Author: Ryan Ebright

Political Music, Musical Politics: A Discussion Panel with Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta

A panel of people

The intersection of music and politics is perennially fascinating. Within the world of classical music, tenacious ideas about music’s aesthetic autonomy, its purported status as timeless Art-with-a-capital-A, often rub up uncomfortably with actual musical practice. How is it that Beethoven’s music of universal brotherhood could also serve as the anthem of an apartheid nation-state?

At Bowling Green State University’s 39th Annual New Music Festival last October, composers Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta sat down with me to share their thoughts about music and politics. Political music might be music that implicitly supports or explicitly opposes the status quo, music that expresses a current socio-political reality or promotes an alternative, or more broadly—to paraphrase Jacques Rancière—music that rearranges the set of perception between what is visible, thinkable, and understandable, and what is not. Music’s use as a political tool for protest, propaganda, or resistance is well documented, of course, especially the use of popular music in the 20th century. Our wide-ranging discussion touched on a number of ideas—the place of politics in contemporary classical music, the tension between political particularity and universality, the uses of programmatic music, and recent developments in the world of classical music. Few of these topics engendered easy or definitive answers, and it’s fitting that our discussion ended on a questioning note. Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and significantly condensed.

Ryan Ebright: To what extent do you engage or have you engaged musically with political or social issues?

Catherine Likhuta: The piece of mine that was featured in the festival, Bad Neighbors, is probably my most political piece. It’s about the war in Ukraine that is still going on. The piece has two horns in a kind of fight with each other: one representing Russia and its aggression and invasion, the other representing Ukraine and its fight for freedom. My collaborator from Australia, Peter Luff, commissioned it when the war had just started in 2014. My schedule then was quite booked, so we decided to postpone it. Little did I know that when I began writing it three years later, the war would still be going strong.

Ebright: Bad Neighbors received some attention from Ukrainian and Polish media. Can you tell us about its reception?

Likhuta: A consular at the Ukrainian embassy in Australia heard about the piece through somebody in the Ukrainian community who came to the premiere. She contacted me for an interview. The day after they distributed the interview I saw the track on my SoundCloud page had hundreds of listens from all over Ukraine. Then the Polish media also distributed it, because Poles feel very close to Ukrainians in this fight. This distribution was heartwarming and important, because I wanted to share the music with people in Ukraine. Even though I left Ukraine over a decade ago, all of my family members are still there.

  • I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events.

    Aaron Jay Kernis, composer
  • I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost.

    Samuel Adler, composer
  • I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism.

    Aaron Jay Kernis, composer
  • Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.

    Maria Grenfell, composer
  • International collaborations have become so much easier now. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.

    Catherine Likhuta, composer

Aaron Jay Kernis: From about 1990 to 1995 I wrote a lot of pieces related to world events. After 9/11, I composed a piece in memory of the victims of that tragedy. More recently, my horn concerto had something to do with Obama’s farewell and his singing of the song “Amazing Grace.” But earlier on, around 1990, I was very struck by the Rodney King situation and then a series of riots that made their way through Atlanta, and the threat that similar riots were going to come to New York City. My reaction to that time made its way into my piece New Era Dance, which is actually a pretty entertaining piece but has a violent undertone. After that, my second symphony was very influenced by watching the media’s portrayal of the new weaponry that was being used in the Persian Gulf War and various mega-bombings. This element of tragedy continued in pieces like Colored Field and Lament and Prayer, which started as a reaction to genocide in Bosnia and grew into a response to the Holocaust and, more generally, the relationships between various kinds of genocide that had been perpetrated throughout the 20th century.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events. For me it’s kind of inescapable to need to respond to that kind of tragedy, and it doesn’t necessarily engender the potential of butting heads politically because they are tragedies that we’ve all witnessed and shared in in some way.

Ebright: The warfare and tragedies of the early 1990s seem to have continued in the new millennium. Do those earlier works speak to the present day?

Kernis: Even though those works came out of a specific time, for me the key political element is in their attempt to speak to universal experiences. War has always been with us and will always be with us. Bringing that reality into the arts, and bringing that into music—that’s been with us also since the 19th century or even earlier, with battle pieces from the Baroque era, the Eroica, et cetera.

