Life is What You Make It - A Concert and Conversation with Peter Buffett
"Develop your own sound. Break from the crowd. Find your own path.Do what you are passionate about and the rest will follow."
Billionaire invester Warren Buffett gave each of his children this philosophy and a million dollars upon their graduation from high school to make their way in the world. His youngest son, Peter Buffett, lived with this mindset every day of his youth and just assumed that's the way the rest of the world thought. He soon found this to be an exception to the rule as he pursued his life-long love of playing the piano and expressing himself through music composition.
I recieved the unique opportunity to receive a complimentary ticket to Mr. Buffett's equally unique event entitled Life Is What You Make It - A Concert and Conversation With Peter Buffett. The event, like the Emmy-winning pianist/composer/vocalist/activist/author, was an eclectic mixture of philosophy, history, music, and activism. The concert took place on Monday, April 19th, 2010 at the ultra-hip World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on the edge of the University of Pennsyvania campus. All ticket proceeds for this concert benefitted Live Connections dot Org, a non-profit organization that exposes inner-city children to a wide range of multi-cultural musical experiences.
The evening began with a drum procession from the mezzanine level of the Downstairs Bistro, which was the premium seats for members of J.P. Morgan, one of the show's sponsors. Seven students from Live Connections proceeded from the mezzanine, down the stairs, and onto stage. At the conclusion, the founder of Live Connections told the audience more about the organization, and each of the students, all graduating seniors from a Philadelphia charter school who are going on to local colleges and universities, had an opportunity to describe the enriching experiences that Live Connections has made available to them.
After that, the founder and owner of World Cafe Live introduced Peter Buffett, who, along with cellist Michael Kott, opened with the following song. At its conclusion, Buffett stated that the lyrics of the song carried much of the theme for the evening's events.
Early Years: The Beginning of a Unique Path
Buffett went on to describe his youth in the Buffett household. He told his mother at age six after playing the piano, "Mom, I want to grow up and be a musician," to which she replied, "You can't do both." Buffet recalled his first experience with expressing his inner feelings on the piano. "I was angry with something my parents had told me, so I went to piano and played the only song I knew, 'Yankee Doodle', in a minor key, hoping my father, who was reading the newspaper, would notice my displeasure." It was from those humble beginnings that Buffett found a love for not only playing the piano, but using it as a mouthpiece for inner expression.
Buffett was never formally trained as a musician. He had only four different piano teachers through his youth into college and was disinterested in learning about those "little black dots" on the page. He developed his early compositional style purely by listening to others and experimentation. At age 19, when his father gave him his seed money, Buffett chose to attend Syracuse University and went through several majors before dropping out at the end of the first year, all the while continuing to learn and expand his musical experiences. In the early 1980's, Buffett's exposure to the emerging New Age movement shaped his musical style into an aesthetic, esoteric soundscape. Meanwhile, he was writing his first commercial music for advertisements that appeared on MTV and other networks. Buffett became acutely aware that commercial composing was not going to give him the opportunities to express his creativity in a way that he could make a living and be personally satisfied. At this point, he and Michael Kott played a piece that exemplified his early emerging style as a New Age instrumental composer and performer.
Buffett then described his interest in Native American cultures. "Indigenous culture has so much to teach us," he stated, explaining how his interest in Native Americans led him to sending some of his music to actor Kevin Costner for consideration in composing the film score for the Acadamy-Award-winning Dances With Wolves. Buffett did not win the job, but he did compose the music used during the pivotal "Fire Dance scene". This collaboration led him to other projects, including Costner employing him for the CBS Mini-Series 500 Nations for which Buffett won an Emmy for best musical score. Surprisingly, Buffett talked very little about this accolade and instead focused on his work with a live theater production entitled Spirit, the Seventh Fire, which had a story line that mirrored the action of Dances With Wolves in a modern society setting. Buffett's resonance with Native American concepts of our intimate connection with the universe was made plainly clear through these musical projects.
Changing the World: One Girl at a Time, One Issue at a Time
At this point, Buffett described another life-changing event that occurred to him and his siblings in 2006. Father Warren gave each child an endowment to start their own philanthropy. After spending over a year researching philanthropic investments, Peter and his wife Jennifer created the NoVo Foundation, which focuses on "empowering girls and women in every sphere of society." Their theory is quite simple - when a girl in impoverished circumstances is given a chance to get an education and establish a livelihood for herself, she gives everything she receives to her own children. Improving the condition of women in the world will improve the conditions of economies and societies for generations. Buffett traveled to the world's most impoverished locations, including Nigeria, Bangladesh, and parts of India to begin the foundation's work. Buffett and Kott performed the first of several songs that were accompanied by a video featuring images of the girls and children Buffett encountered on his travels.
