Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss what playing and performing in Europe is like with two experienced, well-traveled percussionists. Especially interesting are the changes they cope with post 9/11. Robyn Schulkowsky is a classically trained percussionist specializing in contemporary music who has made her career working and traveling worldwide. Joey Baron is a much sought after jazz drummer who has worked and traveled extensively as well. Both Joey and Robyn grew up in the United States and have a rich perspective from both sides of the Atlantic.
Q: Has travel changed in Europe since 9/11?
Joey: It is far more time-consuming and incredibly stressful. You need to be at the airport 3 hours in advance for your flight to clear security. The cost of travel has quadrupled. The main work of the gig is the travel. Strikes occur, other delays happen and I don’t carry an instrument with me. The only things I bring in addition to clothes are my sticks and brushes.
Robyn: Twenty years ago Europe had a National Railway. In most countries it has now become privatized and a lot more expensive. Space is limited for checking large bags. Years ago I could buy a luggage claim, check my marimba or vibraphone, and the instrument would be on the same train I was on. When I would get off at my station the instrument would be there as well. Travel has become a lot more expensive and difficult.
Q: Do you notice a difference in musicianship between Europe and the U.S.?
Joey: Cultures make a different conception of the music. Whatever difference there is, a common ground awareness makes the music work.
Q: How about the influence of technology influencing and impacting musicians?
Joey: Yes, it has had an impact. It’s how the player uses the tools; it’s an individual thing. Players collect things but don’t go into the depth of the matter. For example, our training in the U.S. for the triplet feel in jazz doesn’t have the same emphasis as in Europe. They are taught an “even” 8th note feel as opposed to our “swinging” triplet feel. Playing a shuffle, which is the root of jazz, is blues related. It comes from the church and is the backbone of R & B. Europe doesn’t have that background. Europe has Swiss drumming which has a tremendous amount of looseness but no history of New Orleans style parade bands. However, great players come out of the wood work anywhere!
Robyn: Joey talking about style reminds me of my time reading scores, which as a classical player I do all the time. There is a European tradition from Schoenberg, Stockhausen, etc. which requires an understanding and history of that style of music. The Atlantic has provided a divide in classical music styles. The kind of music people want to hear and play in the U.S. is different than in Europe. Cage crossed the barrier. But the interpretation of Cage is different in each place. Rehearsals in Europe are lengthy and in- depth. In this country, there is always a limit on rehearsal time. Because of lack of funding for the arts, there is limited time devoted to a performance. The performance suffers when this occurs. Unfortunately, in Europe like in the U.S., the arts are losing the funding they once had. Where is the support for the arts??
Joey: Now in Europe, the presenters are saying,” we need to fill seats.” The priority is to generate sales. An artist may be great; however, if they can’t fill the seats they will not be asked back. Previously, when there was ample funding from the government, the presenters were more concerned with the excellence being exhibited.
Q: Because of the lack of venues and opportunity to see and hear live music, what inspires young players to become musicians?
Robyn: That’s a difficult question to answer. There is a lot of hard work and practice necessary to be successful. I always ask my students, what is it about music that makes you want to do it as a career. It is a question that should be asked continually.
Joey: I can speculate they have heard a recording or perhaps saw a performance that inspired them enough to pursue music. They loved it! I love it and want to share the music with someone else. I think they do as well.
Q: What is encouraging and discouraging about performing and being in Europe for these many years?
Joey: The experience of travel and seeing how people are alike and different is very rewarding. I see people being more alike than different and everybody wishes to live a peaceful life. Traveling should be required in order to see how people live outside their environment and appreciate the differences. To travel as a musician is difficult and you need to take care of yourself, to stay healthy and be able to perform at your best.
Robyn: I have an interesting story to add. I worked with Xenakis many times when he was alive. (Iannis Xenakis-Greek-French composer known for expanding 20th Century music and influencing electronic and computer music). I performed a lot of his solo percussion concert music. This is not music for the masses. It is very complex and you have to listen. One time in Africa after an intense outdoor performance rehearsal, an onlooker approached me and said, “Listen lady, that’s pretty good what you’re doing. If you show me the steps, I’ll dance for you tonight and the performance will be great!” I still laugh thinking of that remark.
Robyn laughed vigorously as she recounted the story and exclaimed, “Speaking of different views!”