Listen to the Voices

Midori

In each piece I play there lives a story created by all the lives that made this music happen. Of course, those included would be the life of the composer, lives of artists who have performed the work, as well as the lives of the listeners. I am a listener, too, as well as a player, and each time I listen I have an experience unique in its time and space, an experience distinct from that of other listeners. It is true that there are similar responses we all share, but no one has the exact same response. That is not to say I am a better listener: it simply means what one hears is the sole property of the individual.

I am one who views philanthropy as an art rather than a science, and agree with Midori that as the violinist is also a listener, so is the donor. I think that philanthropy as art is under-represented and that few donors are practiced at listening. By listening I mean putting aside what might be called our "presumption of brilliance" and subjugating one’s ego, one’s preconceived conceptions and prejudices. In this way listening becomes the bridge of learning between what we know, or think we know, and the knowledge we lack.

By art I mean intuition, instincts, passions, the heart, spirit and soul within— those things that constitute judgement and wisdom. By science I mean the data, the analysis, the technical, and all the strategic tools that make up good process. That is not to say that art does not require science in order to practice its craft, it would be nothing without it, and in fact the creative process is a mysterious blend of craft, intensely practiced, and inspiration. The issue is which is the servant and which is the master?

I like the notion that listening and art is integral to philanthropy.

The artistic struggle to "make it new" is as relentless as the tide. The philanthropic struggle to understand, to be sensitive and creative in response, and to ultimately take a good and appropriate action is equally relentless.

Artists have especially acute powers of observation. What they see/hear/feel is the springboard to something original, occasionally something sublime. To make it new means you must build on what has come before. The novelist closely reads (rereads) Middlemarch, the painter stares for hours at the Mona Lisa, the musician takes the score of the Jupiter Symphony apart note by note, and the filmmaker studies each frame of Citizen Kane. I remember a comment as to whether one could actually teach someone to write poetry. The answer given was no, but that you can teach someone to "read" poetry and that is the condition precedent for writing poems.

What are the conditions precedent for philanthropy, for inspired, creative, artful, and powerful, philanthropy? The inspired listener, observer, reader, is one, and an open attitude is another.

Much of life’s experience is indirect and composed of images. Sometimes the images are very powerful, burned forever into our consciousness. As was the picture of JFK shot in that open car in Dallas or the second plane bursting into flame as it hit the World Trade Center. More often they are the things we see each day on television, in movies, or that come into our minds from books or newspapers or simply from talking with friends. These are the fleeting images or ideas that float in and out of what might be called the "walk-by" part of our lives. The infinite collage of a world that is often hurting— a homeless person huddled in a doorway on a rainy night, a starving child with a bloated stomach in a Sudanese village, and often beautiful— your children building sand castles on South Beach in late afternoon, or Midori playing the violin.

These images synthesize with the "walk-in" part of our lives, the "experiential learning", to borrow a term from education reform, that comes from family life, student life, work life, community life, and all the things we do that define what we are. Some of these are of our own making. We choose to go to graduate school or we do not, we choose to get married or divorced or not, to enter the armed services, to travel, to live in a certain community, to go to church, or not. Much is beyond our control, the accidents of birth, race, economics, talent, and chance, or what appears to be chance. When my eldest daughter traveled to China eight years ago, and came home with our lovely granddaughter, I mentioned to a friend how amazing that this one little girl out of millions of little girls just happened into our lives. His response was startling, that the odds were really no different when one considers the millions of sperm cruising merrily along in search of an egg to fertilize. I rather like that image as it deflates what often is overeager purposefulness and acknowledges the truth of the accidental, or what is called fate.

Every one of us is conditioned in these multiple ways. It is what prepares us, makes us ready to receive, and to respond, or not. This is the soil in which our values and passions grow, out of which evolves what is in most cases a weak attempt at articulating a belief system. It is the beginning of wanting to become involved. Midori of course is right, when she says of the concert audience, "It is true that there are similar responses, but no one has exactly the same response." We are different than the tiny sand creatures or the shore birds. They are driven to act completely by instinct. We are more complex and each individual's life experience and response to it is, in her words, "unique in its time and space."

Aristotle observed that the defining characteristic of humankind is our intrinsic ability to differentiate between the just and the unjust. I believe that is true but so are Seamus Heaney’s words, "Human beings suffer/they torture one another/they get hurt and get hard." It is one thing to know right from wrong, it is another to decide to do something about it. Some remain receptive, open, and curious all through their lives. Others do not; they raise shields, turn-off and remain silent observers in the face of demonstrable need. Some act, automatically, naturally, and in the process grow, become more grounded, more generous, more something, some word we do not know. Others do not. The point is we have a choice, and it is of our own making.

Who are the great listeners in the world? Here are a few of my favorites. Studs Terkel who for 40 years has been listening to workers of all stripes and sharing with us the on-the-ground sociology of our time and place. Alan Lomax who in the 50s took a tape recorder into remote rural communities, into prisons, into Grange Halls, and more neighborhood bars than he could count, and in the process saved and documented a generation’s indigenous music. I love the idea that one of those songs, "O Brother, where art thou?" sung in 1959 by an inmate of Camp B of the Mississippi Penitentiary is at the top of the charts, and that the Lomax Family tracked this guy down to give him a big check. Among the world class listeners who come to mind is Dr. Robert Coles who lived with and interviewed very poor Black American families in the midst of their great migration from the South to the North, and then wrote as only a poet can write about them. I think of Paul Simon when he went to South Africa and wrote music that caught so movingly the life and rhythm of that country. I think of Adrian Nicole Le Blanc's remarkable new book, Random Family, love, drugs, trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, the result of ten years of close observation and listening to the hard, mean, and unrelentingly sad life of two young women

I was lucky because my father was one of those who people simply sought out and in whom they confided. I remember as a kid working afternoons in his hardware store, how customers, men and woman, many of them with accents touched with Polish and Lithuanian, would stay and talk and talk. My father’s warm, pleasant face, leaning toward the person, nodding sympathetically about who knows what.

These are my role models. Listeners. Who are yours?