From the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The White Album. (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM)
Boulez, Twyla Tharp and the Creed of Curiosity
From the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The White Album. (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM)

Boulez, Twyla Tharp and the Creed of Curiosity

In the first chapter of Twyla Tharp’s instructional bible for creativity The Creative Habit, the iconic American choreographer identifies a contradiction. “There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub against each other.” Musical artists—instrumentalists, composers, and singers—are highly accustomed to the daily drilling of theoretical exercises and scales required to maintain proficiency. Tharp’s comments are apt considerations for musicians, and more especially for classical musicians trained using old school discipline at conservatories.  Tharp reminds us that, in addition to the acquisition of skills, there lies something more at hand—something in addition to the technical dexterities we need to practice and hone in order to produce our work to its fullest capacity.

Since the classical age, the Greeks have been calling this missing ingredient “play” (paidia). Since around 500–300 BCE, Hellenic philosophical and artistic discussions have examined “play” as it relates to education (paidei). The relationship between paidia and paidei, with their implicit etymological references, are the center of Platonic ideas. The relationship of play and education does not pose as a paradox. Rather they are complimentary values.

As we mature, our playtimes diminish; our learning becomes more serious.

For many, play and games are synonymous with childhood.  Play offers an opportunity to be spontaneous, leads to discovery by chance, and opens curiosity.  As we mature, our playtimes diminish; our learning becomes more serious. However, according to our Greek philosopher friends, our sense of daring and curiosity needs nourishment and experience. When we are young, the play and music tuition accidentally align. We might be flying on a swing in the backyard one minute, and playing scales on the piano in the next.  There is a spontaneous crossover, which accounts for why some young performers display fearlessness.

The challenges begin to build in mid-career if we fail to recognize and act on the importance of the trained skill-based creative play that Tharp discusses in her manual. Tharp suggests that creativity needs to be nurtured as a muscle. Our Greek philosophers don’t disagree. Tharp’s conundrum is not a paradox. In one of the surviving thirty-seven fragments of his six plays, the ancient Greek playwright Agathon wrote,  “chance and skill (techne) go hand in hand.”

Agathon and Tharp agree:  creative experimentation and skills need to be preserved as equal agents.

Creative experimentation and skills need to be preserved as equal agents.

So how do we practice chance and daring? One answer is that we need to be constantly in search for opportunities where attributes of curiosity, chance, and daring are triggered and that we learn to trust them. In short we must constantly search for new playgrounds that suit our needs.

My personal cognition of the importance of play in my classical music career was sparked at my first contemporary music concert—a recital by the late American-Armenian mezzo-soprano and avant-garde pioneer Cathy Berberian. I was fourteen years old. The concert took place in the Adelaide Town Hall, as part of the Adelaide Festival in Australia where I grew up and received my musical education. I remember the experience distinctly. I sat in Row B, second seat from the end. The stage seemed impossibly high. I remember that I had to crane my neck for the entire concert. I can still picture Berberian’s satin green kaftan imprinted with a paisley motif. I remember her signature white-blonde locks—bubbles of curls sitting on top of her head as if her hair and her scalp were not quite attached. She appeared as a slightly unhinged post-modern Mozartian character. She was not.

The repertoire in the recital included John Cage, Bruno Maderna, and Sylvano Bussotti alongside Berberian’s iconic interpretations of Beatles’ songs and her own composition, the comic book fantasy Stripsody. I was riveted by the obscure helter-skelter intervals of the Maderna, and I was amazed that this classical singer could make an audience smile and laugh with her comedic turns and her creation of sounds that seemed to emanate from a circus tent.

At the time, I could not account for why I was drawn to this singer, or why I chose to attend this concert. After all, why not The Magic Flute? I can certainly explain it now.

Cathy Berberian exhibited a joyful exuberance. She sang each song as if she had just discovered a rare diamond and as if she was the only one who held the key to finding even more precious jewels. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but Berberian’s evident passion for discovery was a vital lesson of play (paidia) and skill (techne). She sang the most complex music with the candor of a child playing in a sandbox. She also displayed curiosity. Personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says, “Curiosity is the core of openness/intellect.”

