Classical music “is essential to who we are and where we come from,” cellist Alicia Storin says.
Storin fell in love with classical music at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp when she was in high school. “It was such a magical place,” she said, that right then she made the decision to pursue music professionally.
Taken up on her mother’s urging as “the most beautiful instrument in the world,” Storin discovered she had a knack for the cello. And given the cello as her starting point, it was natural that she was introduced to music through the classics—”classic in the sense of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach,” she said.
“Especially Bach. The Bach Suites are the bible for a cellist,” Storin said, in a phone interview on July 15, 2015.
One of the early memories from her childhood lessons was when she was introduced to the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.
“My eyes lit up. ‘I know that piece!'” Storin said. For a child to recognize a melody and be able to play it is exciting.
Storin acknowledges and accepts that classical music is not for everyone but still asserts that all of Western music rests on it as a foundation. Whatever musical genre composers are working in today, they are relying on and have grown from that tradition.
“It’s hard to give a concrete reason for the importance of classical music, because one could argue that something that is 300, 400 years old is obsolete. Pop musicians may not realize, may not need to know they use a four-five-one chord progression,” she said, but whether acknowledged or not, it’s a tradition that informed their predecessors.
Moreover, it’s an actual link to our past, bringing us back to an experience that we can re-enliven. “We can read history books, but the closest we can get to experiencing it would be from a composition of that time or a novel written in a particular era. It’s a personified action of what happened at that point in history and given to us in a nutshell,” Storin said.
“Just that we are still playing a piece that was written in 1670 is mind-blowing,” she said.
Classical Music Isn’t Going Anywhere
The cello “has not changed for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Storin said. There’s a satisfying solidity to that thought. For Storin, it means she has confidence that she can continue to work.
She feels immensely grateful that in an age when technology is replacing jobs, her work is safe. “It’s true that musicians are losing their jobs due to technology, but I don’t believe we’ll get to a point where a person isn’t going to play a cello anymore. It’s staying.”
Every 10 or 20 years, we hear cries that classical music is dying. “Now we hear that it is the audience of classical music that is aging and so the art form is dying,” she says.
But Storin sees another side. Currently there are so many young classical musicians that “the skillset has exploded, which creates an absolutely cutthroat level of competition, which, while not necessarily healthy, does mean that many people care so passionately about this and they’re doing amazing things with it,” she explained.
The number and quality of young players speaks to the fact that classical music remains relevant despite technology and its effects on our culture.
A Collaborative Cellist
Although job shortages may not have dampened eager and talented musicians, it may have reoriented their career paths.
Storin calls herself a collaborative cellist, a cellist who works outside of her own media and who plays more than only classical music.
At present, she is collaborating with a director, actor, and composer in the theater piece “An Iliad,” presented by American Players Theatre, a classical repertory theater. The team built up Storin’s “role” as the Muse from the ground up, since the script only indicated that a muse affected the one-man show’s character, the Poet.
Storin is also a founding member of the three-woman performance group called Cadance Collective, which crosses the boundary between music and dance. In addition to Storin, the group comprises professional flutist Emma Koi, who also has a degree in dance; as well as professional modern dancer and choreographer Christal Wagner, who has a beautiful singing voice.
Cadance Collective composes and choreographs in free form but in a highly integrated way. “We rarely have very structured rehearsals and often ideas come to us while improvising together, or just by sitting and talking with each other,” Storin said. “When we don’t have any guidelines for a piece, we discuss what is currently happening in our lives or about things that have inspired us lately.”
For example, their work titled “Um, ok…now let’s move on” originated from a chat the three had while out for coffee.
“On a whim, Christal decided to record our conversation, and after listening to it several times, we started to notice a few themes. We isolated five different spoken phrases that resonated with us for one reason or another and set music and dance to them.”
In addition to completely original works, the group also relies on classical pieces. They “analyzed the phrase structure of the prelude to Bach’s second cello suite. Emma and Christal then made corresponding dance phrases and structured their choreography to mirror the structure of Bach,” Storin explained. They called it “Translation.”
Through working with Cadance Collective, Storin has gained perspective. She has opened up to seeing how other artists work. Actually, the group has had to rethink their specific-art-derived working processes. For example, dancers “think” in counts of eight steps. They count “one and two and three and so on” which may not measure up to the time signature and count of the written music.
The collaboration has also forced Storin to open up as an artist. “As a classically trained musician, I remember the first time my colleagues wanted me to improvise during a rehearsal. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t know what to do! I really had to try to break through my inhibitions, and in front of people, no less! Somehow I got something out of my cello back then, and improvising has been getting easier ever since. Cadance rehearsals force me to flex my creativity muscle,” she said.
These collaborative endeavors have spoiled her somewhat. She once read about a survey on happiness in the workplace in which orchestral musicians ranked near the bottom (referring to a study by psychologist Richard Hackman in which orchestra musicians ranked below federal prison guards in their job satisfaction and happiness.)
At the time, Storin reacted, thinking: “What do you mean that orchestra musicians are unhappy in their jobs? What could be better than doing what you love?”
“I still find playing Mahler’s symphony an incredible experience, but now I better understand that symphony players have no artistic license in their work.” The collaborative experiences have been intoxicating for her.
In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics