Boston Conservatory Welcome address by Karl Paulnack

Subject: In times of financial crisis, this might be important to remember

Welcome address to freshman class at Boston Conservatory

given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston
Conservatory

"One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not
properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had
very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they
imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be
more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my
mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she said,
"You’re WASTING your SAT scores." On some level, I think, my parents were
not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And
they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just
weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a
little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and
entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your
kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with
entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a
little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient
Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and
astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study
of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and
music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden
objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces
inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things
inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet
for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940.
Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi
Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a
cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and
a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist,
a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these
specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four
thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most
famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps,
why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing
music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and
water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone
bother with music? And yet-from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have
visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people
created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on
survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must
be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without
hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were
not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit,
an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which
we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I
reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat
down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I
did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on
the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took
my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter?
Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what
happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent,
pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of
getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact
I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again.
And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We
didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we
most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I
saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang
around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America
the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the
Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York
Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first
communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the
beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the
airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular,
that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not
part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us
believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our
budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic
need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our
lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way
for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heartwrenchingly beautiful piece
Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know
it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon,
a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way,
you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can
make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our
conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a
good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no
music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been
some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very
predictable happens at weddings-people get all pent up with all kinds of
emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the
wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even
if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40
percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of
moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move
around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides
so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you
imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue
but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right
moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at
exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music
stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the
understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of
my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand
concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were
important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it
made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played
for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers,
foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took
place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We
began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during
World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was
shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the
pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written
program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we
decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out
and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the
front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was
clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair,
square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life
in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to
tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t
the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the
concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk
about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances
in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed
pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he
had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him
again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was
in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I
watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese
planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute
chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend
drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about
this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this
memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it.
I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came
out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost
pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do
that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between
internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have
ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect,
somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost
friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This
is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class
when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge
your sons and daughters with is this:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student
practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would
imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your
emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my
friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall
and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul
that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well
you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician
isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an
entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue
worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a
spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works
with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can
come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I
expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on
this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding,
of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a
military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from
the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war
as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there
is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit
together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we
do. 

As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the
ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

  1. trentalange posted this