Tag: music and politics

New Music Ushers In The Inauguration of the Next President and Vice President of the USA

The United States Capitol

UPDATED Lots of new music will usher in a new American administration on January 20, 2021. The musical selections being performed during tomorrow’s inauguration of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President of the United States of America will include newly composed works for the United States Marine Band “The President’s Own” under the direction of Col. Jason K. Fettig by Kimberly K. Archer and Peter Boyer. Other works performed during the hour-long music program preceding the official swearing include pieces by Adolphus Hailstork and Julie Giroux, the subject of the most recent interview on NewMusicBox.

Kimberly Archer, Peter Boyer, Julie Giroux, Adolphus Hailstork, Kendrick Lamar, James Stephenson, and Joan Tower.

Among the composers whose music will serve as a soundtrack to the 46th U.S. Presidential Inauguration are Kimberly Archer, Peter Boyer, Julie Giroux, Adolphus Hailstork, Kendrick Lamar, James Stephenson, and Joan Tower.

Archer’s Fanfare Politeia celebrates our traditions of a free and fair election, and of a peaceful transfer of power. “This is an incredible honor,” Archer said. “If you had told my 20 year old self that someday the Marine Band would play my music, much less for a presidential inauguration, I would never have believed it.”

Boyer’s new work, Fanfare for Tomorrow, began as a brief piece for solo French horn, originally commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra last year, as part of their Fanfare Project in response to the pandemic. Boyer significantly expanded and developed that music for a full concert band for this commission. Boyer said, “In these extraordinarily challenging days for our country, I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute some optimistic music to an historic occasion, at which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office as the next President and Vice President of the United States. This commission represents one of the greatest honors of my life as an American composer.”

Hailstork’s Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” is scheduled to be performed as the second piece during the USMB’s inaugural program. This marks only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer has been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration, according to Africlassical.com, a website on African heritage in classical music. Hailstork is working on a requiem cantata for George Floyd titled A Knee on the Neck.

Julie Giroux’s Integrity Fanfare and March is the first movement of her 2006 composition No Finer Calling which was jointly commissioned by The United States Air Force Band of Flight, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio (Lieutenant Colonel Alan Sierichs, Commander and Conductor), The United States Air Force Academy Band, Peterson AFB, Colorado (Lieutenant Colonel Steven Grimo, Commander and Conductor), and The United States Air Force Band of Liberty, Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts (Lieutenant Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor.

Giroux has written about the work: “Integrity, Virtue, Morality, Truthfulness, Accountability and Pride. When I thought of these words as a composer, I heard a fanfare, a processional and a march. Not all at the same time, but more of a melding of all three—a fanfare that states ‘We are here,’ a procession that states ‘We are prepared,’ and a march that states ‘Lets GO!’”

The Marine Band has also put together an “Inaugural Soundtrack” which they have posted on YouTube featuring a range of historical curiosities including marches composed for the inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield, the latter of which was composed by John Philip Sousa, as well as the newly composed Fanfare for Democracy by James Stephenson. Stephenson wrote a series of articles for NewMusicBox in 2016.)

In addition, Classical Movements, a concert touring company, has formed the Hope & Harmony Ensemble, a group consisting of 14 professional musicians from orchestras and conservatories across the country, to give a virtual brass and percussion performance in honor of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris under the direction of conductor Marin Alsop. As stated on the Classical Movements website, “the ensemble performs two masterpieces of American classical music that perfectly represent our President- and Vice President-Elect: Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland and Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 by Joan Tower.” The stream was posted live to YouTube exactly 24 hours before the inauguration ceremony is scheduled to take place.

Finally, last Friday, the Biden-Harris transition team released a new 46-song Inaugural playlist curated by The Raedio and D-Nice on Spotify which features tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, The Staple Singers, Bob Marley, and Kendrick Lamar, who along with Aaron Copland is a past recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

We Can Change the Country, Essay (2020)

A masked Darius Jones conducting a rehearsal of We Can Change the Country at Roulette on October 26, 2020. (Photo by Kenneth Jimenez.)

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery enraged me. The killing of Breonna Taylor broke my heart. The killing of George Floyd crushed me. My awareness of these three murders happening within such a close timeline really shook me to my core. It felt as if 2020 was hunting season for Blacks in this country. But then I remembered that 65 years ago, the attorney of Emmett Till’s confessed murderers warned an all-white jury that if they voted to convict, “Your forefathers would turn over in their graves.” Was this what the Framers intended?

As the pandemic raged like a biblical plague through Black and Brown communities, those in power downplayed the severity of the crisis. Death and despair circled around us, I became overwhelmed and fell into a depressed state. During this time, I came across James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “We Can Change the Country” and marveled at how many themes expressed in the essay paralleled the current moment:

“New York is a segregated city. It is not segregated by accident; it is not an act of God that keeps the Negro in Harlem. It is the real estate boards and the banks that do it. And when you attack that, that’s where the power is. For example, I ask all of you to ask yourselves what would happen if Harlem refused to pay the rent for a month. We’ve got to bring the cat out of hiding. And where is he? He’s hiding in the bank. We’ve got to flush him out. We have to begin a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I mean nationwide. And this is no stage joke. Some laws should not be obeyed.”

– James Baldwin

As protest and civil disobedience grew throughout the country in response to the murder of George Floyd, I, like many others, felt the twinges of hope and possibility. The streets were filled with people of all ages, colors, and creeds marching together to bring about change. Honest conversations about systemic racism and police brutality ventured into mainstream society. People all over the world took notice and staged their own protests in solidarity with what we were fighting for in this nation.

But, even as something beautiful and transformative was taking place, white supremacist groups, bad cops, and outside provocateurs began to infiltrate the protests to make them seem violent and criminal in nature. The bully pulpit was used to portray anti-fascism as bad for democracy, ignore acts of white supremacist violence, and label Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization. During a global pandemic, those in power made wearing or not wearing a mask a political statement.

I felt as if I was living in a never-ending nightmare.

Then John Lewis died, Chadwick Boseman died, and RBG died. The COVID-19 death toll reached 215,000 and continues to climb. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, face evictions from their homes, and it goes on and on. All the while people in power dance on stage and say, “It is what it is.”

“We are living, at the moment, through a terrifying crisis, and let me try to put it in the cruelest and most abrupt terms that I can. Let us say that a hundred years ago, when I was technically emancipated from the land and given over to the landlords and the bosses – let us say that I was happy in my place and that I loved doing all that singing and dancing down on the levee. Now I, and my father and my grandfather, to say nothing of my grandmother and her mother, never for a moment believed that we were singing and dancing down on the levee because we were so happy, and not for a moment does any black man that I’ve encountered believe that he really was what the country said he was. But what has happened is that the country (by ‘the country’ I mean our government and most of our citizens) believes that I was happy in my place. They believe it so strongly that now they have the courage to ask, What does the Negro want? Well, I know what the Negro wants, and any man who is able to walk and talk knows what the Negro wants. If you know what you want, then you know what I want.”

– James Baldwin

In my piece, entitled We Can Change the Country, I create a compositional environment where a multiverse of boxes and zones carries the sonic textural language of varying perspectives. The instrumentation for the piece is ten voices, violin, bass, banjo, fife, drums, conductor, and film. Everyone is wearing masks, the vocalists are placed in social distancing circles, the musicians are spread six to twelve feet apart from one another, and a film beams light and images on the performers and the space. We Can Change the Country creates an environment of sensory overload as an attempt to reflect the mania-by-design of these past four years.

Just like this composition, America is a game where the rules and instructions are not the same for everyone. The majority of our so-called leaders currently in government don’t want to actually find solutions to people’s immediate needs and the systemic problems that created them.

Masked performers during a rehearsal of Darius Jones's We Can Change the Country at Roulette on October 26, 2020.

From the October 26, 2020 rehearsal of Darius Jones’s We Can Change the Country at Roulette. (Photo by Darius Jones.)

As the composer or Framer, I created the role of the conductor (leader) who oversees the implementation and direction of the musical content given throughout this piece. The conductor’s overall role is to create an environment where the performers (citizens) can be successful in their endeavors. For any given performance of this piece, the conductor’s (leader’s) own ideas and desires around the musical content will ultimately determine how the piece is interpreted. I as the composer (Framer) have relinquished control over this aspect of the piece. The overall quality of the performance (community) is dictated by the performers’ (citizens’) relationships to one another, their perspectives on the piece (Constitution), and the content (Rights) within. From my perspective, the Constitution is a living document similar to a guided improvisational score, but meant for a society.

This piece pulls text from the POTUS to Octavia Butler to Lalah Hathaway to a voter standing in line waiting to vote and puts them all together in one place, just like social media. My approach to the text is to create a timelessness within language. To present wisdom alongside madness and see which one will be heard through the noise is extremely fascinating to me.

The following statement is included in the Composer Notes for all of my social justice game pieces: This is not a composition; it’s a protest. This is not a performance; it’s a demonstration. This is a political work of art. I wrote it to express the hypocrisy of a nation that continues to deny its history, a history that has and will continue to define our future.

Even though this piece will be presented virtually this statement still stands firm. Transitioning to a purely virtual medium is tough, but in some ways, I look at it as an opportunity to create a truly ritualistic experience for the performers, while witnesses peer through boxes and screens to experience something that might terrorize or tantalize.

We are more than entertainers. Art, like protest, has a way of changing our molecular structure and our brainwaves. It opens our hearts and forces us to confront our empathy. It has the power to change the world and the world knows it.

As I write and amend this document, I realize that as a composer, and more so as a Black man in America, code switching is a constant interruption to my process, even as it affords access. My work is about combating apathy and fear. We Can Change the Country is not a neutral work of art.

A sneak preview of Darius Jones’s We Can Change The Country which will be livestreamed from Roulette Intermedia on Monday, November 2, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Videography by Kenneth Jimenez.
We Can Change the Country was commissioned by Roulette and made possible with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and New Music USA.

How Can Artists Respond to Injustice? Thoughts from Seven Musicians

Protesters waving banners directly in front of police covered with shields.

We know that music is not enough. No artistic response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor can adequately address the capaciousness of these injustices. But what does “more than music” mean? Is it the non-musical activities that many are engaged in right now – donating to bail funds, protesting in the streets, raising awareness that black lives matter, fighting to defund the police? Or is it about attempting to uncoil the racism that is tightly wound into our musical institutions, whether that be petitioning symphony orchestras to program African-American composers, calling on conservatories to center black music in their curricula, or diversifying the personnel and repertoire of new-music ensembles? It certainly can’t just be posting black images to Instagram. As I absorbed the constant proliferation of information and advice on social media, I knew I wanted to hear from artists I believed in, who have been thinking deeply, and for many years, about the role of musicians in enacting social change. Here are some of their thoughts.

Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z, George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan, Nathalie Joachim

Top row: Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z;
Bottom row: George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan (photo by Arielle Pentes), Nathalie Joachim (photo by Eric Patrice O’Brien)

Marcos Balter, composer

I am still being paid my full salary as a tenured professor, and none of my commissions have been canceled. So, I have made a commitment to spend as much of my income as possible on donations to worthwhile causes, especially bail funds and organizations that push for legislative changes regarding police brutality against black individuals. I have also been donating my time advising several music organizations on initiatives that not only show solidarity but also promote concrete change while examining their own culpability.

You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it.

Accountability is key right now. You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it. And, I’ve been mentoring and teaching black composers, and fundraising for initiatives that combat the innate racism in classical music for a long time now. As a black composer, none of this is charitable for me: it’s a duty and a matter of survival. This is not a movement, and we should not conflate what is in the news with what is new. It’s old, very old, and it needs to end.

Eun Lee, clarinetist and founder of the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished theme this year is “Red, White, and Blues,” and it’s all about civic engagement and voting rights. If anything, all of this is just creating a doubling down, because voting is one of the few tangible things that people can be doing, either making sure that they themselves are voting, or making sure that other people are registered. Also, the census is huge right now, particularly for communities of color. What’s really important is to take a step back and look at the macro picture, and think through, how did we get here? What are the underlying causes? There’s this phrase flying around a lot for coronavirus, that the disproportionate impact on black or minority communities is due to “underlying health conditions.” Well, what were the conditions that created the underlying health conditions, and what can we do to start picking away at that? And it’s so unsexy, but the census helps a lot.

How did we get here? What are the underlying causes?

There’s this analogy that I’ve used, of a car, to represent different levels of music engaging with social justice. Level 1 is the hood ornament, and that’s a lot of what people are responding to, when there have been deservedly negative reactions to Blackout Tuesday, and these large organizations all of a sudden assuming these stances and posting these things. Because it feels like that hood ornament, where it’s superficial, you don’t really know what’s behind it or what’s going to come out of it. Level 2 is the engine in the car. The car is still parked, but there’s actually some undergirding of it that is the ethos of whatever work that you’re trying to engage in. By and large, The Dream Unfinished has been at the engine stage: our board is incredibly diverse, our staff is incredibly diverse, all the musicians that we contract, all the composers that we feature. So in that sense, everything that it’s made up of is reflecting it, but it’s still not actually doing the work. Level 3 is when the car goes into gear and you’re moving things. It’s only really been recently that, as an organization, we’ve found ways where we can get to moving the car. One of the hopes that we had for this season was, when we were planning on doing live chamber concerts, program them all in communities that have had historically low voter turnout and having voter registration available at each of these events. So that it’s not just a concert about something, but you can actually do the something at the concert.


Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.  I have been trying to not get Covid19.  I have been trying to figure out how to parent/work from home/stay healthy/make money/make art. I have been trying to temper my personal devastation of watching the insanity of a reality show that our country’s non-leadership currently embodies as it quite literally tramples on the freedoms, liberties, and beliefs that founded this country, and that attracted the immigrant ancestors of those non-leaders here in the first place.  And I am understanding more clearly the idea that fundamental change means exactly what we are seeing happen – everything must be upended because it is all designed to perpetuate the things that we are once again reacting to, and will continue to do so for another 400 years, if we are fortunate enough to not destroy our species and planet in the meantime.

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.

In terms of supportive actions within the music world, I think we need to stand back and have a more thorough conversation on all sides of the issue.  Classical music, as an art form, is rooted in western European traditions.  I think it is fair to say that most of the institutions that brought the art form to this country were primarily interested in simply bringing the work closer to American audiences.  That is not a fault, just a reality.  So to suddenly be asking for more representation is skipping a few steps.  Shouldn’t we be asking for more of a connection to the country/city/community in which these institutions are based first, assuming that is what is wanted from patrons (i.e. all of us) who have been happily partaking of what these institutions have offered thus far anyway? Perhaps, once the particular institutions that want to make those connections have done so, then we can have the conversation about who is being heard or presented.

IMO, a better way to deal with the question of representation is to remember that art is about communication, and specifically about an individual artist communicating through their art.  What and how they choose to communicate should matter most.  And institutions should stand firmly behind their choices of whomever they invite to the table, and patrons can then decide with their wallets.  After all, art is also not free, regardless of who is making it.


