Random Acts of Culture – Music in Unlikely Places.
Leading Artfully Blog
Musicians often think of performance in the context of clubs and concert halls, but perhaps the artist’s quest is to fill every space in a beautiful way
Imagine browsing among one thousand shoppers at Macy’s when six hundred and fifty of your fellow shoppers suddenly transform themselves to accomplished choristers who immerse the space into glorious sound – watch Random Acts of Culture – I am sure it will brighten your day!
As I watched the video, it brought to mind my own experiences bringing music to unlikely places… like playing church hymns on a pump organ in the back of a truck while wandering the mist shrouded back roads of The Ottawa Valley or bringing a grand piano into the Shell Learning Center in The Woodlands near Houston for executive leadership sessions- people would see me, they would look at the piano and they would think they were in the wrong room.
The dialogue sessions at Shell Oil at the Learning Center in Houston were greatly enhanced through the music. As one person said; “We are engineers – we are well trained to argue and advocate our case- we are not as comfortable as listeners or storytellers” Yet the music brought alive memories of long hours listening to stories at the piano in the parlor or on the front porch in years past. “How do we re- create this same front porch in business?” They asked. They realized that you can achieve a greater understanding and see more if you are able to create a more reflective and imaginative listening environment where- as we did with the piano – slow time down.
I bought the pump organ at an auction near a remote farm that a friend and I had just purchased. One misty warm evening a few days later, several of us arrived in an open flat bed truck to transport the organ back to the farm.
“Its crowded and hot in the cab” I said, as the organ was tied down and secured. “Why don’t I ride in the back of the truck” “ Sure one of the others said – here’s the seat–Since you are there … maybe you could play the organ as we are driving as well!”
As we wandered slowly along the backroads of the Ottawa Valley outside the town of Lanark at dusk that evening, the thick mist rising off the fields and lights flickering in the windows of distant farm houses I played. Mostly I played hymns that I remembered from my past years as a church organist– caught up in the moment I played grand chords at full organ with all the stops pulled out- is so doing I transformed the modest steel and wood flat bed truck into a great concert stage. Later we wondered how may of those sipping coffee quietly on their farm porches that night may have felt called to attend a local church the following Sunday morning…. for no cause they could reasonably explain.
Once back at the farm – I noticed the swallows flying from beam to beam in the open barn, often swooping up graceful and nudging their young chicks higher in the air as they struggled to stay aloft. When I described this scene to a local farmer one day- he said – oh that’s “swallow flight school”. Swallows in Flight was among one of my first compositions composed at the organ as I created my own soundtrack the sights and sounds of nature – the meandering split rail fences, the clusters of wild lilacs and the rolling rough pasture land offering fertile ground for my own imagination.
At a health and wellness conference near Washington DC, I was scheduled to be in so many rooms – speaking, facilitating and playing – that we decided to bring the piano to the delegates rather than try to have them come to me. So instead of setting a large grand piano in one place we brought in a small upright and I pushed it from room to room.
My day started at 6Am on the terrace for the continental breakfast near a large pond. As I played the ducks floated close to shore. Their quacking became an integral part of the impromptu serenade we co- created together in those early morning hours. Once breakfast was complete, I stood up and pushed the piano through the patio doors, down the hall and up the elevator for the next session….
There were other enduring moments; like bringing a full concert black ebony Steinway piano into the old steam generating plant for a leadership session at Southern California Edison near Seal Beach Ca. – Or playing for the church services in a small Eskimo community just south of Ungava Bay in Northern Quebec, or performing Chopin to the rough and tumble patrons of the Quinte Hotel, when I performed as part of a private audience with the Dali Lama, the twenty Border’s stores in twenty days tour, performing and sharing stories for hundreds of children in a school auditorium –while they drew pictures and shared them with each other, offering healing music in an AIDS Hospice, performing in corporate meeting rooms, or in the lingerie department in a major national retail chain. What about men’s shoes …or even better … the music department I asked –THIS is the highest shopper traffic in the store the floor manager insisted – we will sell many more CD’s here! … And so I played on.
And then there was the Narada Christmas Tour where we performed seasonal music concerts – sometimes to audiences of over 600 or more- in major shopping centers across America. The audiences crowded close the piano and small children danced underneath – that was year I realized that the town commons was not dead – it had just moved to the mall.
Some of these settings were more unlikely than others- if I were to search for common threads there are two that immediately come to mind;
One is that the beauty of music if often discovered in unlikely places, places where we can bring the experience of beauty to others in ways that may contribute to the subjective well being of the whole.
The second is best captured in a line from a poem by American Poet Wallace Stevens where he writes;
The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea….
Perhaps music, like poetry also refreshes life. It turns our attention to our deepest thoughts, to our most intense and original feelings. It brings us home to ourselves, to discovering our highest ideal…. and to our first ideas.