The other day, I was thinking about the Aesop’s Fable, “The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass“, while I was reflecting on the direction my musical career has taken. This was after a nine-day stint of 23 performances across a variety of musical genres.*
You are surely familiar with the story–a miller and his son take their ass to the market to sell it and along the way they meet several individuals or groups of people who comment or criticize them on their trip. The miller and his son adjust their journey according the comments or criticisms: when told they should be riding the ass, the miller puts his son on the ass; when criticized for not respecting the aged, the miller replaces himself on the ass; when criticized for being lazy, the miller then lets his son ride behind him; and when told they could more easily carry the ass rather than have it carry them, they proceed to tie the legs of the beast and haul it around with a pole. As they cross a bridge near the town, the townsfolk laugh at the sight before them and the commotion frightens the ass which breaks free of the restraints and tumbles into the river.
The obvious moral of the story is that if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.
When I started playing cello regularly again and joined il Troubadore back in 2004, we fell into a similar trajectory. As we were paying our dues and trying to build up our brand we got pulled into a number of directions. We originally intended to be a special events ensemble to play weddings, private parties, and other events you might find a typical local classical ensemble (e.g. Wedding String Quartets) playing regularly.
We quickly got asked to play a number of clubs and given our principal vocalists background in a variety of pop bands we were quickly able to build up a rep of rock, disco, pop, metal tunes which we still include in our shows. By the end of that first year, we would have played our first show with bellydancers, and given we already had a number of bel canto and celtic tunes in our rep, it wasn’t a big stretch to expand into world music. As many of you readers know, our latest forays have been into the “intergalactic” and fantasy realm as we learned or wrote tunes in Klingon, Huttese, Ewok, Elvish, Fremen, Shyriwook, and other Con-Languages.
While our bio in need of much updating, we boast a songlist of over 700 tunes in at least 40 different languages and up until a few years ago, we were averaging 150 shows a year.**
This might sound like a counter-example to the moral of the parable I started this blog post with, but il Troubadore has also had a number of failures–even some spectacular ones. Some special events playing genres we were ill-equipped to approach and some tunes which were under-rehearsed that were fails on an epic scale. Here’s one that was so bad, but that we still had so much fun with, we’ve posted on our soundcloud account:
While our expansion into genres that we currently do has been by group consensus, there have been times where I’ve hinted or pushed us in directions which didn’t quite take. Rather than getting into that, it would be easier to just mention that many of those things that I couldn’t corral il Troubadore to do I ended up doing myself or with other groups.
During one of our World Music and Dance Night shows back in 2006, a modern dancer actually dance with us during a couple of tunes. These shows were an open dance event but we’d never had a dancer with any formal training dance with us. I’d worked with modern dancers in the past but il Troubadore only regularly played for folk dancders or belly dancers. I thought this would have been a wonderful direction for us to take and as we made some inroads with the Gregory Hancock Dance and Motus Dance in Indianapolis, we never seemed to get around to really building up collaborative performances with dancers or dance troupes. Since I’ve moved back to the Louisville area, I’ve had many opportunities to work with ballet and modern dancers either solo or with other projects and artists. I regularly work with or play for the Louisville Ballet, the Blue Moves Modern Dance Company (Nashville), Moving Collective (Louisville), Stephanie Nugent and contact improvisers (Indianapolis), and various dancers in Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and the Kentuckiana area. One of my projects, Camera Lucida, actually specializes in collaborative work with dancers and interactive video projections.
I’d always wanted to have il Troubadore do more focused world genre events in various world music styles, but the rep demands of learning new styles and building a songlist isn’t something to be taken lightly, especially as we’ve had so many membership changes recently. I’ve simply had to join, or form other projects to satisfy this need. In the years since I’ve moved back to the Louisville area, I’ve played regularly with Classical Arabic group, Ahel El Nagam (Louisville); the Balkan group, Kermes (Bloomington, IN); the River City Klezmer Band (Louisvile); the Ladino band, Transito (Louisville); the Central Asian music and dance group which I co-founded, Raks Makam (Louisville); and have played on occasion with various other groups in some capacity or function (e.g. George Haralamos and the Corner Band, Misha Feigin, Lazaros Nourtsis and Neo Ehos, Eastern Caravan Band, Kostos and the Wave, etc.).
While il Troubadore has gained something of a reputation as a bellydance band, these kinds of events no longer make up a large percentage of our shows. On the other hand, I often get asked to perform with pick up groups or as a solo artist or in collaboration with dancers. I probably perform more than twice as many bellydance events than il Troubadore. Here’s an excerpt of a Classical Ottoman piece from a bellydance show I did last weekend in Bloomington, Indiana.
Having that familiarity with the style of various Middle Eastern musics leads to engagements outside of performing. I’ve given workshops in drumming, taksim (improv), and coachings. Here’s a clip from a coaching session I did with some DePauw School of Music students of a Classical Arabic piece which I arranged for their ensemble.
Il Troubadore has always been more of a fusion ensemble, which limits our ability to get certain gigs even in styles of music we play regularly and have full setlists for–being able to understand the style of the music at more than a superficial level could lead to more opportunities.
One of the greatest things about working with experimental musicians is how much improvisation is a part of that culture. The best improvisors are the ones that can play relatively fluently in a variety of musical languages, and it’s been a joy to really connect and perform regularly with them recently. While il Troubadore once did a completely improv event with CA3 many years ago, that kind of free and experimental improv isn’t the group’s improvisational strength.
Working with experienced improvisors who are comfortable in multiple styles means that you never know where you’ll end up musically in the grand scheme of things during a show. Especially if they have a background or familiarity with various world music styles. Of course, the other side benefit of open and free improv events is not needing any sheet music AND not needing to know any actual tunes!
It probably seems like I’m getting farther and farther from the point of the moral. I have a group which I wanted to do a lot of things and when I realized it couldn’t do all those things, I went outside the group and started doing all the things I wanted to do. And I’m constantly learning and exploring other things to do. But this isn’t “everything” there is to do. I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the thousands of musical genres that exist in the world. Multi-musical people, like multilinguals, are likely to be able to pick up new musical styles much more easily, so there are secondary benefits to be dual or multi-musical.
Being fluent in all musical styles? Not very likely. So no, you can’t please everyone (even if we set aside the issue of taste). On the other hand, neither is the audience for music as monolithic as some Classical Music Crisis folks say–there’s an audience for pretty much anything. So there’s little need to change the style, focus, or presentation of one musical genre (e.g. Classical) to another (e.g. Pop).
In other words, you can’t please everyone, because you’ll never be able to do everything. On the other hand, you can be really good at some things–maybe even many things–and still please enough people that are a subset of the total population. Anything else is wasted hand-wringing and fretting about something you have so very little control over anyway.
**for those curious, I played multiple shows with the Louisville Ballet; a couple of shows with my world music group, il Troubadore; a contact improv dance event with composer, Robin Cox; a show with my indie rock band, Birds of Grace; symphonic percussion duties with the Floyd County Youth Symphony; and the re-opening of the Speed Art Museum with my interactive video and cello project, Camera Lucida. This was on top of my teaching activities that week which included the typical classical music fare and a couple of workshops with some DePauw School of Music students in Classical Arabic Music–it was the longest 9 day period I’ve had in some time!
**In 2006, il Troubadore actually performed well over 200 shows!