Composing and performing music are, to me, spiritual exercises. Each involves getting my ego and my will out of the way so that I can be of service to something greater. If I ever feel anxiety about what I'm writing, or if I get nervous before a show, I remind myself of the words of a wise friend who told me that the artist's job is to be the seer, not the seen. Isn't that what we want from art -- to be taken on a journey somewhere? To be shown something new, to be led by the hand, to be included on an adventure that takes us away from the mundane and the superficial?
Every time I give a performance, I take seriously my role as not only an entertainer, but as the facilitator of an experience that has this potential. I want to connect -- with the musicians I'm performing with, with the audience, with myself. It's what I'm after. It is, to me, a form of religion, at least in terms of what I understand the root of the word of that word to be -- religare, from the Latin, "to bind together again."
Twice this week I've had the honor of attending performances in NYC that achieved this sort of connection. No Place To Go, now playing at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, finds Ethan Lipton leading his fine Orchestra (and us) through a search for signs of decency and dignity in the backways and alleys of urban professional life circa 2012. Where does he find it? In his coworkers, in his bandmates, in us, in himself. The show is a song of praise for and to all of us.
Last night I went to hear the Andy Statman Trio, now celebrating their 13th year in residency at the Charles Street Synagogue in the West Village. The music was as brave and stirring as it was selfless and unassuming, as the virtuosic and soulful bandleader (along with the fearless Jim Whitney on bass and always-tasty Larry Eagle on drums) faced away from the audience and into the music and his cohorts to create a thrilling night of music, blending strains of bluegrass, jazz, gospel, klezmer, country and blues into a deeply personal expression of what I would call faith.
Neither of these shows addressed religion per se, but both -- to me -- achieved what I understand to be the purpose of religion: to make sense of chaos; to call attention to beauty; to express humility and gratitude; to perform a service for the greater good; to provide an experience that unites us in our humanity.
This kind of thing can happen at a live performance. As a performer, I feel that it's my job to seek this sort of connection every time I'm given a stage to work on. We lead such fractured lives. So many of the things that make our lives faster, easier, more convenient, also distance us from ourselves and from one another. At my concerts, I make a point of calling everyone's attention -- mine too -- to the present moment. To be conscious of the fact that we are all in the same place, together, and how rare and meaningful that is. Sometimes, I even ask people to take a moment to introduce themselves to the person sitting next to them.
Performance is a religious activity to me. I don't proselytize. The faith that I have is personal. I don't believe that there is one right way to live, or that any group of people that has organized themselves under the name of a particular brand of religion has all the answers. But my experience tells me that we can make ourselves available to many of life's mysteries by listening to a sort of inner voice, whatever we want to call it. Sometimes we can hear that voice on our own, and sometimes we get help from heroes like Ethan Lipton and Andy Statman. I'm both humbled and proud to call them my peers, fellow workers in the struggle to lift us all up, to raise our spirits, to provide us with hope, with faith ... to give us the religion we all crave, consciously or not.
Howard Fishman performs at the Rubin Museum on Friday March 23, 2012 at 7 p.m. as part of the museum's Naked Soul series.
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