The concert set me on the path. I decided I wanted to be Cathy Berberian—a curious, curly mop-headed woman who sang songs that no one else dared to embark on, and who instilled audiences with an intrigue for the undiscovered—the curiosity factor.

Cathy Berberian sang each song as if she had just discovered a rare diamond… I decided I wanted to be Cathy Berberian

Several years later, my trek began at the conservatory. The academy of classical voice can be a precious heritage site. The tradition of the pedagogy of classical voice comes with protection and preservation. Certainly justifiable—sometimes the simple pragmatics of the short course work dictate the terms. There is a finite time of learning and skill acquisition that needs to be accomplished in a skeletal schedule of perhaps—if we can take an average—one lesson, one repertoire session, and one master class per week over the course of a degree. In that time, the singer must master lieder and art song, operatic roles together with three to four languages, leaving little room to discover different expressions of music. There is little time to play hide and seek or search for Berberian diamonds.

It was only at the end of my degree, that I realized that there was something missing. I was looking for Plato’s child’s play. So I went searching for a new playground.

Xenia Hanusiak in front of a music stand standing next to another singer in traditional Chinese dress  whose face is obscured by that music stand.

Xenia Hanusiak performing a work she commissioned, Zhang Xiao-fu’s Visages Peint dans les Opera Bekin, at the 2008 Beijing Music Festival.

The importance of play entered the “educational” part of my career at a moment of complete surprise, somewhat like finding the piece that fits into your jigsaw puzzle when you least expect it. This opportune moment—what the Greeks call kairos—is also a key element of play conversations. My kairos arrived after graduation—first a residency with Kirsten Denholm’s Hotel Pro Forma in Denmark, and then, a course immersion at the Banff Center of Arts and Creativity in Canada. At that time Richard Armstrong, a performer, director, and teacher, was directing a course called Contemporary Music Theater. Armstrong, now an associate arts professor at NYU Tisch, helped to establish one of Europe’s most influential schools of voice and body research. He is the founding member of the Roy Hart Theatre in France. I arrived at his workshop with the baggage of conservatory training.

In the course of three months, I traded taffeta and black patent heels for leotards and bare feet.  Instead of singing beautiful legato lines, I was creating sounds like a growling angry bear in the register of a baritone.  Instead of standing in arms-length of a piano singing lied, I spent days rolling up and down the length of a floor. Picture here, the vision of a human rolling pin.

The “play” experiences were confronting and challenging. There is nowhere to run or hide at Banff. This is a residency course and your allies could well be the elks who loiter on campus. DeYoung tells us that approaching the unknown is not easy. “The unknown is innately both threatening and promising.” Imagine for a moment the feelings of a child entering a new playground. This experience is a facsimile.

Skilled creativity requires particular courage.

While it took me some time to register that I was playing, Armstrong’s methodology alerted me that this kind of playtime was missing from my current education.  The ah-ha moment had arrived. Armstrong’s playground—a.k.a. skilled creativity—requires particular courage.

By the end of the three months I can report that I was more open, free, and spontaneous. However, I would be the first to say that there was much breaking down that needed to be addressed and conquered before I had reached this point. By the end of the program, I performed Denys Bouliane’s composition for solo voice Das Affenlied (The Monkey Song) literally in a tree. The performance was a personal milestone.  The workshop process also delivered unexpected results in my classical technique. Most of the improvements transpired as a result of the repetitious body-voice connection exercises. Armstrong’s game playing not only stimulated my imagination, but my performance practices improved. I stood in front of the piano with more poise and gravitas and the top of my tessitura was more consolidated.  I was playing and learning at the same time.

The Banff experience provided an important milestone in my realization that the routine of play was as necessary as it was a skill. Workshops of this personal intensity take the artist to a different understanding of vulnerability and growth.  Learning how to encounter and master chance and daring are technical lessons.

In 2018, I again found myself in that proverbial “What next?” artistic moment. As I was embarking on new projects, I sensed innately that my sense of spontaneity, my ways of seeing and sense of openness was calling for attention. I also understood I had to look beyond my usual vocabulary. I needed to find a new playground.

