Coffee Conversation: Paul Jacobs - Part 2
Towards the end of my lunch conversation with organist Paul Jacobs, he invited me to his weekly organ class, which takes place every Thursday from 11-1 in Juillard's Paul Recital Hall. (The classes are open to the public.) From the back, I watched as several of Paul’s students performed freshly prepared works, often from memory. Each of them spoke beforehand about what they were going to play, offering some background and insight into the work. Some of the playing was a bit rough around the edges, but given that most of these students weren't even of drinking age, it was still impressive as hell.
At the end, Paul led a group discussion centered on the Bach Organ Marathon at St. Peter’s Church. After sharing some reflections on the concert itself, he asked what everyone thought of a feature about the event written by Paul Elie for The New Yorker. Almost without exception, the students tore into it with a combination of searing intelligence and youthful indiscretion. Jacobs was diplomatic, careful not to scold or contradict them.
“Those are excellent points,” he said. “But, you must admit it's impressive that The New Yorker chose to write anything at all about the organ.”
"This is my 12th year now at Juilliard," Jacobs continued. "The standard has never been higher." (Case in point: Jacobs announced Michael Hey had just been appointed the new Assistant Organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and last year, Benjamin Sheen was named assistant organist at St. Thomas Church). "You’ve always been so supportive of each other, and you need to continue to be so. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t dwell on the negative: if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Sounds like something I might say. The rest of my conversation with Jacobs below.
On Teaching: In the past decade, Juilliard has produced many of the most active and successful organists on the scene today. And, I take great pride in that. The organ world itself has needed to be shaken up a bit, frankly. It has been, in the past, overly stodgy and insular and needed a breath of fresh air. I see amongst this generation a fervent desire to affect change. They play the organ in a more compelling way, they are more concerned with playing for general audiences, and less for themselves and their peers. They have a passion to communicate freely with the general music lover, including those who are uninitiated.
A large part of what I do with my students is training them to think differently about how to play the organ, and how to present organ music. I want them to develop higher expectations for the life of an organist and organists' role in the larger cosmos of music, both in sacred and secular venues.
On Popular Music: I’m not opposed to popular music at all. By all means, if you enjoy it, go ahead and listen to it. I’m not trying to take that away from anyone. But there will be something crucial missing if one's diet consists of nothing but the latest songs from the Top 10 list. What expectations do people have today when they listen to music? It's disturbing to observe that many people--even highly educated ones--possess so little desire to encounter music which extends beyond their own generation. Education--or even simple exposure--to the glorious legacy of western art music is valued so little in our time. This is deeply troubling to me. It’s perhaps one of the reasons why people turn to all kinds of drugs: because they long for the transcendent dimension of humanity.
On Classical Music: Classical music desperately needs to consider its purpose, its position in the culture at large. We mustn’t strive to adapt to popular culture, or accommodate it all of the time. I think we’d be much stronger and more convincing if we challenged it. I see a connection with what many churches have done, turning to bad (folk) music and trying to be all nice and friendly and never intimidating. Forget that! There’s no passion in that, there’s no force. Most people can see right through it. Frankly, I think a lot of skeptical millennials would appreciate a strong, opposing point of view, one that powerfully and sincerely challenges their own.
On Spirituality: There are very intelligent people who are materialists, who don’t believe--brilliant minds who think this world is all there is. I have friends who are atheists. I’m not. I couldn’t be. When you have a culture that has become so intensely materialistic and secularized, it becomes increasingly difficult to articulate the value--at least in any objective, binding way--of spiritual or artistic endeavors. Is there something out there beyond yourself that is the truth, or is it all about what’s inside of you, how you feel? If that’s how it is, how can we make an objectively strong case for anything? I think there is a wont of meaning in contemporary society, but we avoid the search for meaning by staying hyperactive, overbusy. And, consequently, we don’t feel the impulse to go to the symphony, or a play, or read literature, or spend time each day contemplating life's deepest, most important questions.
On Being Uncomfortable: We always want to be comfortable today. We want all of life’s amenities and pleasures to be immediately available to us. But, perhaps paradoxically, if we have too much of this, life becomes boring and colorless. We’re so aggressively casual today in our dress, in our manners, in how we interact with one another. And, there is a place and time for being casual and relaxed. But, there are also times in life when we must be Awestruck. We want to be thrown on our backs and shown our vulnerability and weakness. And great art often reveals this to us, because it's part of the human condition.
I don’t turn to music exclusively for pleasure. I also turn to it for truth, which is not always merely pleasurable. It can be quite intimidating and disturbing. People don’t always expect happy endings with other art forms. But, with music, we always want to feel better afterward. I’m not sure that should always be the final aim of music. Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrament should be an unsettling encounter. There are moments in it when it is ravishingly beautiful, when time stands still. But, much of it is terrifying, and reveals our puniness before God.
On Living In New York: I'll be honest, I'm more of a country guy (said against a backdrop of blaring cab horns on Broadway.) But, I do love all of the cultural and intellectual stimulation here.
(You can read Part 1 of our conversation here.)