AS ORIGINALLY SEEN IN THE HUFFINGTON POST:
written by David Donnelly
There you are at the checkout aisle in your grocery store. You are killing time looking at your smartphone when you see it in the corner of your eye: your two favorite celebrities are cheating on each other. I can’t believe it, you think to yourself, they were the perfect couple. In an instant, you are reading what you know may not even be true, but is too tempting to resist.
There are good reasons why tabloids are placed in the checkout aisle. They appeal to our boredom, voyeurism, and short attention spans. Even when we only hastily flip through them, ads still resonate in our brains. Digital technology and 24-hour news cycles only amplify our exposure to advertisements. We are perpetually hunted for our time, money, and ultimately our minds.
But what we often forget, is that with every decision we make about how we spend our time and money, we are casting a vote that shapes popular culture. Pop culture is a reflection of our shared values; it determines the quality of our media content, and the kind of companies and ideas we support. It is a compass that reveals our direction as a nation.
So when we tally our votes, what does it tell us about our shared values and our future? I see hit shows marketed as “reality” rewarding adults for being insulting and manipulative by giving them platforms for wealth and fame. I see a digital minefield of tantalizing click bait, appealing to our gullible and compulsive nature. “This miracle drug will make you lose 20 lbs in a week!”, “25 celebrities who look insane at 50!” I see gossip and entertainment being marketed as “news.” I see acts of terror shamelessly exploited on endless loops for ratings. I see kids who associate self-worth with the popularity of their selfies.
It’s easy to place blame on the “media” or “Hollywood,” but to do so would be irrational. We cannot blame content factories for making profitable content. They give us - the consumers - what we want. We can only blame ourselves for creating the demand. But what is produced for entertainment is now bleeding into our democracy. It is no coincidence that the man very likely to become the Republican Party nominee tweeted a photo implying his wife is more attractive than his opponent’s. As consumers, this is the election that we demanded. This is the election that we deserve.
Our passive, escapist popular culture is designed to distract us from our own lives. In moderation, this may have benefits of stress relief. But dependency upon this makes us weak. Our attention spans are shrinking, making it harder for us to think critically. We are now conditioned to put off our problems by indulging in someone else’s, and we are becoming more anxious and procrastinating more often because of it.
The time has come to wake up from our commercial slumber and ask ourselves: Does our popular culture reflect our potential? It is our obligation to be conscious of the relationship between our consumer behavior and our future. The impact of our popular culture is not confined within our national borders; it is also our greatest export. We must treat our daily decisions as votes for the values we want our society to espouse. We must vote for the content that encourages critical thinking, civility, and empathy; content that challenges us intellectually and emotionally; content that we want to represent our civilization to future generations.
As a nation and as a species, we are threatened with a variety of complex problems and are guaranteed to face problems that we don’t yet know exist. Culture, the reflection of our values, can be our greatest ally or enemy during these struggles. We can vote for a culture that helps us forget about our problems, or a culture that inspires us to rise above them.
AS ORIGINALLY SEEN IN THE HUFFINGTON POST:
written by David Donnelly
As the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra faces a lockout between its management and musicians, we find a troubled industry in the news once again. Orchestras are falling like dominoes. The mood is tense and the forecast is dismal. An erosive force, continual and subtle, is eating away the core of a cultural institution. You may have heard this story before: classical music is in decline, music education is so important, but why should you care? Failing orchestras create severe economic, social, and cultural repercussions for our nation as a whole. This is very much your problem.
Orchestras are more than just organizations that perform music. They have a direct impact on local economies. They increase tourism and raise the status of a city. Many of the musicians in orchestras are also teachers, who are actively training students in the community. When orchestras fail, high caliber musicians are more likely to look for work in other cities. Music education leads to fuller development of the brain, which leads to increased math and science scores. This leads to more engineers, scientists, and innovators. At a time when America is getting its ass kicked in math and science, music education should be more of a priority now than ever for the sheer sake of global competitive advantage.
The musicians who make up an orchestra are highly trained individuals who have devoted their lives to musical excellence. They achieve this level of mastery through hard work and discipline that begins at a young age. When you attend a live concert, there are no auto tuners or speakers. The margin of error is slim, as there are no effects that can save or distract an audience from mistakes. It is an organic experience. Such an experience should always have value in a society that is built upon work ethic and determination.
It’s illogical not to give classical music a try. Hollywood makes a lot of terrible movies, but rarely do we say we will never watch a movie again if we do not enjoy it. The classical repertoire is vast, and to say you don’t like classical music means that you simply haven’t found something you liked. For some reason, when it comes to classical music, we don’t look past the same faults that exist in popular mediums. More and more orchestras are making major changes to their programs to attract new audiences. They are trying. We should meet them halfway.
If we only support the things that have the most marketing money thrown at them, we have already lost our freedom of opinion. If we only support the things that satisfy us now, and are not good for our future, we have already lost our sense of direction. And if we only support the things that are new, then we have lost all the wisdom that has been preserved over the ages. In order to avoid the fate of fallen empires, we must recognize the things that are beneficial to our society and we must fight for them.