Fortunately, living in New York City, I was happy to learn of the program of master classes and workshops run by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Mark Morris Dance Group. BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Group have presented more than 65 master classes since 2013. The aim of the classes and workshops is to provide participants with ways to engage with the artists and productions on BAM’s stages and enhance each participant’s own practices. BAM opens its doors to musicians, writers, dancers, directors, and composers. BAM aims to keep the classes accessible, affordable, and inclusive. The process is application-free and the admission cost is low—usually around $25 for a class. These latter points are two great benefits for both bank accounts and time constraints.  Truly, we have spent enough time and money gathering degrees.

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald talk to attendees seated in a circle during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

We have spent enough time and money gathering degrees.

With rejuvenation on my agenda, I enrolled in two workshops last November: “Sight Sound and Picture,” a response to the Lars Jan/ Early Morning Opera’s production of The White Album; and “Making Your Own Rules,” led by Heidi Rodewald, Donna DiNovelli, and Kevin Newbury, the creative forces behind a contemporary oratorio The Good Swimmer. Both master classes were scheduled in tandem with their performance seasons and focused on multi-disciplinary applications to performance. As 21st-century musical artists, we are called to seek and to expand the auditory and visual experience. In response, BAM’s series continues to expand and reflect interdisciplinary and genre-defying work.

My first BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” was the perfect entrée back to the playground. Upon arrival, fifteen chairs were already placed in a circle. No one was dressed in leotards, nor swinging their legs on a ballet bar.  It was somehow comforting to me that my return to play technique would be gentle.

For the first half of the two-hour session, composer/musician Heidi Rodewald, lyricist Donna DiNovelli, and director Kevin Newbury led a generous and open discussion of the processes behind their pop oratorio The Good Swimmer. The artists offered insights and personal disclosures that were satisfyingly real and thorough. We were, after all, in the company of fellow artists who had shared similar roads. In essence, how did we get here? Participants included directors, singers, writers, documentary filmmakers, and a puppeteer. All were, like me, on the threshold of a forthcoming project.

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in front of a group of instrumentalists and a vocal ensemble from the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz,

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy BAM)

The second section invited participants to offer found, non-literary text that we believed could be unique and serve as a stimulus for performance work. Once again, I was struck by the openness and generosity of all the participants in the play circle. In many of these discussions, the flow of ideas had a way of positioning my own work. I refreshed the button not only on my project at hand, but solidified ideas and recalibrated others. The experience was a success because the leaders provided a thoroughfare. We were just kids in the playground who did not know each other and this anonymity was quietly liberating.

We were just kids in the playground who did not know each other and this anonymity was quietly liberating.

On the very same day, and with a lunch break to engage in stimulating conversations with new colleagues from diverse disciplines, I entered into the dance space for the “Sight, Sound, and Picture.” This was leotard time. As I entered the studio, music was playing. There was no safety of chairs. We were left to stand in our stocking feet. Some participants jived to the music. Others wrapped their arms around their torso trying to warm their limbs. Some simply stood still.  As per the morning session, this workshop reflected on a concurrent show of the Next Wave Festival. In this case it was The White Album, a multilayered theatrical realization of Joan Didion’s seminal essay. Lars Jan, the work’s director, led the workshop. His voice is mellifluous, harmonious even, and intones a kindness. The age and experience of the participants was varied, so Jan’s skills as natural communicator were welcomed. For two hours we played games, but in essence we were quietly instructed on layering techniques. It was highly directed and structured. We played games, and we opened ourselves to curiosity through skill-based play.

Being stuck is part of the creative process, which must be embraced.

The midcareer artist is always faced with forks in the road. Being stuck is part of the creative process, which must be embraced. Without conflict there is no resolution. Resolution usually brings a higher response.  The trick is to capitalize and understand through flexibility and openness on how we can move forward and what playground works for us. We must heed these warnings in our various pursuits of not only creating and interpreting the music of our time, but how we collaborate. Researchers, psychologists, educators and philosophers are all in agreement on the need to consider various methods to awaken our creativity and our patterns of discovery. Boulez used to say, “The moment you lose your curiosity, you might just as well keel over.” There is no one path, but a path must be taken.


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