Thursday, March 10, 2011

Journeyman Artists

Last week, I heard a fascinating story on NPR - Cake: Flying High After A Record Low, on the Californian rock band Cake.

According to the interview, "Cake unveiled its sixth album, Showroom of Compassion. Released on the band's own independent label, Upbeat Records, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. However, it did so after selling just 44,000 copies — the lowest No. 1 in the 20-year history of calculating record sales.
That revelation reflects a music industry deeply changed since Cake's last new release about seven years ago. As lead singer John McCrea tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block, he knew the band needed to proceed with caution."

The story continued on the McCrea's musing on his life - the difficulty of sustaining a nomadic touring life and the possibility of stopping touring.  
After two decades with Cake, McCrea has started to think about his life after the band — which might mean taking his interest in farming and gardening more seriously. "I think I want to live a little closer to the ground," he says. "There's something pretty healthy about working every day outdoors, and not being on an airplane all the time."

But for the moment, McCrea says he's content to keep playing. As for the dubious honor of making the lowest-selling No. 1 album ever, McCrea says that kind of contradiction is "perfect" for a band like Cake. "Optimism and pessimism are actually buddies sitting together on the same sofa," he says. "I mean, that's sort of what we're about."
This interview gave us a vivid picture of some very successful artists as journeymen.  I'm using the term journeyman in the loosest sense.  Real journeymen would have killed to achieve the level of success Cake has accomplished.  However, as McCrea notices, they were not at the same celebrity level as Lady Gaga.

According to Wikipedia,
A journeyman is a trader or crafter who has completed an apprenticeship. A journeyman was a craftsman who had fully learned his trade and earned money but was not yet a master. To become a master, a journeyman had to submit a master work piece to a guild for judgment. If the work were deemed worthy, the journeyman would be admitted to the guild as a master.

The word "journeyman" comes from the French word journee, meaning the period of one day; this refers to their right to charge a fee for each day's work. They would normally be employed by a master craftsman, but would live apart and might have a family of their own. A journeyman could not employ others. In contrast, an apprentice would be bound to a master, usually for a fixed term of seven years, and lived with the master as a member of the household, receiving most or all of their compensation in terms of food and lodging.

In parts of Europe, as in later medieval Germany, spending time as a journeyman (Geselle), moving from one town to another to gain experience of different workshops, was an important part of the training of an aspirant master. Carpenters in Germany have retained the tradition of traveling journeymen even today, although only a small minority still practice it. In later medieval England, however, most journeymen remained as employees throughout their careers, lacking the financial resources to set up their own workshops[citation needed]. In France, they were known as Compagnons.

The terms jack and knave are sometimes used as informal words for journeyman. Hence "jack of all trades, master of none"—someone who is educated in several fields of trade, but is not yet skilled enough in any to set up their own workshop as a master.

In professional sport, the term "journeyman" refers to a player who is experienced, but has yet to achieve a major success. It is a term particularly used to refer to quarterbacks in American football; players such as Trent Dilfer, Kelly Holcomb and Tony Banks are recent examples of journeymen quarterbacks. Its also used in Pro Boxing/Wrestling.
From journeyman to master, in modern days, is not as well defined as before.  Skills, luck and temperament.  Then there are stars, and there are star of stars.

New York Times published a very touch tribute, A Last-Minute Juliette Stands Tall in Verona, to a star-journeyman operatic soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, who stepped in to sing Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera, when the marquee soprano Angela Gheorghiu canceled suddenly due to illness.
There are singers who hold an opera company together, and they’re not the ones you might think. These singers don’t star in new productions; their photos aren’t on the posters. They sing the supporting parts, the Zerlinas and Micaëlas, and when they do get leading roles, it’s often late in runs after the critics have gone home.

But they work steadily: the soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, one of the best and most indefatigable of these singers, has performed with the Metropolitan Opera no fewer than 348 times since her debut in 1984.

Stalwart artists like Ms. Hong are the ones ready to step in when international stars call in sick. On Wednesday, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, citing an unspecified illness, announced that she was dropping out of the Met’s revival of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” which opened Thursday evening. She was replaced by Ms. Hong, who in true Met veteran style had gone on for another ailing Juliette back in 1996.

Ms. Hong rose to the occasion with an elegant, touching performance. Her voice is cool and slender, but the understated detail of her singing makes it feel more imposing than it is: the way she poignantly colored her farewell to Roméo at the end of the balcony scene; her dreamy murmur of his name in the bedchamber duet.

Though not the most galvanizing stage presence, she is a fine, subtle actress. It’s not easy for a 51-year-old singer to impersonate a teenager, but Ms. Hong was convincing and true, resisting every temptation to overplay. When she saw Roméo for the first time, her posture changed almost imperceptibly. She stood up taller; her gestures relaxed; she seemed to mature in front of your eyes. Her performance was full of such telling touches.

If the performance lacked a certain intensity and grandeur, it was still a pleasant night at the opera — a good way to be reminded of, and give thanks for, the quiet artistry of underappreciated singers like Ms. Hong.
I know it is silly to call a soprano who has sung at the Met for more than 348 times, in roles including the Countessa from The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Violetta from La Traviata.  However, considering her lower profile, comparing to Renée Flamings and Angela Gheorghius, what consisted of her career, is not unlike a journeyman.  This is not an insult, rather than a tribute to a wonderfully self-depreciating, even humble star singer and a very fine musician.

The world, art world or otherwise, cannot sustain itself, it is has only stars.  Stars attracts people to a world both masters and journeymen built together.  In the art world, particularly pre-Renaissance time, journeymen artists were those who left behind anonymous paintings in churches in remote and tiny villages, and one can still encounter them in their original settings in places like Italy.

Though some are more content to be on the "grass root" level and be happy with a low-pressured career, most craftsmen, artists and sportsmen would love to rise above journeyman status, and achieve stardom.  But the journeymen are really the pillar of our civilization, even though we have to admit that we do need megastars to keep any artistic aspiration alive.

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