by Rosie Gallagher, 2016–2018 Ensemble Connect Fellow
A few nights ago I found myself lying in bed at 2:30 AM after going down a three-hour Wikipedia rabbit hole. I began with the words “Brad Mehldau” and ended up on the page of Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi (I may be a little Master of None obsessed). As I closed my laptop dreading the morning that would soon arrive, my mind ruminated on some words that had stood out to me during this time well spent:
Music is seeing something that you love for an instant being taken away forever. There’s an element of folly to the whole thing—you look even though you know you shouldn’t. Music kind of yokes together the feeling of attainment and the feeling of loss at the same time.
These thoughtful words from Brad Mehldau expressed exactly how I had felt while watching a set between him and Chris Thile earlier that evening at The Town Hall. In a venue that seats 1,500 people, the pair had weaved together the sounds of a piano, mandolin, and voice with such creative artistry that, at times, I felt I was intruding upon something very intimate. Every note felt both thoughtful and spontaneous—a juxtaposition that served the creation of some beautifully strange melodies and harmonies. Often, I was torn between the desire to savor the moment I was in and the reality that the music had already moved on without me.
It is not revolutionary to say these two artists have no bounds when it comes to musical genre. However, their ease and fluidity are always striking, and as the music swung from an original tune about the joys of parenting—“Noise Machine”—over to a stunning recreation of the jazz standard “On the Waterfront,” I couldn’t help but feel a little sad by the self-imposed limitation I feel from the label “classical musician.” With traditional job opportunities for classical musicians few and far between, it seems a worthy pursuit to take inspiration from these artists who have no bounds as to what comes out of their instruments. I’m not sure if it is enough for classical musicians of my generation to want to carry on in the exact same path as our teachers. Witnessing these two artists who create, improvise, and perform with undeniable individuality left me to reflect that these are the people who will be remembered as the great musicians of our time. The ones who had the courage to see a way forward.
Of course, I feel immense gratitude for and pride in being a trained classical musician. I will never stop marveling at the intoxicating sensuality of Debussy, and I would be happy to dedicate myself to exploring the music of Beethoven for the next ten years. However, it pays to look up and notice when something extraordinary is happening. It could be easy to slip into the mindset of envious detachment when listening to the genius of Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau. Their artistry feels unattainable. As my friend and fellow Ensemble Connect fellow Becky Anderson said: “The reality is we are not Chris or Brad. But when you see something incredible you take what you can and try to bring that spirit to your art.” A beautiful intention. In our current world climate, a sense of reality is starting to feel a little subjective; so why not lead with the intention of doing something spectacular.