There Is No Rulebook for This

An essay by music faculty member Judith Eissenberg reflecting on the Virtual Performance Lab, where students engage with Silkroad guest artists from around the world.

February 10, 2021

“It’s a remarkable time, and kind of scary because of the fact that it’s wide open. There are no exact parameters, there is no rulebook for this. It’s messy; anything can happen.”—Mazz Swift 

Chamber music during Boston Conservatory’s fully remote fall 2020 semester is taking place in virtual rehearsal Zoom rooms and Facebook cyberstages that feel both removed and uncomfortably intimate. We peer out of our windows and into our screens as COVID-19 and a virulent virus of another kind—racism—make us afraid to inhale. Wildfires and hurricanes bear down while brutish, bullying leaders make us want to move to, well, New Zealand. We’ll get a vaccine for COVID-19, but this other stuff isn’t going to be solved by science, now itself under siege. In our multiframed videos, Jesse Montgomery’s “Strum” carries on, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor turns our ears to the experience of slavery, Bach’s sheep still do safely graze and we make music together, despite. Outside, in Boston, the firecrackers and sirens create another soundscape.

“What do we do when we can’t make music with each other in the same room?”—Mazz Swift

Mid-semester, musicians in the Conservatory’s Virtual Performance Lab (VPL) emerge from a deep dive into AV tech (newly learned tools proving both creative and essential) and a sequence in mindfulness, to engage with seven inspiring musicians from Silkroad. These artists are world-class performers from all over the globe who see tradition as a starting point, collaboration as a means to creating a more hopeful and inclusive world, and improvisation as an essential tool in the 21st century.  

“Artists have always created in adverse circumstances, and the rest of the world has followed suit; there really is opportunity in every moment. The more possibilities you can create for yourself, the more sustainable your career will be, and the more you will feel in control.”—Maeve Gilchrist  

Deepening the Conservatory’s ongoing relationship with Silkroad, our students have spent the fall 2020 semester with these boundary-crossing, genre-bending artists. Three Silkroad duos led discussions, shared music, and invited us into exploration.  

Maeve Gilchrist (Scottish Celtic harpist) and Syrian Kevork Mourad (who improvises with live drawing and animation) find commonality between origin traditions and art forms. A student asked, “How does the use of moving visual art change the essence of a music collaboration?” Kevork answered: “Find the similar spirit between things. You are the glue—you become the thing that ties it all together, and in that, you are creating the aesthetic that we’re talking about, this essence.”  

In another Zoom room, Chinese pipa player Wu Man and Japanese percussion maven Haruka Fuji explored the Japanese concept of ma. “Ma is a space between all things. It is not like a philosophy that someone practices. . .it exists in everyday life. The direct translation is space, or distance between all things. . .Different distance, different context, different dynamics. . .Ma is about defining the right amount of either time or space, between all things.” Astonishingly, these two artists play together, dissolving the limitations of Zoom with ma, as they listen for that space that defines their sounds. They welcome the participation of the platform’s latency-laden, music-unfriendly algorithms.   

“Impose limitations to see how we can expand our freedoms.”—Kinan Azmeh

Hawaiian-born bass player Shawn Conley and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh began their work with our students with disarmingly practical advice: “In order to do something meaningful musically, you have to know what you are doing, you have to have the skills to do what you want to do, and you have to have the courage to do it. Courage is at the top of the list.”  

As students rise to Shawn’s challenge to make an improvisation on a single pitch, we begin to understand the value of limiting our choices. And then Kinan, who plays the old as if it were improvised today, offered this: “Improvising will spill over into your classical playing, and this might be the best thing that can happen—that you might imagine that you have composed this Mozart concerto that you are playing.”  

At some point, it occurred to all of us that this is about much more than music. As one student put it, “improvisation is a life skill.” 

There is no rulebook for this. It’s messy out there; anything can happen.

Watch Kinan Azmeh reflect on creating art for social change and working with visual artist Kevork Mourad. Watch Maeve Gilchrist discuss the sound possibilities of the harp.

"There Is No Rulebook for This" first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of STAGES, Boston Conservatory's institutional magazine.