I’ve spent three years making a documentary that focuses on the world of classical music. It’s taken me to seven countries, dozens of cities, and inspired me to re-evaluate what it means to be American. I’ve been told countless times nobody will care about a film like this in America. I disagree. This is a story of pursuing excellence through hard work and determination, it’s the preservation of a diverse, yet universal language, and it’s the celebration of the freedom of self-expression. If that’s not American, I don’t know what is.
The following is inspired by the music of Jean Sibelius and my experiences filming the orchestra rehearse his 3rd Symphony. This is one of many stories detailing the impact classical music has had on my life.
The rehearsal hall used by die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (DKAM) in Bremen, Germany is connected to a middle school. Students are regularly invited to stop by and sit amongst the musicians on stage. I look around and wonder where this music is taking them. I know where it takes me...to a time when the world was perfect.
Most of my childhood memories involve my Papaw. He had the Popeye-like forearms of a mechanic, one bearing a Navy tattoo in blue ink as deep as the seas he voyaged. He was a handy man who conducted his magic in a meticulously organized workshop filled with an array of odds and ends. I would watch in amazement as complex puzzles were solved with a tool, a part, or simply sheer determination. He was a fixer of all things broken; an invincible superhero armed with a swiss army knife and a smile.
A handy man must be prepared to fix anything. To keep the workshop stocked, we sifted through every flea market and yard sale we could find. On Friday nights, we’d map out the next morning’s routes. The first people to arrive are the most likely to find the best deals, so Papaw would wake me at the crack of dawn to hop in his lime green 73' Chevy wagon. My hands couldn’t get to those shiny chrome door handles fast enough. I was always ready for an adventure with my best friend.
My teenage years brought with it a desire to fit in. I embraced all things “brand new” and “brand name.” Friday nights were spent at the movies with friends, instead of plotting out weekend yard sale strategies. Even the wagon that was once a gateway to adventure became a hindrance to my new social paradigm.
When I saw that junker of a wagon waiting for me after school, the bullies and mean girls with perfect hair laughed. Rust had chipped away at the shiny chrome, and the faded green looked like a dying fern in need of water. I rushed to that wagon with my head down and cap pulled over my eyes. I let my body sink deep into the seats, swallowed by cracked leather and humiliation.
I agreed to another Saturday morning of crossing off addresses from newspaper clippings. I didn’t have the heart to say no to Papaw. As we rummaged through the half-broken items on some other person’s lawn, a teenage girl came out of the house to help her mother. I recognized her immediately as my classmate. My very popular, very beautiful classmate. And I was sorting through her junk. From that point, I started making excuses why I couldn’t go to yard sales anymore.
I didn’t recognize the frail figure in front of me. The Navy tattoo that was once the anchor of a family was now cracked like worn leather. His eyes swelled when he saw me. I tried to ignore the IVs and my mother’s tears. All I could see was my best friend who fixed things that were broken. I wanted to fix him but I was helpless. He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. We both knew it would be the last time we would see each other on this earth.
The summer before my junior year in college, I got the call. Jolted. Jaded. Confused. Time had new meaning. The five hundred mile drive felt like five hundred years. It was fitting that my Papaw passed away on the Fourth of July. He served his country. He served his family. And he was my hero.
I look around the rehearsal hall. I see young faces. I wonder where the music takes them. I know where it takes me... It’s early in the morning. The grass is still damp with dew. I look outside the window and my Papaw is waiting for me in that lime green Chevy wagon. My hands can’t get to those shiny chrome handles fast enough. He smiles and grips the wheel with his Popeye like forearms. I hold my head high.
There’s no other place I’d rather be.
A lot of people ask me why I dedicated so much of my life to making documentaries focused on the world of classical music. Below is just one of many transformational experiences that describe my unexpected relationship with this music.
Marked As Fragile
It felt like winter was never going to end. Empty trees. Empty apartment. She took everything. My laughter, my smile. I was paralyzed by my vulnerability. I had forgotten how to live alone.
She called and left messages. Something was missing. I didn’t answer because I knew what it was; a single box, duct taped and marked fragile. Inside was five years of memories. I didn’t want to give them back.
Friends told me that I’d feel better with time. The people that loved me the most went to great lengths to “take my mind off things.” It was always the same. “Here, have a drink. Or ten. Meet my friend. She’s single.” I welcomed the distractions.
A restaurant opened in my building. It was an escape that was only an elevator ride away. A musician began coming in for late dinners after rehearsals. I didn’t have much of a relationship with classical music at that time. Then I met Paavo. When he talked about music I saw a passion for life that I once had. I wanted to feel that again. I needed to go beyond the surface of distraction.
Paavo would frequently recommend music. Sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I didn’t. His excitement in describing each piece made me curious enough to give it a chance. One night after dinner he handed me a CD. It was music composed by a man named Arvo Pärt. Later that night, I sat in my empty apartment, closed my eyes, and listened to the violins cry.
Memories I had been harboring were plucked to the surface with each chord. I thought of the first time I fell in love. I thought of the last. I remembered how much better things smell when you live with a woman. As the echoing of the bells slowly faded, so did my loneliness. I never met this man named Arvo, but I was convinced he wrote this music just for me.
I played it over and over until I could think of only one thing; a tiny box in the corner marked fragile. This time when I looked at it I smiled.
The next day I called her. She had left something at the apartment.
I was ready to give it back.