Christmas Day

March 20th, 2015 - 2 Comments

Here is a little preview of my first real short story:

Chapter ten:

Christmas morning came the conductor’s first official outburst. Up until then he had been behaving decently, though obviously dancing on the eggshells of his own furious hatred and unhappiness. We were rehearsing the Blue Danube Waltz, that pinnacle of classical kitsch, completely easy to play for everyone, and so simple to conduct that probably a trained monkey could do it, or a child, or certainly any member of the orchestra.

Except for the conductor, apparently.

None of us had really looked at the conductor since about 5 minutes into the first rehearsal, but this was the first time Maestro actually noticed. And, of course, he was none too pleased.

Attentione!!” he cried to us, desperately, in a held-back bar which he conducted in such an unnecessarily hostile way that it was impossible for us to follow. “ATTENTIONE!!!! PER FAVORE!!!”  He wasn’t Italian at all, but using unnecessarily foreign languages to make yourself seem intellectually superior to the orchestra is a feature that conducting douchebags seem to share all across the universe.

Verdamte Scheiße!” he cries again. (He isn’t German either.) “Are you guys still fucking DRUNK from last night?” He’s really starting to lose it now. “What the hell is going on? How am I supposed to conduct if nobody is looking at me?” (The obvious answer to this question was How the fuck are we supposed to play together when you are the one conducting us, but of course everyone was much too polite to answer.) I instantly resume my submissive cattle-mode, I don’t much like being screamed at, especially not on Christmas.

LISTEN TO ME!!!  he furiously screeches, “In this bar, attentione means…..” he stuggles to find his words, desperately stuttering and lost in his nasty sense of frustration.

Attentione means………… ATTENTIONE!!!

The orchestra, for once in unison, burst out laughing.

Merry Christmas, China.

Dear Men:

March 16th, 2015 - 10 Comments

It’s really a shame that none of you wants to love me.

All I want to do is completely ruin your life.
(What would be so bad about that? Why wouldn’t any man want that??)

Yes, I will admit, as ashamed as it makes me feel, as much as my 90s power-woman upbringing tells me otherwise, I really do want to find a man, settle down, and, eventually, procreate.

Sure, it isn’t the ONLY thing I want.

But it feels like that time in my life, the time where I’m not wildly running around partying, doing drugs and fucking any man who gives me a charmingly sleazy once-over with his eyes. The time where I feel content going to bed early, where I don’t feel like I’m missing much by not trying to miss out on anything. The time where simplicity and purity seem appealing, where focus, concentration, and devotion seem like the path towards a happier existence.

Aren’t I happy now?
Good question, Shasta.

Maybe? Sort-of?
Hmmmm.

I feel incomplete, if I’m honest. I’m still on my path, I’m still figuring things out.

My life is fun, relaxed, but essentially meaningless at this point. I basically don’t have any responsibilities that I find terribly interesting, and I am, like most in my generation, pretty afraid of doing anything. I’m nearly 27 years old. On the tipping point towards 30.

At least I live in a city that I love. For the first time in my whole life.

Though, dearest men of this world, I assure you I’m not completely useless, I do have a fair amount of skills — albeit mostly in the so-called “useless” realms of creativity — though I’m a great cook, a very good conversationalist, and I’m told I have a fantastic ass. I’m intelligent, whatever that might mean, and I’m getting better and better at being smart. I’m not a stoner anymore, though I do smoke a couple of cigarettes every day. I bite my nails but I’m learning to stop (or at the very least, to enjoy it). I speak English, French, German (almost!), I still understand Dutch, and I know how to say “I love you “ in Danish. I’m a pretty highly-skilled musician, and I am at least a better writer than Lena Dunham. I’m too lazy to be a vegetarian, too morally apathetic and spiritually disorganised to ever attempt a steady routine of meditation. At the ripe old age of 17 in Amsterdam one of my new friends described me as the biggest Nihilist he’d ever met.  And it’s true, I don’t have any morals; I have no political agenda, I stand for nothing apart from the person that I am, and I seek nothing in this life except to find how who the hell that might be. Meaning, which shit is mine, which shit is my parents’, which shit is my friends’, which shit comes from the place where I come from, which shit comes from the place where I live. I choose to do things by choice instead of through a constructed internet of logic, or out of some Euro-sense of compulsive martyrdom. I believe that human beings need no outside guidance, I believe that human beings need do nothing at all in order to deserve to call themselves good. The almighty soul is guidance and proof enough.

But that doesn’t make me such a bad woman after all, does it?

OK, fine, men of this world, in my new spirit of brutal honesty, let’s explore. What else is wrong with me? I’m chubby. I’m stubborn as hell, though I (badly) pretend that I’m not, out of some weird desire to purport a partiularly laughable breed of speak-when-spoken-to femininity. I sport wildly controversial and un-politically correct opinions purely for the insane kick I get from shocking people in conversations. I love, love, staring and I can be a horrible listener. I can be capricious and wildly emotional. I am slow-moving. I lack continuity.  I quadruple-book myself most Friday nights and then end up doing nothing at all instead. I keep journals rather obsessively — the mark of over-intelligent desperation of any eccentric loner-type — and I have an extreme penchant for potato chips, cartoons, and science fiction (one-by-one, or in my wildest fantasies all-at-once, watching Futurama swim-eating from within a rather pointy and uncomfortable bathtubful of my favorite snack).

So come on men of this world, what could possibly be wrong? Why on Earth doesn’t anyone want to love me?

I know how to answer my own question, of course I do. Somewhere inside me I don’t want love at all, because all I really want is to be better than you, for you to capitulate to my utter brilliance; I want you men to benefit from my freedom of spirit, I want to show you how awesome I am, how great it is to be me, how crap your pathetic lives are without me. I want to destroy everything you believe in, pull the rug from underneath your overprotective constructions of logic and facts, and prove my utter and complete emotional, spiritual, phyisical and un-moral superiority once and for all.

Oh yeah, and on top of that, I want to have babies with you, and not to mention completely usurp as many of your resources as you will allow — which, let’s face it, if you’re the kind of man who would actually consent to this kind of “love”, you’d probably let me have anything I wanted cause you’d be so godawfully afraid of me.

So, men of this world, am I really so awful? Is all of that really so much to ask?
Really?

I really am a bitter shithead, aren’t I.
Sorry men of this world.

I’ll stop terrorizing you now.

Sincerely,
Shasta Ellenbogen

The “Biz”

February 20th, 2015 - 1 Comment

I consider myself very lucky to have seen a much broader spectrum of the music business than what most classical musicians get to experience. Last year in particular was a veritable whirlwind of variation — from the height of my pop music career on Gentleman’s MTV Unplugged reggae album, to the bottom of my classical music career failing miserably at a viola competition, to the height of ridiculous Scandinavian arts funding getting well-paid for experimental music that nobody wants to hear, to playing old jazz standards with old men at A-Trane in Charlottenburg for the door money, to the rushed Olympics of a start-up chamber music festival in Vienna, to a Chinese tour with a totally hodgepodge orchestra billed as the “Berlin Philharmonic” to our very-well-paying audiences.

Did I say I felt very lucky? Well, that’s a smarter way of saying that I once felt very cursed, burdened, and confused by all of this information. Through ignorance one has freedom — growing up in Canada for example I had no idea how godawfully expensive of a country it was, simply because I had nothing to compare it to. Everything seemed a reasonable price to me. The paradigm shifted of course when I started living in other countries, when I had reference enough to see that perhaps 5 dollars wasn’t that reasonable of a price for a carton of milk, that 75 dollars perhaps isn’t such an affordable monthly tariff for a mobile phone. But that is simply because I have the luxury of perspective. Without perspective nothing is really thrown too far into question. I had no idea that milk costs 50 cents in Europe, I had no idea that at any Turkish Spätkauf in Berlin I could buy a 10 euro Sim card with 20 euros of credit already charged onto it, oh, and now that you mention it, here’s a free phone too!

My life outside of classical music started, at least in my mind, when I went to the Copenhagen Jazz festival in the summer of 2012, head-over-heels in love with a jazz musician at the height of Scandinavian summertime. It was the beginning of my second year in Berlin, the year before having been filled to the brim with the stressful life of a subbing orchestra musician and the extremely draining life of trying to save classical music through insanely complicated and difficult Berlin artsy-fartsy contemporary music projects which were not of my own design. I had just played my first pop tour with Johann Johannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, and Hauschka, and found it a huge relief to know that I could actually make way more money playing way less notes, not to mention having much more fun, with much more laid-back, interesting, and frankly nice people.

Before this lovey-dovey trip to Copenhagen I had the rather simplistic viewpoint that all non-classical musicians struggled terribly at making a living, and that all classical musicians were extremely blessed in having the infrastructure of orchestras and funding to take care of them. Very similarly to not knowing how expensive Canada was, from my limited perspective I imagined that my life was awesome and that all of their lives basically sucked. I couldn’t have been more wrong! That summer I found out that these jazz musicians I knew actually made more money than me, and had a way better working environment, not just artistically but also materially, with all of their meals, lodgings, and whims completely taken care of. A big change from my stressful projects in Berlin which often didn’t even have a lunch break, not to mention any food provisions. I can still picture scenes of violinists eating wrapped sandwiches from home sitting at their chairs, during the rehearsal.

Not to mention, on a totally different level, the emotional side of things. To be a working classical musician one has to develop a fluency in passive-aggressive-ese, for any suggestion made too directly comes across as horribly offensive in such a subdued and serious and “cultured” environment.

For example:

“What dynamic do you have in bar 8?” translates as “YOU’RE PLAYING TOO LOUD YOU STUPID IDIOT”.
“What a great idea!” usually translates as “That’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but whatever you say, you dumb fuck.”
And that standard gem, asked precariously to the conductor in a moment of (extra) tension:
“How should we play bar 35?” which actually translates to “Everyone else except me is doing this part ALL WRONG. AND HERE’S PROOF!!!!”

But hey, I didn’t know anything different. (All I knew was that I was complete shite at getting anyone to listen to me in rehearsals.) I didn’t know there was another way, cause frankly I didn’t realise the reason that most people became musicians in the first place. Classical music these days is a weird off-shoot of musical culture at-large — comparing my life as a musician to that of a jazz/pop/rock/etc. musician is like comparing prima ballerinas to drugged-out hipsters dancing in Berlin clubs. Sure, they’re both dancing, they’re both expressing themselves, they are semantically doing the same thing; but one approach comes from strictness, from the desire to achieve, to push one’s self, to withstand history, or simply to prove how great you are to Mom and Dad; the other comes from the exact opposite desire, for catharsis, for rebellion, for letting-off-steam. For fun, simply.

So, long story short, in 2012 I got the perspective I needed to know that my life was actually a kind of stressful underpaid underappreciated version of what these market-successful (and let’s face it, more honest) musicians had. Their lives were fun. Their tours were fun. Their colleagues were fun. Even their rehearsals were fun! The music they played was fun. The audience had fun. Of course they did. That’s why they came to the concert!

All of this to say, in these days of free market capitalism, what on Earth am I actually selling? What is music for? What is the biz of classical music actually about? What does it mean, as a businessperson, to be a musician nowadays? And what the fuck are you sharing with people when you’re not sharing fun?

Well, I’m gonna be really brave here and take a stand. There’s no point in pretending I don’t know what I do know, there’s no point in keeping myself confused, angry, and burdened if I can actually use my voice to speak out.

You know how everyone says classical music is dying?

Forgive my boldness, but I say let it die.
Forgive my thinking, but I say there is no value for entertainment which isn’t entertaining.
Forgive my broad sweeping generalisations, but I say anyone who doesn’t think fun is important doesn’t understand life very well and certainly does not understand anything about art in our day and age.

