America’s Hunger: an Open Letter to Krystian Zimerman

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After attending a wonderful recital as part of the Ojai Music Festival this afternoon, I was moved to write the following response to the celebrated concert pianist Krystian Zimerman‘s recent announcement that he would not schedule future performances in America, in protest of the Iraq war.

Dear Mr. Zimerman:

I am not a musician. I am an American poet. My wife is English, and was a concert pianist in Europe for twenty years. She now teaches in America. In the four years we have been married, she has taught me very much about the love of classical music.

When she told me that you had decided not to continue performing in America in protest of our country’s foreign policy, I was, at first, upset for selfish reasons. I was upset as an audience member, deprived of the opportunity to hear you perform in person, and as an American conflated with the actions of my country’s political leaders.

This afternoon, we attended a recital by Dawn Upshaw and Gil Kalish in our home town. The passion and precision with which they rendered Lieder, French song, and American repertoire moved me very much, as it did hundreds of others around me. This experience reminded me, once again, of the power of art to help us become more fully in touch with our better selves. America needs to be more fully in touch with its better self in order to change. America needs more transcendent music, more meaningful art — not less.

And so, I write to you now not as an audience member protesting your decision for selfish reasons, but as one artist to another. If you were simply an entertainer, I could understand your embargo: my country is glutted with entertainment. It distracts us from looking at difficult circumstances, and also from our better selves. But you are an artist, and art has the power to transcend political concerns, addressing, instead, universal, human concerns.

Science has given us a great respect for visible, reproducible cause and effect. The effect of Dawn Upshaw giving herself completely in to song in today’s performance is not an event which I can guarantee will stop a war, open dialog between nations, end poverty, or restore respect for human rights. Yet I know I was changed, and bettered, by this experience. I know others were as well.

In my country, we have figured out how to engineer a hamburger that costs less than one dollar. Yet for all our wealth, when it comes to art, we are starving. By refusing to perform in America, you only add to our hunger. In fact, you are following the same line of policy that my country has pursued in relation to much of the rest of the world: closing off dialog.

Commission, instead, a new piece by a contemporary Middle Eastern composer, and bring this to America. If you want to better the world, do not withhold your gift from those of us who need it most. Instead, bring my country a reminder of our better selves, as human beings, and our participation in the global human condition. Bring the full power of music. And trust that, though it may not make headlines, no act of generosity or kindness is ever wasted, on any people, anywhere.

My country needs — desperately needs — now more than ever, more music, more art, not less. I implore you, as an artist, to please consider this.

Very Respectfully,
Robert Peake

I am currently researching how best to get this letter to Mr. Zimerman. If anyone reading this has any leads, please let me know.

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Determinism in Experimental Art

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“Everything changes except the avant garde”

 — Paul Valéry

Our new place is walking distance from Libbey Bowl, so we sauntered over last night to hear some world-class contemporary classical as the kickoff to the 2007 Ojai Music Festival. The evening was predominantly focused on works for two piano performed by Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams. The most accessible piece was probably the two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky‘s Dumbarton Oaks. Other works ranged from a piece composed exclusively of decorations (glissandi, trills and the like) to an electronic piece made from cricket chirps. The finale was this:


Symphonic Poem For 100 Metronomes
by György Ligeti

Though I am tempted to spend the rest of this tirade denouncing the attribution of the word “poem” to any piece of art in which the artist wants to convey a quality of elegance, I actually want to talk about something more important to me: when the avant garde fails for me, and why.

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