Samuel Adler: I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost. For example, I first heard Bernstein’s Mass during the Vietnam War, which we were all concerned about. Well, I just heard it again, and while there are some stunning musical moments, it’s completely dated and doesn’t have the effect that it was supposed to have. Mass was a bombshell of a piece. Today, it’s ho-hum. (The texts, not the music.) So you have to be very careful how you choose a subject.

The New York Chamber Symphony commissioned me to write a piece about 9/11, and I tried to do it so that it doesn’t just concentrate on that event, but becomes a larger expression of sorrow. I composed Stars in the Dust for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was ten years old, living in Germany, when that happened. My librettist and I felt that it should be a universal statement; it’s about something that may happen to a lot of people, and it isn’t happening only at one time. We have to look at what Spinoza called “the vision of eternity” rather than the moment.

I’ve always felt that the way to get this world back on a peaceful passage is the idea of reconciliation. I was in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and I wrote a piece for the symphony in that week. Because I’ve always felt that we have to bring in everybody to mourn with us at the same time, I brought in tunes that people would actually recognize in America, especially in the South, where religion is so important.

Maria Grenfell: I haven’t actually written very much political music at all. My music tends to be influenced by mythology or poetry or fine arts. I’ve written a few pieces that have been requested for specific purposes, like to calm anxiety for children and adults in hospitals and to help soothe children with mental health problems, but I wouldn’t call that political.

Ebright: You draw inspiration from a diverse array of sources for your pieces—Celtic fiddle tunes, Māori legends, Salman Rushdie’s East-West short stories. Is the way in which you incorporate various cultural sources a political act or an expression of advocacy for multiculturalism?

Grenfell: No, I just find I really enjoy the diverse influences. They inform my use of colors and harmonic materials.

Ebright: What is a piece of music that you think is effective both musically and politically?

Adler: It’s been used so much that it’s almost self-evident, but the Beethoven 9th. It has had greater influence on Europe—they’ve used it as their anthem—and again, it has a kind of universal message. I’m not sure that any other piece has had that kind of influence. But we have to be very careful thinking that we can change the world with anything. If we can change one person, that’s very important. Classical music or the classical composer is no longer what he or she was—well, it wasn’t she at that time—in Beethoven’s time. When we talk about Beethoven’s Third, we always mention that it was written for Napoleon and he tore up the dedication when Napoleon made himself emperor. Well, if I write a symphony and dedicate it to Mr. Trump and don’t like what he does and tear up the sheet, nobody gives a damn!

Grenfell: Shostakovich’s 5th symphony is a really important work. What I actually find more interesting is the 4th symphony, which was in rehearsal when an article came out that criticized Shostakovich’s opera. So he put the 4th symphony away and it wasn’t performed until after Stalin’s death. I find that fascinating.

Kernis: Certainly the 5th has had an impact on its audiences from its premiere, and what we view as the kind of coded aspect. In many of his pieces, Shostakovich somehow was able to play right on the edge between populism and art, trying to navigate how not to be shot.

Ebright: The number one goal in composing.

Kernis: It’s true! But it’s a good thing we’re not in that situation at the moment. I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism. One of those works, The Source, is a theatrical work by Ted Hearne, who is one of the most politically active composers I know now. It’s based on transcripts of Chelsea Manning and about her court martial, and I believe at the end of the piece there was footage—the music stopped—and there was footage of a drone strike, about a ten-minute drone strike. It had this absolute edge. We were sitting there in utter horror at the innocent people being bombed, and there was nothing the music could say to that; the music would only detract from that sensation. Hearne knew where to draw that line and how to present the musical aspect of Manning’s life and its relationship to a bombing that could not be expressed in musical terms.

Adler: I think what we’re talking about is actually communicating either by theater or by words as the most effective means of political engagement. So that it’s not only with the music, except for the mention of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony…

Kernis: But you have to know! Shostakovich’s audience knew what was going on.

Adler: True, but it doesn’t mean the same to us, so it’s not a universal kind of expression. I mean, every college orchestra now plays the 5th symphony…

Kernis: But do they know what it means?

Adler: They don’t, they don’t know what it means!

Likhuta: At the same time, as a composer of mostly programmatic music, I feel like when I’m writing programmatic music, it’s kind of like a book or a movie that I want people to experience, but by means of music. In a way it’s more timeless than a movie or book because the language is more ambiguous. Listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies when I lived in Chicago, I felt like I was watching movies or reading books about these events. Maybe I could feel them a little closer to my heart because I grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine and my parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Every person in Ukraine at the moment has grandparents or great-grandparents who went through war and famine. And Soviet movies about war, which we all watched in Ukraine growing up, use his music, or music in that style. So I think maybe Shostakovich was closer to me because of that. I never felt that it was out of my time and that it’s not something current to me. I heard that music and I could feel—as much as one can feel having a mobile phone and food and warmth and all of that—the pain of the people who were experiencing the war.

Kernis: You have an experiential context for that, a historical context. But for people who don’t have that, without words, it’s hard to have that same involvement or understanding.

Likhuta: Absolutely. The work that I originally wanted to mention, though, was Karel Husa’s Music for Prague. I heard him talk about this piece a decade ago at Cornell. He said he didn’t choose to write this piece; this piece chose him to write it. He was in the United States when the Soviets attacked the Czech Republic and he was not allowed to go back, so he felt he had to speak up through his music. Music for Prague opens with this solo in the flute, like a birdsong, and it’s a Czech folk tune about freedom, which then gets gobbled up by the orchestra. It’s political not in the sense of Democrats versus Republicans; it’s political in the sense of fighting for freedom. I think it can speak to anyone. It doesn’t have to be of that time. It speaks to me as a Ukrainian person whose country is experiencing a war, now.

Adler: That piece is also based on the most important hymn of Czechoslovakia, so it’s as if it had words. So it’s not a piece of abstract music.

Grenfell: There’s an Australian composer, Robert Davidson, who has written quite a few pieces setting political speeches for choir. They’re very funny, and he often interpolates them with video, and sort of chops them up and has lots of loops and sequences. His most successful one used a recording of Julia Gillard, who was Australia’s first woman prime minister, when she was lectured about sexism by the then leader of the opposition, who is a very conservative politician. Her response became known as “the misogyny speech.”

Likhuta: There was one about Trump recently that finished with, [singing] “I just don’t respect her!”

Ebright: I want to switch gears briefly to think about musical politics rather than political music, per se. And I also want to end on something of an optimistic note. What is one positive change within the field of classical music that you have seen during your career?

Adler: I’m the greatest optimist you’re going to find. I feel there’s more great talent in the world of classical music that ever before. The level of our student composers is at least as high as it ever was, if not higher. I see great things happening in the next generation and the generation beyond. But to answer your question: one change, in which Aaron played a role, is the reading by professional orchestras of works by early-stage or student composers.

Kernis: Most recently, I’m very encouraged to see the issue of inequality being addressed, in terms of women conductors and composers in particular.

Grenfell: It’s very encouraging that this is being spoken about openly. It’s on the table now, particularly with women programmed in orchestral concert seasons. And I also think that the opportunity to work for a short intensive period of time with a professional orchestra is absolutely invaluable. I helped set up a program that’s been going for about 11 years now in Australia called the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Australian Composers’ School. The aim is to bridge the gap between higher education and being commissioned, which is where the worst gap is. That’s where everybody falls through the cracks unless they can leap over somehow and get their first commission. Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.

Likhuta: I also appreciate how many composition professors support young composers not only in their composing, but also by showing them what being a composer is like. That it’s not easy, but it’s not necessarily as hard as somebody would think. It’s a tricky field, and today you need to learn to be an entrepreneur, to be your own producer, your own publisher, all that. And I think it’s starting to happen more.

Ebright: So, more holistic mentorship?

Likhuta: Yeah, I think that’s important. The final thing that I want to mention is that international collaborations have become so much easier now. I do at least as much work with international collaborators as I do in Australia. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.

Ebright: Are there questions from the audience?

Audience member: I have a question about Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which Professor Adler held up as the paradigm of a successful political piece. In going for so broad a theme as brotherhood (which you all seem to agree keeps music from becoming dated), did not Beethoven open himself up to having that music reappropriated by vastly differing political movements such as the Nazis and the EU and the reunification of West and East Germany? How do you navigate universality without losing specificity to the point that it can be about any kind of politics?

Kernis: Your question has me ruminating on instances where a culture or country has taken a work of art and used it for its own political ends. I can’t think of so many. Recently, certain popular songs have been used without permission in political campaigns or events. But thinking back to Germany using Beethoven’s work to promote the idea that Germany was the most advanced culture—have there been many more instances?

Ebright: Rhodesia used the “Ode to Joy” as their national anthem as an apartheid state.

Kernis: That is the perfect example of the problem—the music can be used nefariously for totalitarian purposes.

Audience member: Classical music can be built upon pillars that encompass misogyny and traditionally white European culture. As a student I have mixed feelings about studying something that is so narrow in its invention and its audience. How can we see through that structure as opposed to seeing around it?

Grenfell: I think programming is really important. There needs to be more awareness and openness of what gets programmed and where things are placed in a program. Because programs tend to fall into the same patterns over and over if there’s not a conscious decision to shape it. I think it’s good that some organizations are getting called on for not including more women or ethnically-diverse composers on their list.

Adler: But you have to be very careful not to look at the past in terms of today. It was a different time; you have to take everything historically. Things change and we have to change with them, but at the same time, you can’t reject the past. There are still great works that were written in the past that speak to us. You just can’t put our aesthetics on the past.

Audience member: What’s the difference between political music and propaganda? Is propaganda just political music that you don’t like?

Adler: [laughing] Propaganda is everything bad!

Grenfell: Maybe propaganda is the kind of music that you’re forced to write or forced to hear in a certain way, whereas political music is a choice as a composer?

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.


Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

In Support of New Music

How is new music supported?

At the third annual New Music Gathering this past May, a panel of musicologists suggested a variety of answers to this question. In ideal scenarios, new music is sustained at multiple levels: financial, social, aesthetic, and emotional. Over the next few months, we’ll share case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American operas, as well as the interpersonal relationships and ethics that nourish new music communities from Chicago to Stockholm. We’ll also look at where support falls short, and explore what lessons these failures offer.

Thank you to NewMusicBox for hosting this series, to New Music Gathering for creating a space for productive dialogue, and to our families, friends, and institutions for supporting our scholarship.

INDEX:

What Do You Think? By John Pippen
How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works By Sasha Metcalf
In the 1980s, OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they decided to take action. But the need for financial support was only part of the problem.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House By Ryan Ebright
How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera? You don’t—you do it yourself. But it takes a network of support. Ryan Ebright explores the personal connections and professional collaborators that allowed Steve Reich and Beryl Korot to self-produce their first video opera The Cave.

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving By Per Broman
Karin Rehnqvist was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist), and after numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself. The amateur path she started on actually showed itself to be an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship.

New Horizons, Old Barriers By Will Robin
Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

“People Power”—The Communal Ethos of Satyagraha

Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside on Lincoln Center Plaza
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

In the chilly night air of December 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside on Lincoln Center Plaza. Inside the nearby Metropolitan Opera House, the third act of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha drew to a close as the character of Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed: “When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age…for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.” Shortly thereafter, Glass led the Occupy demonstrators in a recitation of these same words. Driving home the link between OWS and the opera, a man exhorted departing patrons to cross the police barricades and join the crowd of activists. “What would Gandhi do?” he bellowed. “It’s a real life play! The opera is your life! Your life is the opera Satyagraha!”

“What would Gandhi do?” Although rhetorical in nature, the question nevertheless hints at an ethos that animates both Satyagraha and the OWS movement: community.