Pamela Z, composer/performer and media artist

I’ve been feeling saddened, overwhelmed, and frankly exhausted by the news of late–especially in light of the situation we’re all already bearing. But I don’t think I have anything constructive to offer outside my heartfelt appreciation for those who have had the courage and initiative to take some kind of action or speak out against injustice.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers—or even artists in general—are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field. I suppose there are people in every field who are stronger than others on that count. And, it’s also true that the same racial and gender imbalances that exist throughout our society are clearly present in “the world of new/classical music,” even though I think a lot of presenters and organizations have been making efforts to change that.

But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any solutions or advice to offer here. Other than, I guess, keep working at making those changes. Keep aware of those issues and keep trying to think of ways to counter them.


George E. Lewis, composer and musicologist

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

A creolization of the field is needed.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

Courtney Bryan, composer/pianist

Being on the street is very, very important: people are standing up for our rights, it’s a super vulnerable moment in our country right now. But I’m also thinking about the different roles everybody can take on, whether it’s a role as a healer, or a role as an organizer, or someone who can share information.

I’m working on an opera with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Other collaborators are Charlotte Brathwaite, Cauleen Smith, Helga Davis, Sharan Strange, Sunder Ganglani, and Matthew Morrison. It draws from histories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and a black Shaker eldress from the 19th century named Rebecca Cox Jackson. Now that we’re resuming the project, we’re also processing what’s happening right now, what happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all these recent killings from police or vigilantes. The themes behind the opera are freedom, spirit, love, home, and sanctuary. But we’re also trying to figure out what the process is. There’s the end goal of writing an opera, but we are also all discussing as a group how this process can also be something where we can directly help people.

The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now.

People need to eat and they need somewhere to live. There’s the illness. Our country is on the brink of fascism, people are trying to fight for the survival of the country itself, and people are trying to survive from this virus that, had the government taken the precautions, didn’t have to get to the point it is at now. The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now. My way is always through music: what is it through music that can be done? Or among artists: where we can look out for each other and make sure that people have what they need to survive?


Nathalie Joachim, flutist, composer, and vocalist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the families who have lost someone. Not just the most recent families, but also the families that have to relive their own trauma every time something like this happens. As a society, especially in this moment of constantly sharing these videos over and over, we forget that these are families that have lost someone. Not enough time is being spent honoring the fact that they are people who have been lost. Not enough time is being spent creating beautiful space and open space.

This moment, in every sense — not just this racial moment, this economic moment, this health crisis moment — all of the things that are happening to all of us in this time are about revealing who we actually are. In a way I feel like it’s a blessing because you cannot change until you have a reckoning with yourself. You can’t. Anybody who’s deep into therapy knows that that work is really hard and ongoing and it’s not, “I went to therapy for four months and now I’m cured!” It’s an ongoing, lifelong commitment to continually reckoning with who you are. And not shaming yourself for who you are, but seeing yourself for who you are, and seeing what you can do to better manage being a person walking through this world. What can you do to be better?

I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are.

Honestly, I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are, and to make a commitment, in this moment, as Americans, to come together and continually, day after day, week after week, reckon with who we are. It’s not about shaming you for your past or all of the things that you should have done. It’s about seeing what you haven’t done and to take whatever the steps are for you to make a change for yourself.

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

I hope that everybody in our industry is really thinking about how to come out of this changed for the better.  Not in this every-man-for-himself hustle, but in a way that allows us to create an infrastructure that supports all of us. We have to care about one another, we have to see one another, we have to embrace everybody that is a part of this community.

If you look through time, almost every major artistic movement that has happened in every field has coincided with some major change or event that has happened in the world. We have always been called to respond, to be first responders for our communities; it is so important for us to see ourselves as that now. To lean into it, and to lean into one another.

Building a Solidarity Economy through Revolutionary Music: the Making of Mirror Butterfly

Over 50 people gathered in a room in front of a banner for the Mesopotamian Water Forum

Bertolt Brecht famously proselytized that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” But how can art be that hammer, and not simply representational? One solution is to work in dialogue with actual social movements and create spaces where activists are at the center of the creative and economic processes behind the creation of new work. Our play Mirror Butterfly is the outgrowth of our collaboration with three women activists fighting at the intersection of ecology, anti-imperialism, and women’s liberation. Its purpose is to work with both their ideas and the living movements they were a part of to imagine and create a new world. We interviewed Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (of the Yaqui nation based in Sonora, Northern Mexico), Azize Aslan (of the Kurdish Freedom Movement), and Mama C (a veteran of the Black Panther Party, now doing community work and homesteading in Tanzania).

How do we engage beyond cultural appropriation?

How do we engage in this dialogue beyond cultural appropriation? A turn to saxophonist-composer Fred Ho guided our own work in this respect. Ho held as a specific antidote to the exploitive appropriations of Third World cultures by Western artists that Ho called the “three Cs” of intercultural respect: “Credit, Compensation [and] Committed anti-imperialist solidarity.” He also argued that, in order to achieve true multicultural expression, it was necessary to “liberate oneself from the bourgeois individualist artist-as-hero-genius of simply using ‘sounds’ for self-expression (self-gain)” and to take every opportunity of “giving back in all the ways we can (from our sincere friendship, admiration, and love to supporting and participating in the fight against all forms of imperialism and imperialist-supported assaults).” (“Fred Ho: Artist Comments.” 29 Oct. 2006, quoted in David Kastin, “Fred Ho and the Evolution of Afro-Asian New American Multicultural Music.” Popular Music and Society 33, no. 1 (February 1, 2010): pp. 1–8; also available online.) In the paragraphs below, we will show how Fred’s three Cs guided our work at every step in our process to create a piece that had both creative and economic solidarities guiding its creation and dissemination.

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez.

Travels to Mexico

We wanted to create a work that truly crossed borders and built international solidarity, so, in 2018, we traveled to Obregon, Mexico, to develop the plot and language with Yaqui activists. The Yaqui nation is one that we have had relationships with for years. (I, Gizelxanath, am of Yaqui descent.)

The Yaqui people inhabit the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and in Arizona. They are notable for their successful resistance to the Spanish conquest—they were one of the few First Nations to retain their autonomy and were even celebrated by United States General William Sherman as the “Spartans of the Americas.” The majority of the Yaqui nation still lives in Sonora despite more than a century of forced relocation intensified under Porfirio Díaz and current attacks on their ancestral water source, the Yaqui River. The ironically named “Independence Aqueduct Pipeline” has diverted so much water from their territory that today thousands of Yaqui people suffer from gastrointestinal problems due to water scarcity and pollution.

We were aware of the intensity of oppression the Yaqui people had been enduring, but when we visited, its scale and immediacy eclipsed what we had imagined. A leading Yaqui activist and spokesperson, Mario Luna, has been fighting the water extraction of the Yaqui river for decades. When we visited, we learned that the threats on his family’s life, both verbal and physical, had increased to the point that he was forced to install barbed wire and cameras.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists. We were inspired by artists such as the Mexican/Chinese-American performance and multimedia artist Richard Lou, who has been committed to the practice of border art for over twenty years. Our artivism was fueled by a “commitment to a transformation of the self and the world through creative expression” in which arts can help us imagine and construct a world beyond borders, exploitation, and racial, gendered, and environmental oppression. It took on an existential intensity that was difficult to be prepared for. We encountered conditions that were truly challenging for the Yaqui people, as well as a warmth and hospitality that felt revolutionary. We asked ourselves many questions: What would a collaborative work look like in this context? Would it be documentary-based, dramatizing the struggle against water usurpation? Should the piece foreground the formation of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an anti-capitalist council of 68 different indigenous nations? In terms of story, how concrete or surrealist would it be? Did it need to follow the logic of linear plot and linear time—or linear music, for that matter?

We decided we could and should not make these decisions alone. We met the director of the Yaquis Museum, Reyna Lourdes Anguamea, also a Yaqui lawyer and cultural guardian, and asked her what a meaningful staged work would look like that spoke to the Yaqui struggle and the alternative proposed by the CNI. She gave us the idea for how we should shape our jazz opera. It would revolve around the cry of a sacred endangered insect, the Kautesamai, otherwise known as the four-mirrored butterfly. This insect is in danger of going extinct due to the prevalent use of pesticides in the area and the vanishing of the Yaqui river ecosystem. Inspired, we were also immediately concerned: we did not want to profit off her ideas. Following Ho’s principles of “Three Cs” we agreed that the proceeds of the album—all of them—would fund the Yaqui radio station Namakasía Radio, which coordinates the efforts of social movement activists. Thus our audience was able to participate in a solidarity economy across borders, supporting indigenous activists and water defenders they never would have had contact with otherwise. The project would be named Mirror Butterfly: the Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, and the piece’s main character would be the Kautesamai. In this way, we created both a creative process and an economic process which connected Yaquis and our base in North America in a way that could lay the foundation for alliances in years to come.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

In someways, however, the work had only begun. In dialogue with our United States-based collaborators, Ruth Margaff, Nejma Neferiti, and Peggy Myo-Young Choy, and in conversations, study sessions, and interviews with our Yaqui collaborators, we began to create our story. We were encouraged by Reyna and others to think globally, considering other experiences of communities on the front lines of environmental struggle. With that in mind, we decided we would also tell the stories and freedom dreams of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Like the National Indigenous Congress and the Yaqui River Defense Group, this movement offered a different form of governance that came from democractic traditions outside of Western liberalism: rotating non-hierarchical leadership, communal economics, the prevalence of women in leadership roles, and the defense of water and ecosystems as paramount.

Nejma Nefertiti holding a microphone.

EmCee Nejma Nefertiti of Afro Yaqui Music Collective performing at the MWF.

The Kurdish people, based in Syria, have witnessed an historic exodus of their people—over five million refugees have left the nation in a conflict several analysts have linked to climate change and ecological catastrophe. Given that our work aims to raise up the voices of environmental protectors who are building solutions that reverse the destruction wrought by capitalist economics and climate change, this felt like a natural step.

Travels to Iraq

Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world.

As part of the development of Mirror Butterfly, we spent a lot of time “building” politically, emotionally, and artistically in order to create something organic. Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world—alternatives that, if embraced, could create stable and life-generating communities rooted in social justice. With that in mind, we connected with Azize Aslan, a revolutionary economist and member of the Kurdish Freedom movement. Overlooked in the Western press, this remarkable revolutionary movement has liberated huge sections of Rojava and implemented “democratic confederalism,” which converges with ecosocialism through decentralization, gender equality, and local governance through direct democracy coordinated through communal councils. This is a big break from their lives under the Baath regime, where for several decades it was forbidden to plant trees and vegetables, and the population was encouraged by repressive politics and deliberate underdevelopment of the region to migrate as cheap labour to nearby cities like Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs.

Azize, like our Yaqui comrades, shared with us a philosophy of nature, which greatly influenced Mirror Butterfly. We interviewed her about her violently mobile life in which the Turkish state, as with the Baath regime, consistently disrupted the social bonds and entire communities of the Kurdish people. On the move, her family was forced to perform wage labor in hazelnut fields when their subsistence farming basis was destroyed. Eventually her community was forced to move to the megalopolis of Antalya, where nature was “othered.” The story of the sacred Kautesamai, on the brink of extinction, spoke to her, and her stories helped us created another character in the jazz opera, the stoneflower.

Through Azize and her comrades, we were able to travel to Kurdistan, Iraq, in 2019 to present Mirror Butterfly at the Mesopotamian Water Forum (MWF), where the jazz opera resonated with attendees. (We still have not had the chance to perform it in Mexico.) The MWF was organized and attended by over 180 water activists from the Mesopotamia region and other countries in order to provide a civil society-led plan to restore disrupted hydrological cycles, which have created conditions of severe water scarcity in the region. One of the outcomes of this conference was internationalizing the campaign to prevent the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, whose population is predominantly Kurdish. Much of the city and its archeological sites are at risk of being flooded upon the completion of the Ilisu Dam, which Turkey is rushing to construct despite mounting pressure, as part of its indirect war against Kurdistan. There is currently a campaign underway to pressure Turkey to stop the construction of this weapon, which we support.

We were deeply moved by the Kurdish organizers’ commitment to feminism and ecological justice, but more generally it was clear that we were in the middle of a broader Middle Eastern environmental movement with cross-class, cross-national, and cross-ethnic linkages. We learned about widespread protests against dam construction by farmers in Iran, which was connected to the labor movement, and that young Iraqi environmentalists had petitioned on behalf of an Iranian environmental-labor activist while he was in solitary confinement. We told those we met about the Yaqui struggles, which they were interested in, and we were treated to food, hookah, and even invited to return to canoe down the Euphrates river as part of revitalizing ancestral Iraqi boat-making traditions. In April in northern Iraq, this is what our solidarity looked like: smoking hookah, working on the ground with the people, getting to know them, making music with them. These connections at the intuitive level are part of what being an artivist is about.

Travels to Venezuela

Two years ago, before we had begun Mirror Butterfly, we had travelled to an Afro-descent Maroon community in Veroes, Venezuela, to attend the First Ecosocialist International. The International was attended by more than 100 social movement leaders from across the world. There, these leaders developed a 500-year plan of action for the survival of the planet and the human species. The participants included representatives of Indigenous social movements and ecological radical movements from five continents.

As we were building our jazz opera, we reached out to an inspiring woman and activist who had been present at the International; her words and spirit, in turn, further helped shape Mirror Butterfly. When we met Mama C, a former Black Panther now living in Tanzania, we did not know we would someday work with her on Mirror Butterfly—we had not even conceptualized this work yet.

Mama C standing the middle of the floor with seated onlookers, many children surrounding her.

Mama C during the International.

Then, last year, after a collaborative concert in New York City between Mama C and Afro Yaqui Music Collective, which we are a part of, we asked her if she would like to be one of the participants in the construction of our jazz opera about climate change, matriarchal women warriors, and the revolution of all of our relations—with Earth, the climate, the very concept of gender. She agreed, creating a character for the show based on the mulberry tree, her favorite. At one point, she told us about her love for music. It is the music of Kansas City, the historical continuum of blues, jazz, and gospel, which contains rhythms of resistance that have animated struggle and self-determination for generations. We composed an aria in her honor with these influences in mind.

Artivism as Decolonization

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality.

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality. Mirror Butterfly is both a piece of experimental theatre and a standalone album that brings audiences into dialogue with the radical solutions that have been devised by regions experiencing environmental crises sparked by industry and international capital: water protection, ecological transformation, community-based economics, and depatriarchalization. There are multiple levels to the work, but colonization took five hundred years to bring us here, and we will need at least five hundred years to build out of it. To get there, we feel the practice of artivism offers the potential for holistic transformation.

Our experiences developing the piece showed us one path of what artivism looks like. An artivist is someone who can put aside ego, comfort, privilege, and even language difficulties to break bread and truly learn from those on the other side of empire. An artivist might travel across the world without a gig in mind or even a clear objective only to learn and possibly build international awareness of a struggle. As artivists, we look for ways we can change the consciousness of members of the collective and audience members, as well as build connections. One of the ways we did this was to organize a speaking tour with Mario Luna alongside our album release, where he educated audiences about the Yaqui struggle and its interconnection with the defense of life and water across the world.

Mario Luna at a podium with Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Mario Luna speaking to an audience with Gizelxanath Rodriguez at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, New York. The speaking tour was coordinated with performances of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective celebrating the album release of Mirror Butterfly.

Our own artivism took the form of creative and collaborative interaction on the basis of “the work”: talking about issues with the locals, learning from them, and creating work together—all with the intention of facilitating and strengthening international coalitions that articulate and construct an alternative future. These organizations, which go beyond governments and NGOs, built from civil society and the knowledge of the people on the ground, can help bridge social movements and forge organic resistance to the neofascisms of today in order to build the Maroon communities of tomorrow.

[Note: Parts of this essay have appeared in Howlround Theater Commons and have been reprinted here with permission.]

Saving The Earth–Artist/Activists for the Environment

It’s obvious that our physical world is in deep trouble.  Old and new technologies are out of control—polluting our air, water and soil, poisoning our health, heating up the climate to extreme weather changes, and destroying the ecosystems upon which our lives and all living things depend.  What is it that we, ordinary people, can do to force our governments to stop this rape and murder of the earth?

We are six women artists. Since we are artists, we will try to help through our art.

In 2016, composer Alice Shields collaborated with composers Sheree Clement, Eleanor Cory, and Nina C. Young to design a concert of new works dedicated to the earth, all created by women.  The concert would be presented by The Association for the Promotion of New Music in New York City (APNM) and would be performed by the musicians of Ensemble Pi.

Idith Meshulam Korman—pianist, artistic director of Ensemble Pi, and one of the most vibrant social activists in classical music—was already a friend of several of the composers and immediately got involved. Ensemble Pi was indeed the perfect ensemble for this project: an outstanding contemporary performing ensemble, with a celebrated history and ongoing commitment to human rights and environmental protection.

With Idith and Ensemble Pi’s roster of musicians in mind, several of us began writing new pieces about the environment that would be performed at the proposed concert.  As plans developed, we decided to explore what visual artist we might bring in to enhance the experience of our audience.  Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM, suggested we might want to ask the prominent environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan, whom he had known as a fellow student at New College, if she would be interested in participating.  Passionately committed to environmental protection, Lynne has documented climate change and water issues across the United States and around the world in places such as Patagonia, Iceland, the Falkland Islands, Antarctica, and Bangladesh.

We contacted her, and Lynne quickly became the sixth member of our artist-activist alliance. A dedicated environmentalist, she has photographed natural phenomena around the world, working for environmental organizations such as Waterkeeper Alliance, as well as with indigenous people.  Lynne’s beautiful, often disturbing photographs of the current state of the earth are riveting. Not only do they document the actual physical phenomena of streams, rivers, oceans, trees, and landscapes, but they are also works of art, radiantly detailed and shining with natural light.  Lynne’s environmental photographs will be shown throughout the SAVING THE EARTH concert, matched with the mood and world view of our different compositions. Our concert audience will not only be hearing music inspired by the environment, but will be experiencing visual art representing environmental issues as well.

Is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world?

We considered what else might elevate the audience’s experience.  We were not environmental scientists or biologists: is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world? Don’t we also need someone who can speak with authority about the perilous state of the environment?  We asked Lynne what environmental organization we should invite to speak at the concert. Lynne suggested we contact Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to clean water around the world which she knew well.

The Waterkeeper movement was started by fishermen on New York’s Hudson River in 1966 because industrial polluters were destroying their way of life. Their environmental activism led to the Hudson’s inspiring recovery. Waterkeeper Alliance now unites 300 Waterkeeper organizations around the world, tracking down polluters, enforcing environmental laws in the courts, advocating in town meetings, and teaching in classrooms.  They speak for the waters they defend. We contacted them and are pleased to say that Waterkeeper’s Executive Director Marc Yaggi will speak during the concert.  Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, Marc, a specialist in environmental law, was a senior attorney for Riverkeeper, Inc., where he worked to protect the 2,000-square-mile watershed that provides New York City’s drinking water.

The concert program we have designed together—four composers, a pianist-ensemble leader, and an environmental photographer—is called SAVING THE EARTH – Two operas and two meditations for our Planet. It will be presented by the Association for the Promotion of New Music on Nov. 20, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. Below, each one of us speaks a little about the concert and our hopes for the preservation of the earth.

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement
About Swimming Upstream (2018)
for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano , violin, cello and video
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Projection design by Ross Karre
NYC premiere

Swimming Upstream, a one-act chamber opera, explores our emotional connection to water and rivers and streams. The main character is a retired biology teacher from Rumford, Maine—and/or a water goddess. You get to decide.  Imagine her reaction to what we humans have done to the water on our planet – dammed streams and rivers, upended ecosystems, and even contaminated our own drinking water.  The piece incorporates projections and pre-recorded audio with field recordings and texts about water, the Androscoggin River, and migratory fish. With a minimal stage setting, it weaves together science, politics, regional history, and family history.

Upstream Fish

An image of upstream fish that will be projected during Sheree Clement’s Swimming Upstream.

The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

In four scenes, the heroine Mary Beth Davis comes to terms with the defilement of the Androscoggin River and the ramifications of the devastation it caused. Many of her family members worked in the Oxford / Verso paper mill, and many died of one kind of cancer or another. In reflecting on the river, Mary Beth’s science background leads her to consider the 2014 tap water crisis in Flint, Michigan and more. This drives her to ideas of retribution and extreme measures, but who is actually responsible? The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young
About L’heure bleue (2013)
Roberta Michel, flute; Ah Ling Neu, viola

I was trained as an ocean engineer at MIT and my work as a composer has often engaged with topics and sounds that address human interaction with technology and the environment.  In 2017 the American Composers Orchestra premiered Out of whose womb came the ice, a work for baritone, orchestra, electronics, and generative video commenting on the ill-fated Ernest Shackleton Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.  The composition is built upon sourced texts from the journal entries of the crew, visual manipulations of Frank Hurley’s photographs from the expedition, and recordings of ice floes and glaciers obtained from the PALAOA Ocean Acoustics Lab.  The glacier recordings resurface as the sonic and harmonic structure of Rising Tide, a work commissioned for the Milan Expo that comments on human agency and rising sea levels.  I’m currently collaborating with vocal bassist, writer, and community organizer Andrew Munn on an evening-length, multi-media ritual opera, titled Making Tellus – An Opera for the Anthropocene, which addresses the current socio-political conversation surrounding human intervention and earth’s rapidly changing geology.

For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.

All of these larger projects stemmed from one of my first attempts at tying together concepts of natural phenomenon with organized concert music: L’heure bleue, the work programmed on APNM’s concert.  For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.  L’heure bleue evokes with sound the earthly transition from day to night, the unique glow of the mysterious blue hour that fades into darkness.  The flautist and violist are two individuals in a partnership—conversing, arguing, and admiring their surroundings as they try to find a union between themselves as singular, together, and in counterpoint with the liminality of their surroundings.  The piece also contains an easter egg: play L’heure bleue alongside Steven Wilson’s song “Harmony Korine” and you may discover an unexpected connection.  (If you are interested why, come and chat with me after the show!)

Eleanor Cory in Straus Park

Eleanor Cory (Photo by Molly Sheridan)

Eleanor Cory
About Reverie Interrupted (2018)
Aexis Gerlach, cello; Idith Meshulam, piano
world premiere

I grew up summering on the far end of Long Island. We lived at the top of a hill away from the surf, but many summers our yard was flooded with waves which came up over the dunes during hurricanes. These were frightening experiences for me as a little child. The waves felt enormous, and surmounting their ire made me strong. Looking back, I experienced extreme vulnerability, but also a sense of power. I think the extremes of environmental events have some relation to writing music. We need to be in command of notes which can have the power to present listeners with everything from beauty to complexity, fear and anger as well as sensitivity and vigor. The environment has often inspired me with images which I have translated into notes.

