Stephen O’Malley

Karl Paulnack

Posted: Sep 24, 2009

Welcome address to freshman
class at Boston Conservatory given
by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory [September 2008]

"One of my parents' deepest fears,
I suspect, is that society would notproperly value me as a musician, that I
wouldn't be appreciated. I had
verygood grades in
high school, I was good in science and math, and
theyimagined that as
a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might
bemore appreciated
than I would be as a musician. I still remember
remark when I announced my decision to apply to
said, "You're WASTING your SAT scores." On
some level,I think,
my parents were not sure themselves what the value of
musicwas, what its
purpose was.
And they LOVED
music, they listened to classical music all the time.
Theyjust weren't
really clear about its function. So let me talk about that
alittle bit, because
we live in a society that puts music in the "arts
andentertainment" section of the
newspaper, and serious music, the
kind your kids
are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever
todo with
entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of
entertainment. Let metalk a little bit about music, and how it
works. The first people to understand how music
really works were the ancientGreeks. And this is going to fascinate you;
the Greeks said that music andastronomy were two sides of the same coin.
Astronomy was seen as thestudy of relationships between observable,
permanent, external objects,and music was seen as the study of
relationships between invisible,
objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible
moving piecesinside
our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position
of thingsinside us.
Let me give you some examples of how this
works. One of the most profound musical
compositions of all time is the
Quartetfor 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 acattle car and
imprisoned in a concentration camp. He was fortunate to find a sympathetic
prison guard who gave him paper anda place to compose. There were three other
musicians in the camp, a cellist,a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen
wrote his quartet with thesespecific players in mind. It was performed
in January 1941 for fourthousand prisoners and guards in the prison
camp. Today it is one of themost famous masterworks in the
repertoire. Given what we have since learned about life
in the concentration camps, whywould anyone in his right mind waste time
and energy writing or playingmusic? There was barely enough energy on a
good day to find food andwater, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to
escape torture-why would anyonebother 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, manypeople created art. Why? Well, in a place
where people are only focused onsurvival, on the bare necessities, the
obvious conclusion is that art mustbe, somehow, essential for life. The camps
were without money, withouthope, without commerce, without recreation,
without basic respect, but theywere not without art. Art is part of
survival; art is part of the humanspirit, an unquenchable expression of who we
are. Art is one of the ways inwhich we say, "I am alive, and my life
has meaning." On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of
Manhattan. That morning I reacheda new understanding of my art and its
relationship to the world. I sat downat the piano that morning at 10 AM to
practice as was my daily routine; Idid it by force of habit, without thinking
about it. I lifted the cover onthe keyboard, and opened my music, and put
my hands on the keys and took myhands off the keys. And I sat there and
thought, does this even matter?Isn't this completely irrelevant?
Playing the piano right now, given
whathappened 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 ofgetting through that week. I did not play
the piano that day, and in fact Icontemplated briefly whether I would ever
want to play the piano again. Andthen I observed how we got through the
day. At least in my neighborhood, we didn't
shoot hoops or play Scrabble. Wedidn't play cards to pass the time, we
didn't watch TV, we didn't shop,
wemost certainly did
not go to the mall. The first organized activity that
Isaw in New York,
that same day, was singing. People sang. People
firehouses, people sang "We Shall Overcome". Lots
of people sangAmerica the Beautiful. The first
organized public event that I remember
wasthe Brahms
Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New
The first organized public expression of grief, our
response to that historic event, was a concert. That was
thebeginning of a
sense that life might go on. The US Military secured
theairspace, 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 notpart of "arts and entertainment"
as the newspaper section would have
usbelieve. It's
not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers
ofour budgets, not a
plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is
abasic need of human
survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of
ourlives, one of the
ways in which we express feelings when we have no words,
away for us to
understand things with our hearts when we can't with
ourminds. Some of you may know Samuel Barber's
heartwrenchingly beautiful pieceAdagio for Strings. If you don't know it
by that name, then some of you mayknow it as the background music which
accompanied the Oliver Stone moviePlatoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If
you know that piece of musiceither way, you know it has the ability to
crack your heart open like awalnut; it can make you cry over sadness you
didn't know you had. Music canslip beneath our conscious reality to get at
what's really going on insideus the way a good therapist
does. I bet that you have never been to a wedding
where there was absolutely nomusic. There might have been only a little
music, there might have beensome really bad music, but I bet you there
was some music. And somethingvery predictable happens at weddings-people
get all pent up with all kindsof emotions, and then there's some
musical moment where the action of
thewedding stops and
someone sings or plays the flute or something. And
evenif the music is
lame, even if the quality isn't good, predictably 30 or
40percent of the
people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple
ofmoments after the
music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to
movearound those big
invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides
sothat we can
express what we feel even when we can't talk about it.
Can youimagine
watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the
dialoguebut no
music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the
rightmoment in ET so
that all the softies in the audience start crying
atexactly the same
moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with
themusic stripped
out, it wouldn't happen that way. The Greeks: Music is
theunderstanding of
the relationship between invisible internal
objects. I'll give you one more example, the
story of the most important concert
ofmy life. I must
tell you I have played a little less than a
thousandconcerts in
my life so far. I have played in places that I thought
wereimportant. I
like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris;
itmade me very happy
to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have
playedfor people I
thought were important; music critics of major
heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life
tookplace 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
WorldWar II and
dedicated to a young friend of Copland's, a young pilot
who wasshot down
during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about
thepieces we are
going to play rather than providing them with written
programnotes. But in
this case, because we began the concert with this piece,
wedecided to talk
about the piece later in the program and to just come
outand play the
music without explanation. Midway through the piece, an elderly man
seated in a wheelchair near thefront of the concert hall began to weep.
This man, whom I later met, wasclearly 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 lifein the military. I thought it a little bit
odd that someone would be movedto tears by that particular movement of that
particular piece, but it wasn'tthe first time I've heard crying in a
concert and we went on with theconcert and finished the
piece. When we came out to play the next piece on
the program, we decided to talkabout both the first and second pieces, and
we described the circumstancesin which the Copland was written and
mentioned its dedication to a downedpilot. The man in the front of the audience
became so disturbed that he hadto leave the auditorium. I honestly figured
that we would not see himagain, but he did come backstage afterwards,
tears and all, to explainhimself. What he told us was this:
"During World War II, I was a pilot,
andI was in an
aerial combat situation where one of my team's planes
was hit. Iwatched my
friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the
Japaneseplanes which
had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the
parachutechords so
as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched
myfriend drop away
into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have
notthought about
this for many years, but during that first piece of music
youplayed, this
memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I
wasreliving it. I
didn't understand why this was happening, why now, but
thenwhen you came
out to explain that this piece of music was written
tocommemorate a lost
pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How
doesthe music do
that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in
me? Remember the Greeks: music is the study of
invisible relationships betweeninternal objects. This concert in Fargo was
the most important work I haveever done. For me to play for this old
soldier and help him connect,somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect
their memories of their lostfriends, to help him remember and mourn his
friend, this is my work. Thisis why music matters. What follows is part of the talk I will give
to this year's freshman classwhen I welcome them a few days from now. The
responsibility I will chargeyour sons and daughters with is
this: "If we were a medical school, and you
were here as a med student practicingappendectomies, you'd take your work
very seriously because you wouldimagine that some night at two AM someone is
going to waltz into youremergency room and you're going to have
to save their life. Well, myfriends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to
walk into your concert halland bring you a mind that is confused, a
heart that is overwhelmed, a soulthat is weary. Whether they go out whole
again will depend partly on howwell you do your
craft. You're not here to become an
entertainer, and you don't have to
sellyourself. The
truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a
about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys.
I'm not anentertainer; I'm a lot closer to a
paramedic, a firefighter, a rescueworker. You're here to become a sort of
therapist for the human soul, aspiritual version of a chiropractor,
physical therapist, someone who workswith our insides to see if they get things
to line up, to see if we cancome into harmony with ourselves and be
healthy and happy and well. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you
not only to master music; Iexpect you to save the planet. If there is a
future wave of wellness onthis planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end
to war, of mutualunderstanding, of equality, of fairness, I
don't expect it will come from agovernment, a military force or a
corporation. I no longer even expect it
tocome from the
religions of the world, which together seem to have brought
usas 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
thingsshould fit
together, I expect it will come from the artists, because
that'swhat we
do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11,
theartists are the
ones who might be able to help us with our