterday, or years ago?
It does make me ponder sometimes the concerns of some of my faculty colleagues that such brief travel experiences are too brief to be of any substance – too fleeting to involve more than a superficial glimpse of a culture – a sure breeding ground for facile generalizations about what a country or culture is like “Oh, I’ve been to Turkey and it’s definitely [fill in the blank] the people there all think that [cliche #2] – you may have read that Turkey is like [gross generalization #3], but I’ve been there, and I know that it’s really [blah, blah, blah #4].”
Yes, I have seen in myself the desire to accumulate destinations like trophies on a mantel. And I’ve also felt at the end of frustrating days when I don’t have half the answers we need about local arrangements or funding for the trip that “there’s got to be an easier way to put trophies on your mantel!” There are many times I think it’s all vanity – dreaming of “kum-ba-yah” moments where we can pretend that all the intractible conflicts in the world can be just melted away by music.
Many times this semester I’ve also thought “we’re doing too much music!”(I’m sure the students have been thinking this too!) Originally I thought “we’ll memorize everything!” But in tour planning I’ve found one key to survival and success is the cliche “go with the flow” – we didn’t get our music from Turkey until late December – I emailed it to everyone over break with recordings also sent by our friends in Turkey.
Then we needed to add two more spirituals because the ones we had in our rep already were a little two challenging for choirs who hadn’t sung any spirituals before – but that was really exciting too! What a privilege to introduce such a glorious repertoire! So we had to keep all our other spirituals in, too.
But then we got permission from publisher and composer to bring three movement from David Lang’s the little match girl passion that we had performed in December (the Philadelphia premier!) – so we had to do those (even though five of the students were new to the music, having been abroad first semester)…..and then several students asked “are we going to take the Marenzio madrigal?”….I resisted the first time, but after the second and third times…..
And then I reminded myself that we would only have two rehearsals a week, because our third would be devoted to a guest lecturer/discussion leader each week who could lay out the landscape of Turkish history, culture, literary tradition, politics, and, most recently, in a magical, incredibly fun couple of days, our visitor from Wales, John Morgan O’Connell, who gave us a glimpse of everything from an understanding of “9 commas per half-step” – the subtleties of Turkish makams (scales, but not like we know them), usuls (rhythmic modes), and poetic meters – the sometimes bizarre encounters between European rulers and Turkish musicians (Mozart and others incorporated the sounds of Turkish Janissary bands for their exoticism, while Turkish band musicians adopted European brass instruments to sound more “Western”) – the even stranger ways in which music taste was manipulated to serve the politic ends of the Kemal revolution, only to come out even more independent of any political ideology or nationalist creed.
All these extra sessions took rehearsal time – but were essential – not to accumulate just enough information to call ourselves “experts,” but to have some idea before we arrive in Turkey of the scope of how much there is that we don’t know about Turkey. [The students by now will roll their eyes to hear again my favorite platitude that the purpose of education is to find out how much more there is to learn than you can possibly absorb in four years - or the rest of your life - and that that is incredibly exciting!]
But in spite of all this anxiety about being spread too thin, only scratching the surface, unknown obstacles (concerts cancelled because of snow?) lurking right around every corner, once we get one performance under our belt at home, and once we’re all together on the road and singing together every day, we’ll know most them by heart before we realize it. And that’s when I realize why we do this craziness, going to a country and a culture we’ve never encountered before, opening ourselves to the hospitality of strangers – it’s in the moments I remember after our first collaborative concert with another college choir – when I can just stand off to the side and look at young people so naturally connected to each other and enjoying each other’s presence – when being human reveals itself as being both beautifully simple and astoundingly “complicated” – and knowing these encounters are only for a moment, only a fleeting consequence of the elixir of music, nothing more than young people full of each other’s vitality for that evening – but a moment that I know will remain lodged in their memories for a very long time – and bring home to them in an unmistakeable way that their family is much larger than they ever realized.