I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people.

Writing music is a very solitary activity. For years I composed and taught composition to college students.  When I retired and was alone with just my music, I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people. Eventually, my pieces began to refer to political events like Occupy Wall Street or the experiences of people in prison.

Recently I have been concerned about the threat to the American environment, which led me to write Reverie Interrupted for cello and piano. The music alternates between supple lines and chords expressing the beautiful panoramas of wide U.S. landscapes, and agitated, more dissonant sections, which depict the environmental damage that humans can cause.  At the end of the piece, a quiet equilibrium allows the two musical extremes to co-exist expressing my optimism that people can end environmental corrosion.

Alice Shields

Alice Shields

Alice Shields
About Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World (2018)
for soprano, baritone, flute, oboe, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello
Sharon Harms, soprano; Jeffrey Huw Williams, baritone;
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Directed by Ashley Tata
world premiere

In early childhood I lived for a while in the Sonoran Desert, and saw Spring come on the desert, with thousands of cactus in bright blooms, radiating color under the enormous skies. Later, as a child growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I saw more and more asphalt being laid down for roads and malls, covering over the woods and meadows. As the number of cars increased on those roads and malls, the fresh air changed to something less alive. Since that time I have felt increasingly estranged from the natural world, and have tried to draw it near to me in my work. A recent piece in which I have held nature close to me is The Wind In the Pines, a commission from Chamber Music America for singer and six instruments. In this piece, based on the Noh play Matsukaze (“Pine Wind”), a pine tree speaks of the doom of the earth.

Joining these pieces is my new opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World, a one-act chamber opera. The plot is based on stories about Wang Zhaojun, who created peace between Mongolia and China two thousand years ago and is still celebrated in China today. Zhaojun had been given by her former master, the Emperor, to the Mongols as a sexual peace offering. But in the opera, to stop environmental destruction and create universal peace, the sex slave Zhaojun steps out of ancient times into the 21st century to confront the Emperor, the modern ruler of the world.

The costume for the Emperor of the Future

The costume for the Emperor of the Future in Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution. The plot unfolds: Zhaojun three times tries to rip away his guns, money, and garbage, but fails to trap him. Nonetheless, he stumbles and falls into his own toxic environmental garbage, smothers, and dies. She brings him back to life, and teaches him to sing a liturgy of caring for others, and immerses him in Indra’s Net, the connective tissue that connects each cell in the universe. He is overwhelmed with the beauty and profundity of the universe until there is no narcissism left in him, and he finally feels compassion and the urge to protect all living things. Nearer to enlightenment, and almost happy, the Emperor’s Soul is released, and he dances together with Zhaojun, dedicating his new life to caring and compassion for all things.

Idith Meshulam Korman playing the piano

Idith Meshulam Korman, pianist and artistic director of Ensemble Pi

Idith Meshulam Korman

Ensemble Pi, a socially conscious new music group, strives for activism through music by presenting concerts focused on such policy matters as mass incarceration, media suppression, Black Lives Matter, and protecting our environment. The last subject is the most alarming one, especially under the current administration, and encompasses issues of racism, economic injustice, greed, inequality, and media presentation.

For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations.

In my personal observations of environmental shifts during my lifetime, I would say that the most conspicuous change I have seen is the compromised health of the younger generation. For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations, afflicted with new, debilitating, undiagnosed, and misunderstood chronic diseases. The cause of this alarming and painful situation can be nothing other than that we live in a soup of environmental toxins. Our water, air, food, oceans, and mountains need our protection—and are not getting it.

And because we live in a male-dominated society that allows this to happen, it is time for  women to connect, collaborate, create a new movement, and launch a revolution to effect significant environmental change. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), cites the need to hear from more women scientists on the topic of climate change, and she notes that the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle at Standing Rock was initiated by women and children from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Ensemble Pi rehearsing

Ensemble Pi rehearsing Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World

I believe this should be our model, and that “Change the System to Change the Climate” should be our motto.

The question is: How do you stay hopeful or engaged in the present, dire political climate? The answer: by getting out of our homes and off our screens and coming together with like-minded people to share our concerns and pain and to call for change. This concert is part of that movement: women for environmental change.

Lynne Buchanan on the Kapitan Khlebnikov

Environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan on the legendary Kapitan Khlebnikov, one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world.

Lynne Buchanan

For the last 15 million years, Antarctica has been a frozen desert under ice.  My interest in water naturally led me there, as the Antarctic contains somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the earth’s freshwater in frozen ice sheets.  According to Andrew Shepherd, the lead author of a recent study on Antarctic ice loss, Antarctica lost 3 trillion tons of ice between 2002 and 2017, with forty percent of this loss in the last five years.  In addition to glacial land ice, there is sea ice, which is also declining and resulting in alterations to the food web and habitat loss.  The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix, which is causing changes in the ocean’s chemistry, ecosystems, and biodiversity.  It was fascinating to observe some of the changes that are happening with my own eyes, as I watched glaciers the size of city blocks move past the icebreaker.

The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix.

The sea ice is what really spoke to my soul though.  To study it was to watch geology in motion, something that is not possible on land.  Fast sea ice attaches to land masses and is less prone to seasonal melting, and this is what we walked on to visit the emperor penguins, which are the only creatures to lay their eggs on sea ice.  (Sadly, studies have predicted the rapid decline of these species as the sea ice diminishes.)  Floating sea ice can be multiyear thicker ice or thin ice that freezes each winter.  The winds and currents blow icebergs and sea ice around in the ocean, and it is easy to become trapped. Helicopter reconnaissance missions were performed regularly to make sure we would not get stuck. Sheets of sea ice often crash into each other and form fracture lines. I loved when finger-shaped pieces of ice were superimposed on layers below, or when frost flowers dotted the surface, or when the ship churned up thick chunks and you could see the krill and algae on the underside.  Glacial ice is devoid of life, but sea ice is a platform for it. The intricacies of how the sea ice behaves reminded me of the human psyche–the “armor” or artificial walls we often construct and how our personalities evolve when we are triggered or when aspects of our inner selves erupt. To me, Antarctica embodied the interconnectedness of existence. The sea of whiteness was a blank slate at times, but when you looked closer it wasn’t blank at all. There were traces and records of being in nothingness all around…

When Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM and a fellow New College alum, approached me to see if I was interested in participating in a “Saving the Earth” concert of works by female composers, I was honored to share my images.  Having worked with indigenous women on water and other environmental issues, I instantly knew the value of having a program with this theme designed and composed by women. Then I learned of the opera by Alice Shields that will be performed in this concert.  She describes the penultimate scene as being Indra’s Web, in which the female character Zhaojun immerses the Emperor’s body in the interconnected web of atoms that reflect all the other atoms in the universe, and teaches him to serenely sing with her the Bodhisattva’s guide to life. I was a yoga instructor before I began photographing water and interdependent ecosystems, so this spoke to me on a deep level.  My worldview is also greatly influenced by Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in the 12th century and believed in a web of life. The theme of Alice’s opera is a reminder that women throughout history have been advocating for the need to connect with the earth and share her resources for future generations.

Mentor, Me—Beyond Musical Mentorship

This is the second in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

Early on in Plato’s Republic, Socrates’s young interlocutor Glaucon asks, “Is there not such a [class of] goods … which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results?” My undergraduate political science professor, Vickie Sullivan, answers Glaucon’s question in the affirmative: she recently told me that for her, mentorship is “both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.”

Vickie Sullivan sitting in front of her desk which has open books on it.

Vickie Sullivan

Mentorship is both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.

Though Sullivan was a popular professor at Tufts University, particularly well known in the political science and classics departments (both of which she’s chaired), and an important mentor to some of my closest friends, I didn’t experience a class with her until the fourth year of my five-year double degree program between Tufts and NEC. I enrolled in Sullivan’s fall Western Political Thought seminar, a survey of ancient to early modern philosophy, starting with Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, spending generous time on Plato / Socrates’s Apology, Symposium and Republic, and wrapping things up with Machiavelli’s Prince. I was in it for the Plato.

But quickly I was in it for the Sullivan. Her lectures on the Symposium are still among the most memorable, intriguing, and personally valuable lessons of my education. If you don’t know the Symposium, it’s basically a story about a drinking game in which Socrates and his groupies—an aristocrat, a doctor, a lawyer, a comic playwright, and a tragic poet—compete to give the best speech in praise of Eros, the god of Love and the Beautiful, all the while getting more and more plastered. Aside from being wildly entertaining, the Symposium addresses such lofty themes as sex, beauty, the meaning of love, truth, the material versus the ideal, and the ever-complex layers of the human experience.

According to my own biased take, this dialogue is fundamentally about art: why we make it, why we need it, and why it is an endlessly fulfilling pursuit. In Sullivan’s lecture on Socrates’s climactic speech about Eros, she suggests that he depicts Eros (beauty) as an entity of constant in-between-ness and becoming. Beauty is the ascent up the ladder of love for what is to love for what ought to be— a ladder whose steps climb infinitely towards something unattainable that we pursue regardless. This reading resonated with my own reasons for art making that I’d never been able to articulate. For me, music is about creating and re-imagining how the world ought to be. Though material means—pencil, paper, hollowed-out pieces of wood—the musician transforms something real (symbols on a page, vibrations of a bowed string) into something ideal. Like Socrates’s Eros, music is always in a state of becoming. This inherent instability makes it beautiful. Sullivan, in her own pedagogical artfulness, acted as an intermediary between me and Plato, so that I could find personal significance in the texts she taught.

An illustration depicting a description in Plato's Symposium

Her goal of teaching students “to try to take texts really seriously and gain an appreciation of how they were written and can be read” and “of the necessity and possibility of continual improvement” was consequential to my musical studies. During the next two years as her student, TA, and eventually, her collaborator, Sullivan’s guidance in critical reading and thinking made me a more critical musician.  Having a mentor figure outside of music was also really grounding: it reminded me that my art and the skills I need to make it didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Music is about creating and reimagining how the world ought to be.

Observing her teach also made me think about cultivating an audience in music. I often viewed Sullivan’s lectures and seminar discussions as her way of creating a fresh and enthusiastic readership for the texts she loved. Especially as a TA for Western Political Thought, I watched students enter the lecture hall shrugging at this required course for their major, and within the week passionately debating Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue. Sullivan created audiences not by watering down esoteric material, but by diving headfirst into it, inviting and trusting her students to as well. She was concerned with clarity rather than accessibility. She challenged her students to search for nuance and to find the words to articulate it rather than settling for black-and-white explanations. Sullivan taught me that trusting an audience to be open to new experiences is empowering, not cumbersome. I hope to invite listeners into the music I love by being unapologetic to and trustful of my audience.

The vast majority of Sullivan’s students will not go on to pursue graduate degrees in political science or careers that echo her own. Many might never reopen Plato’s Symposium after their midterm exam. But, they will have gained an experience of studying something in depth. This is a gift that can never be taken away from them.

Sullivan’s Glaucon-inspired teaching philosophy has put my approach to classroom teaching in healthy perspective in several respects. First, most of my classroom students will not become professional musicians, but they can become curious music lovers and engaged listeners. To me, this is the “good for what comes from” teaching music. Second, and more importantly, studying and listening to music in depth is an experience “good in and of itself” that merits no further rationalization or objective. At conservatory there’s this assumption that everyone is going to be a professional musician and one trains to achieve that goal. Sullivan showed by example that rigorous training can be good in and of itself, and this made learning music satisfying even if I had days or weeks or long stretches of time when I thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the whole composer thing.

Undoubtedly, Sullivan’s role in the classroom is very different from Kati Agócs’s role as a studio teacher (whom I wrote about last week). When I recently asked Agócs for some of her opinions on teaching, she immediately drew the distinction between studio and classroom teaching. Indeed, Agócs lessons had a set of expectations hinged on the assumption that I was training to be a professional composer, while Sullivan was almost always communicating to a broad range of personalities and interests. The assumption of my commitment to music was an important social contract in my studio lessons: Agócs treated my work seriously because she was invested in my development towards the particular vocation I sought for myself. There was a material goal to our working together, whether it was a finished score or my long-term career trajectory. My contract with Sullivan was very different: to be an engaged and curious learner.

Observing Sullivan teach political science made me think about cultivating an audience in music.

Yet, both likened mentorship to parenting: When I asked her about navigating the issue of teacher/student boundaries in a conservatory culture where these relationships can be quite intimate, Agócs told me that “it is a little like parenting. Children value boundaries because they make them feel secure, best for learning, then they are always challenging and testing them. The boundaries shift and change as the relationship develops.” Similarly, Sullivan described mentorship as a “kind of intellectual family” in which the mentor “is in a position to model professional behavior, setting an example, sort of like parenting. You’re really trying to focus on the development of that individual and you’re not getting anything out of it except that satisfaction of seeing that student develop.”


Speak Now: D.C. Dispatch—Arts in the Time of Trump

Almost four years ago my family moved to Washington, D.C. This city is everything you think it is, and yet it’s not. Like any big metro area, Washington is made up of multiple layers and identities, with government being only one dimension. Yes, we are interrupted by motorcades—a lot of them—and we do see many political players. We have monuments and large legal and lobbying firm HQs. But Washington is far more than Capitol Hill. It’s an actual city with native Washingtonians, hipsters in Adams Morgan, a complex international diplomatic and NGO community, tech companies, universities, a heavy military and intelligence population (not to mention… spies!), corporate headquarters, important non-profits, and—of course—a thriving and growing arts community. In so many ways, from restaurants to music, D.C. is no longer just a tourist stopover on Amtrak. It is a unique and complex mix of its varied community elements; it is a destination. We are also unique in that our political voice does not count in the national conversation. More on that later.

The military employs some of the best instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers in the country.

One of the many fascinating intersections between D.C. communities involves the military’s music population. If you aren’t aware, the military employs some of the best instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers in the country. Certainly it helps to have the National Symphony and Opera here, but a lot of musical activity is scaffolded by the military, creating a first-rate, thriving, local group of musicians. They make up a sizable percentage of the many flourishing mid-budget ensembles and organizations. It probably isn’t well known that these military ensembles premiere new work, play contemporary music, and work with local presenters (e.g. last year’s collaboration between Washington Performing Arts and the U.S. Air Force Band to perform John Luther Adams’s SILA).

It is a bit surreal to live in Washington, D.C. now, not just during the changeover of administrations but during a transition that is so “unprecedented.” Friends tell us of their past experiences with changes in administration—the changing of the political guard, real estate swaps, questions of budgetary impact, and so on. But this administration has everyone stumped and guessing. Among the many pressing issues is: what might happen to the arts in the Age of Trump?

There is unease and uncertainty in the air here. While “federal government” is abstract in many parts of the country, here it is very real. It is people and lives, flesh and blood. We know people who had to take out loans to pay their mortgage when the government shut down in 2013. We know people working for the NIH, the NEA, NEH, the Smithsonian, and other government departments, like Defense, State, Justice, or the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau. And we certainly know many people in the arts, including many of those military musicians.