The cultivation of community is fundamental to new music, as other essays in this series demonstrate. Community as an ideal takes various forms, from Bang on a Can’s conscious programming of antithetical musical styles to implicit critiques of traditional musical authorship in collectives such as Pulsa and the Theater of Eternal Music. In these, community finds expression through social practice. But how does this communal ethos actually translate into music (as one audience member asked at the recent New Music Gathering)? In Satyagraha, this value is encoded both musically and dramatically. Moreover, community informs not only the relations between artistic collaborators, but also extends to the audience.

Writing for an NEA review of American opera in 1988, Glass dismissed what he called “simple authorship,” which might be understood with reference to the fact that operas are almost always identified simply by their composer: Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Glass’s Satyagraha. (In reality, the authorship of most operas is more complicated.) Referencing the 1980s influx of experimental artists into the opera world—a transformation brought out in part by a network of risk-taking impresarios and philanthropic institutions—Glass championed a complex model of authorship:

One of the big differences between the Italian tradition of repertory opera and the contemporary tradition—mostly people younger than myself and myself—is that this tends to be group work. You can use the word collaboration…

That’s simply the way we work. I come from a tradition of group theater work…This is the contemporary tradition of theater, which has only just begun to be practiced in the world of opera.

…We’re looking at a real revolution—a revolution in methods of working, collaborative ways of working, ways pieces are produced and ways they ask the audience to perceive them.[1]

Glass’s first commissioned opera, Satyagraha, was the product of this collaborative ideal.

Less than a month after Einstein on the Beach appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1976, Glass had partnered with writer and artist Constance DeJong, a friend from SoHo, for his new project. Within a year or so, Robert Israel—another SoHo acquaintance who happened to be serving a three-year residency at the commissioning institution, the Netherlands Opera—joined Glass and DeJong. Although Glass had the initial idea for the opera’s subject, together these three developed the primary components of the opera—music, text, image. (Movement would come at a later stage via director David Pountney.)

Borrowing a strategy from various mid-century avant-garde theater collectives, Glass, DeJong, and Israel decided that image and movement should carry the weight of the non-linear, episodic narrative of Gandhi’s South African years. In a move that shifted authority away from traditional operatic narrative devices of words and music, DeJong constructed the Sanskrit libretto using excerpts from the Bhagavad-Gita, while Glass composed in a newly developed post-minimalist style that resists narrative and representation.[2] In de-familiarizing text and music, the collaborators worked to destabilize conventional operatic notions of authorship. Under this aesthetic, no single element dominates the theatrical discourse, rendering meaning ambivalent.

This, according to Glass’s understanding of Cage’s maxim, leaves room for the audience to “complete” the work. By bringing together the parallel layers of music, image, movement, and text in their subjective (yet communal) experiences of Satyagraha, spectators join in the process of authorship. They derive their own meanings at different points of the opera, and in doing so become part of a larger community.

Satyagraha expresses community through its internal features as well. Both music and dramaturgy foreground the collective human element necessary for the realization of Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience. Although the opera is nominally about Gandhi, the focus lies more on the communities he fostered. This shift in emphasis took shape over the course of multiple drafts of the plot—one of the earliest of which consisted of twelve chronological scenes. In a 2014 interview, DeJong recalled this development:

At some point, everything crystallized and changed when the interest became not on biography but on the genesis of non-violent civil disobedience…now, not only was the subject vaguely interesting, it was superbly interesting and relevant, and it was about an idea and not a person. And that really mattered to me. Then, soon, the opera really became about the continuity of an idea…

The first page of Constance DeJong’s second outline of <em>Satyagraha</em>.

The first page of Constance DeJong’s second outline of Satyagraha.

Musically, this communal ethos meant that the solo vocal virtuosity typical of much opera was discarded in favor of small ensemble and large choral numbers. The chorus shoulders four out of the seven scenes, leading Glass to characterize Satyagraha as “practically a choral opera.” DeJong stresses the importance of the chorus in starker terms:

If you have a political movement, you have to have people. A real central character to Satyagraha is the chorus. They’re not there supporting the soloists, which is a very unusual feature of an opera. They have those big scenes, the most dramatic scenes, actually, in the first and second act. They function as a character. The dimension that brings to the opera musically is huge.

