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A Word About Critics . . . from a Pulitzer Prize-Winner

In Arts and Education, Focal Dystonia, John Corigliano, On Writing on January 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I don’t often write about my previous life as a cellist. I suppose that comes from a place of wishing to look forward instead of backwards. In nearly every way, my life as a musician is over. There are only two activities I’m involved in today that remain directly connected to my cello career; I teach three wonderful high school students private lessons, and I sit on the Board of Directors for the local Youth Orchestra. Both of these activities continue to be rewarding. Both of them sometimes remind me of what I’ve lost.

One of my musical careers (back in the day) was performing as the cellist of the Corigliano Quartet. That chapter of my life was as

John Corigliano

exciting as it was troubled. The fangs of Focal Dystonia had already bitten, though I didn’t yet know it was Focal Dystonia. I, and my colleagues, believed I was struggling with performance anxiety.

For a performing musician, one’s identity is often wrapped up in what you are able to achieve professionally. When one hits something like FD, it can rattle a person to the core. I look back on the person I was in those days, and am not proud of some of the things I did. Also, I find that I’m still angry about some things that happened then. But when my diagnosis came, years later, I was relieved to have a context in which to put that chapter of my life. It didn’t absolve me of my immaturity, or irresponsibility, but it offered me a lens to look through, and understand.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with John Corigliano, he’s one of the greatest composers of our time. He’s won a Pulitzer, three Grammys and an Oscar, but his greatest achievements has always been the music itself. The Corigliano Quartet took his name at his encouragement after he heard us play his String Quartet Number 1, and, for a bright-eyed and bushy tailed 22-year-old kid reaching for the stars, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

We did a lot together in the short amount of time I was with them. Among other things, we presented the Korean premiere of his string quartet, and played at Carnegie Hall and Weill Hall in New York. We won a competition and we lost a competition. We earned a rave from Strad Magazine, and even the New York Times. In fact, it was directly after the Times reviewed our Carnegie Hall debut that John Corigliano shared some wisdom with me that I’ve carried ever since.

Good times. Congratulations John!

We were in Detroit at the time, and talking about music critics. John shared an anecdote about one critic in particular. It was a critic who’d been hard on his music in the past, perhaps on numerous occasions, but in this anecdote, the critic was doing an interview with John. It was an opportunity for two apparently non like-minded people to wax philosophical on what music is and what music isn’t. As John shared it, the critic framed all of his arguments with the preface, “I was always taught.” For John, this was absurd. In his brilliant mind, that was tantamount to beginning an argument with the words, “I can’t think for myself.” And that was the piece of wisdom he’d wanted to share with me that night.

You see, John Corigliano had taken us under his wing. Our quartet, all five of us, were dedicated to promoting new American music side-by-side with the classics. A typical Corigliano Quartet program was: Schubert, Beethoven, and (insert modern American composer). A group like that would thrill some music lovers, and upset others. It might upset, for instance, the type of critic whose thought process was “I was always taught.” (Except, in our case, that didn’t happen.) So, looking back on it, I think he was saying, “Good job guys. Now–a word about critics. You know, sometimes these things don’t always end so pretty.”

These days, I’m a novelist. (I’ve got two novels under my belt–one in the can, the other soon on the way, so I get to call myself that.) I can’t play the cello anymore. But I can draw from what I know, and that’s the only prerequisite a writer truly needs. ¬†Writers, like musicians, often walk a fine line between being a hero, and being the village idiot. That’s what it means to put yourself out there. But, for my two cents, I’d rather put myself out there with something I know, rather than something I was taught, but never assimilated. That’s the natural progression of wisdom, and I know that from my career as a cellist: From information comes data. From data comes knowledge. From knowledge comes wisdom.

I’ll leave you with a fun Frank Zappa quote:

Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not wisdom,
Wisdom is not truth,
Truth is not beauty,
Beauty is not love,
Love is not music,
and Music is THE BEST.

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