Perhaps classical music at one point had it right in the last century, I don’t know, and that’s something that only history can say, not me. But what I do know, and what I can say for sure, is that “art” is something different from “culture”; art is fluid, it is the mirror of the current, it is the anti-life, and that is its function in society. I see “culture” as being about preservation, about ritual; culture is the currency of time, it is the springboard art has to bounce off from. (To put it another way, culture is the last dregs of the society art wishes to move forward from). Art would cease to exist if it didn’t have this clear function, because why would anyone buy something they don’t want? Sad, maybe, that everything in our day and age is reduced to its value in dollars and cents, but I can’t be bothered to see it like that. Though martyrdom seems somehow appealingly romantic and noble, I’m pretty sure me being a commercial flop is sadly not going to help overthrow capitalism. In addition, perhaps it is the corruption of the word “entertainment” that has assisted in the classical music’s resistance to all that is commercial. Personally I do not believe that entertainment is anything bad at all, and if instead of the word entertainment we use the French translation “divertir”, to divert, the gross-commercial-Hollywood connotation is loosened and my definition of art as entertainment stands up very nicely. We all need diversion, we all need mirrors, otherwise we wouldn’t know what we look like. Like yin and yang, everything needs antithesis or else nothing really means anything. And diversion, or “entertainment”, or ART, is a universal human truth; there is no society without an ever-changing, ever-breathing, ever-living artistic counter-movement. And moreover, ART IS PRICELESS. People will pay ANYTHING for perspective.

So who am I in all of this mixture?

Well, all I really know is that I’d like to produce art. And I don’t really care about the medium. Though I love classical music, and I am quite a decent viola player, I don’t feel any of the loyalty to the establishment that my colleagues possess. What is there to feel loyal about when Gentleman the pop-reggae star says so many wiser things about music in his fake Jamaican accent than 90% of my classical colleagues do?

Save it for MTV” someone snapped at me last year at a chamber music festival when I made some not-sophisticated-enough not-passive-aggressive-enough suggestion or other in a difficult rehearsal. Who knows if it would’ve helped, I don’t even remember what it was about. But the line still stings.

Go fuck yourself, classical music.

Or rather, “Do you think it would it be ok if I stepped on your instrument and murdered you with the sharpest shards of wood?”

Hmmm.
Let’s try again.

Wow, I’ve never met someone who knows as much about music as you do, how do you manage to keep all of that information in your head all the time? It must be so exhausting! Thanks for correcting me, I actually had no idea we were playing Schönberg right now, because, as a one-time reggae musician, I’m so fucking stoned that I don’t even know which hand to hold my viola in. Oh, what would I do without you?”

Ok, I guess my passive-aggressive-ese still needs some work.

All I really know is that I’d like to reconnect classical music to art, and move it away from “culture”, and back into the motion of the school of life.

All I really know is that I want to be a success out in the real world where people buy things that they want and need, without being funded by pseudo-royalty or huge banks which are in turn funded by horrible corporations like Coca-Cola and Nestle. How comfortable would you feel in the Monsanto Symphony Orchestra (formerly known as the Berlin Philharmonic)?

All I really know is that it’s obviously time for a change, that it’s obviously time for a new perspective, that the world of classical music is in obvious deep serious trouble if it’s something that only exists through funding and has little-to-no market value, and therefore little-to-no entertainment value, and therefore little-to-no artistic value, anymore. Not to mention that for me it’s pretty much always a horrible life, throwing together so many notes as fast as I can with total strangers, in an awful environment which is the opposite of comfortable or cathartic or even friendly, or that even meets the basic human necessities of sleeping and eating, all so that we can get through one terrifying performance to continue to feel like we are “culturing” a world which only exists in our expensive educations. (Though, thankfully, there are some blessed exceptions to this vast minefield of horror.)

And finally, all I am actually sad about, all I actually do burden myself with, is that the opinions I have expressed, though common topics amongst the non-classical musicians I know, and common knowledge amongst the average music-listening public (which is, by the way, everyone), is still wildly controversial conversation-fare at any classical gig I’ve ever been invited to (and apparently never been asked back for). Obviously the ideological foundations of our business, if you can call it that, are incredibly weak if all it takes is one article like this, one opinion like “There is no artistic value in classical music anymore” or one silly comment like “Mischa Maisky is a terrible cellist” to disintegrate our honour. None of them would care at all if I said Radiohead sucked. Hell, they’d probably agree :)

But maybe, just maybe, I enjoy being a provocateur a little too much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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