Dramaturgically, DeJong, Glass, and Israel focus attention on episodes from Gandhi’s South African sojourn that demonstrate the power of community. The opera’s second scene, for instance, reenacts the formation of Tolstoy Farm in 1910, a co-operative commonwealth that served as the headquarters of Gandhi’s South African campaign.

Scene Structure of <em>Satyagraha</em>

Scene Structure of Satyagraha

In an overt testament to their own experiences of communal action, the collaborators chose to have Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as a historical “witness” to the culminating final scene, which represents Gandhi’s 1913 Newcastle March. In a 2014 interview, Israel reflected that the decision to link Gandhi with MLK “couldn’t have happened without young people having been involved in Civil Rights, in concern about the war.” Israel’s wife was one such young person, having served as an activist in 1960s Alabama.

As if to emphasize the importance of collective action, Glass positioned the chorus at the musical center of the final act. Moreover, what is implicit in Gandhi’s closing lines—the reference to reincarnation—becomes explicit in the opera’s staging, as time and space bleed together. In the premiere production, over the course of the final scene Alabama state troopers removed members of Gandhi’s satyagraha army—i.e., the chorus—from the stage, until Gandhi and King were left alone. In the closing moments of the opera, the satyagraha army appeared in the starry night sky behind King, thus visually transferring the idea of non-violent civil disobedience across time and space from turn-of-the-century South Africa to the United States at mid-century.

Production photo of <em>Satyagraha</em>, 1980

Production photo of Satyagraha, 1980

The music of Satyagraha participates in this transfer as well, albeit in a less concrete way. In the opening and throughout most of the Act III, Glass employs a chaconne that slides between two harmonic poles: F minor to E major.

harmony example

In the final section of the act, however, this relationship between F and E undergoes a transformation which, when heard in the context of the third act mise-en-scène, suggests the transfer of Gandhi’s ideals and legacy to King. Once Gandhi and King remain alone onstage, a harmonic transformation crystallizes beneath Gandhi’s repetitions of a rising Phrygian scale on E. The F minor of the opening chaconne evolves into F major; E major becomes an implied E minor. Only in the concluding two measures does the ambiguity of the E minor clarify into C major—virtue is set on her seat again, the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.

harmony example 2

When Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott reimagined the opera for the ENO–Met co-production in 2007–08 (revised in 2011–12), the emphasis on collective action took on a modified form that later resonated with the Occupy movement. In this rendering, members of the Improbable Theatre Company share the symbolic mantle of satyagraha with the chorus. Garbed in the muted, earthy costumes of a lower socio-economic caste, the so-called Skills Ensemble stands in deliberate contrast to the perceived opulence of the operatic genre. Throughout they remain a continuous but silent presence, creating and manipulating huge puppets, changing the sets, and assuming the roles of Tolstoy, Tagore, and King. Crouch’s reasoning was straightforward: “We wanted to create transformations using people rather than big stage machinery.”

The symbolic role of the Skills Ensemble is most apparent in the closing act, where the temporal blending of the 1913 Newcastle March and the Civil Rights movement extends into the present, as police in contemporary riot gear descend on Gandhi’s comrades. At the opera’s conclusion, the stagehands alone remain on stage with Gandhi and King. This reimagining of the voiceless, lower-caste stagehands—the embodied means of production, the 99%—as the embodiment of satyagraha offers a poignant reflection of pressing 21st-century concerns over rising inequality and political disenfranchisement.

“What would Gandhi do?” Foster community, because ideas ultimately rely on people, much as new music depends on a vibrant network of committed performers, composers, presenters, collaborators, and audiences. In Satyagraha, this communal ethos emerges musically, dramaturgically, and in the acts of creation and audience reception. “Gandhi’s leadership,” Crouch pointed out, “was obviously massively important, but what he achieved was done through people power.”


Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach.


1. Philip Glass, “Philip Glass. Composer. New York City,” ARTSREVIEW 5, no. 1: America’s Opera, ed. Dodie Kazanjian (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 1988), 18.


2. See, for instance, Timothy Johnson, “Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique?” Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (Winter): 742–44.