With the presentation of his work with the NoVo Foundation, the concert/conversation changed directions and became an awareness/activism session. Buffett addressed several global issues, beginning first with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. "Plastic never goes away, it just becomes smaller and smaller," Buffett explained, "There's no doubt that we're drinking it in our water and eating it in our food." Buffett and Kott, again with visual aids, performed Buffett's song Plastic Tomb.
Buffett also shed a light on the Human Trafficking industry, a dark and disturbing topic. Human Trafficking is the practice of people being tricked, lured, coerced, or otherwise removed from their home or country, and then forced to work with no or low payment or on terms which are highly exploitative. It shares many characteristic with slavery, a concept that most Americans thought went out with the American Civil War. "Every product we buy actually costs much more than we pay for it," Buffett stated, "because the components of that product are paid for with human lives." Buffett went on to state that human trafficking is present in every nation on the planet, "even yours." He and Kott performed one of Buffett's most acclaimed songs Blood into Gold, which features Akon, an R&B singer-songwriter-rapper who also is deeply involved in philathropic projects.
To bring things to a close on a lighter note, Buffett coaxed the audience into a New Age version of a sing-along.
Buffett entertained questions throughout the evening, most of which were philosophical in nature.
Reactions to the Event
excerpts from the audiobook on his website, I already expected to find much in common with Buffett's life experiences and my own.
The Live Connections students entering from the rear of the hall was a nice surprise, and Live Connections co-founder David Bradley did an admirable job of explaining the organization succinctly to the audience (including the high-rollers from J.P. Morgan in the Mezzanine) and gave each of the seven graduating college-bound students an opportunity to express what Live Connections has done for them personally. As promised, both the students and adults involved with Live Connections demonstrated a passion for the work, and the benefits to Philadelphia youth are quite obvious, especially since many of them do not receive music instruction in their schools.
Buffett's presentation started out as expected. After the first song, describing his childhood and formative years only makes sense. The audience needs to understand how Buffett's upbringing may have been different, but his dreams of making music are the same as many people. I agree with Buffett's philosophy of pursuing your passions and allowing the Universe to conspire with you to see them to fruition. Buffett waited a long time for the opportunity to put his music in front of Kevin Costner, and it helped create a direction for him that wrapped itself around his intention - to use his music and love of indigenous cultures to blend. There are, however, advantages Buffett enjoyed that middle-class Americans do not. For example, with the endowment from his father to start the NoVo Foundation, Buffett was afforded the chance to, as he said, "Take a year or so and make sure we got it right." Many non-profit organizations have some seed money to get started and have to "get it right" quickly or lose their backing. Moving in the social circles of upper-income Americans also offers opportunities that are not available to the majority of Americans.
Up until that point, we had been exposed to Buffett's story and a few words about the philosophy passed onto him by his father, but really very little of the evening was spent on the philosophy. Part of Buffett's purpose in being on the road with this concert/conversation tour is to promote his new book Life Is What You Make It - he mentioned the book a few times, but basically just stated that "most of what we're discussing tonight is in the book." Another purpose of the tour, apparently, was to share the noble work of the Novo Foundation. Another purpose of the tour, it seems, it to bring attention to global social issues that Buffett feels are dire enough to shed light upon. Buffett and the promoters who work with him seem genuinely interested in improving people's lives, but the method by which they are doing it seems to be lost in the message.
It seemed to me that throughout the evening, Buffett attempted on several occasions to portray the image of being just a "normal guy" who is in a position to accomplish amazing things. He actually began the evening by stating, "People would say to me, 'You're Warren Buffett's son? But you're so normal.'" If by normal the intention is "an average American", Buffett certainly does not fit the mold. This is neither a criticism or an accolade, it is simply looking at the man, his environment, and his work for what it is. When a person has access to the capital and social connections that Buffett does, people treat you differently. Just the fact that he was in Philadelphia performing made the local news.
He also seemed to put an effort towards remaining humble throughout the evening - also a difficult task given that he has chosen a lifestyle that puts him in the limelight as often as New Age music can. He referenced his upcoming book only once when an audience member asked him a question about how his philosophy could be shared with American children. He also stated that he and his wife worked very hard to avoid what many philanthropic organizations do - drop a lot of money in a third-world country, improve conditions momentarily, and then pat themselves on the back and say how wonderful they are. There is little doubt that Buffett does care deeply about his fellow humans, our interaction with the planet, and making lasting change. That being said, the entire evening still comes off as a bit pretentious and self-indulgent. I did not find myself to be enamored with Buffett's philosophy or approach and found his music to be well-constructed and performed, but not as engaging and innovative as I had expected. The end-of-concert sing-along seemed uncomfortable and forced, which was an overtone for most of the evening.
I certainly respect Peter Buffett for all that he has accomplished and the fascinating and unique path he has taken. He certainly does "march to the beat of his own drum," a feat that many of us can aspire to in order to break out of mundane, repetitious lifestyles.
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