The last two decades have seen immense growth in population, culture, and gentrification in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia area). A more broad-based economy that is very “local” has developed. Still, our ecosystem is dependent in profound “trickledown ways” on the federal government. Cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse” translates into actually cutting or doing away with agencies, departments, and programs. And, if these are all cut… people are let go. This effects not only those individuals, but local businesses large and small, the tax base, and then artistic activities and support. Many of the programs currently being floated for cuts or elimination are crucial to citizens across our country, but they are also critical locally. This is a cost that is neither talked about nor tallied up, when the usual arguments about cutting government spending are offered. The potential for a negative “knock-on effect” is huge.

One thing that has not grown over many decades is the power of our political voice.  As we focus on the possible impacts of these budget cuts we are cognizant there is little we can actually do to stop them. Over six hundred thousand people currently live in this federal District of Columbia but not one of us have congressional voting rights. We are a district, not a state, and therefore are governed by Congress, which still denies D.C. fully-fledged voting members in the House or the Senate, or the Electoral College. No vote, no voice. Even with the rights to vote in popular presidential elections (1961) and for our own mayor and city council (1973), Congress still has ultimate authority over the District and can overturn any mayoral or council decisions. This is why our license plates say “Taxation Without Representation.” If cuts are coming our way there is not much we can do but protest.

Music, like politics, is local.

During our current tumultuous times, D.C. has seen its share of public protest and demonstration. Certainly the recent Arts Advocacy Days were a very public example of the wide and deep support the arts have, as many took to Capitol Hill to meet and advocate. And it has been interesting to witness the “rallying to the flag” response the mere mention of the NEA has been eliciting of late—spontaneous, big, loud, sustained, and heartfelt ovations; always on cue in public events these days. But much of the real action—organizing and working—is behind the scenes and behind closed doors.

Protesters assembled outside the United States Congress in Washington DC

The election has been a moment of clarifying purpose and mission for many. Some non-profits (both arts-focused and not) have reported a surge in support and donations, and they are reaching out and coordinating with each other like never before. By coincidence, the Shift Festival of American Orchestras, the first-ever collaboration between the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, was launched at this most opportune time here in D.C. Suddenly, the city saw invasions from Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, and New York, complete with their local orchestra boards and supporters, media, local delegations and representatives—and a lot of local pride. One of the main takeaways from the festival was a clear reminder that excellent music making occurs across the country with strong local support. Washington is the obvious choice to showcase such a platform. It ends up that music, like politics, is local.

Art and its institutions are among the few avenues left for meeting and setting aside differences.

It’s also important to understand that many right now are not overtly protesting proposed arts funding changes, but they are paying attention. In some cases more progress can be made through quiet, diplomatic backchannels, assuming they still exist. Not too long ago even major players from the various political factions still frequented the same social events, coached each other’s kids on sports teams, carpooled at the same schools, and generally mingled. Sadly, this is not that case anymore. Many locals attribute this decline to the trend of representatives refusing to move their families to D.C., treating their time here as a stay at a hotel, not a home. Bridges are also being deliberately dismantled between the sides. This leads to even more polarization. Art and its institutions are among the few avenues left for meeting and setting aside differences, even if only for a few hours. Many boards still have members from both sides of the aisle. We don’t want to lose that. Please don’t confuse a lack of visible signs, including protest, for lack of motion and effort.

It is ironic that we Washingtonians have ringside seats at this epic battle, but we have no real voice ourselves. We live here, pay taxes, fight in our nation’s wars, but do so without true national representation. You can call your full-voting representatives, but we in the District cannot. At least we can show up, demonstratively and loudly, in the arts.

Joel Friedman, in a suit; the White House can be seen in the background.

Joel Friedman is a composer of concert, theater, dance, and film music who is now based in Washington D.C. He is a speaker/host/writer on various musical topics and teaches composition at Catholic University. Upcoming commissions include a double concerto for violin and viola and chamber orchestra (for Ariel Horowitz, Lauren Siess, and Barbara Day Turner of the San José Chamber Orchestra), a vocal work based on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen for the vocal trio ModernMedieval, and the score to Evolve Puppets NYC’s new show Home.

Speak Now: A Habit of Hearing

Members of Missouri State University's Chorale performing John Wykoff's Now We Belong at the 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

Ed. Note: American composers have sometimes played a significant role during U.S. presidential inaugurations and, upon a few occasions, there have even been new musical compositions created expressly for these events. Leonard Bernstein composed a minute-long fanfare for JFK’s inaugural. (Bernstein’s frequent orchestrator Sid Ramin created the arrangement for winds and percussion that was performed during the ceremony.) More recently, John Williams composed Air and Simple Gifts for Barack Obama’s first swearing-in which was performed, albeit to a synced soundtrack, by an all-star quartet of clarinetist Anthony McGill, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero.

There have been even greater controversies surrounding inauguration music. Though not commissioned specifically for Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural ceremony, Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed during the official inaugural concert. But it was cancelled only days before in response to testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives by Illinois Republican Congressman Fred Busbey in which he claimed that Copland had a “long record of questionable affiliations.” (In May 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy demanded Copland appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; Copland would not be completely exonerated until November 1955, at which point the State Department declared there was “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.” Since then, Copland’s music was featured in inaugural ceremonies for Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.)

In October 2016, a bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies commissioned 34-year-old Tennessee-based composer John Wykoff to compose music for the 58th presidential inauguration on January 21, 2017. Wykoff collaborated with Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne to create a four-minute unaccompanied choral composition titled Now We Belong, which received its world premiere outdoors during the inauguration in a performance by the Missouri State University Chorale.

The next day, the Missouri State University Chorale performed the work again, indoors, which was a much more conducive setting for recording.

The homepage of Wykoff’s website features a short statement regarding this commission: “I am honored to compose music for this important national ceremony. Some have asked, and I don’t hesitate to say, that my involvement is not intended to communicate any political views or endorsements.” After hearing his composition and reading his statement, we contacted Wykoff and asked him to share his thoughts on how he sees his role as an artist and citizen in this complex time.


Composers can nourish a listening culture. Indeed, helping society to cultivate a habit of hearing may be the timeliest goal a company of composers might undertake together today. Ours is an age of loudness and of speech. It is a day of talking, telling, saying, shouting. But who is listening? Who leads with the ear? When there is so much ado over the number of messengers and the volume of their voices, but not the content of their message, is that not a tacit admission that no one, in fact, has heard what they said? Has our society lost its hearing? With that, I think, composers can help.

To start, I suggest a hard concession. I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds. (When I say “minds,” I really mean people’s beliefs, opinions, and convictions.) I do not, please notice, suggest that anyone stop trying to change minds altogether, only that they stop using music to do it. Argument, not art, is the best tool for proving opinions. Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving. True, habits of thought and perception may lead to and flow from the convictions of the mind. But they also may be surprisingly at odds with them, as when someone honestly believes that no race is better than another, but has tacit habits of prejudicial suspicion. It is with mental habits, not mental convictions, that art is most effective for change.

Similarly, I suggest that composers resist the metaphor of artist-as-prophet. The prophetic role of an artist has been discussed directly and indirectly for a long time. There is some good reason for it. Artists, like prophets, sometimes point to an unrealized future. And artists, like prophets, sometimes hold a mirror to society. Yet there must be the possibility of embarrassment when the prophetic mantle is assumed rather than bestowed. Reluctance, not self-anointing, is the trademark of prophets. The metaphor is best left to music historians and culture critics to use. Most of us shouldn’t think of ourselves in a prophetic role.

Then what might be our role? Or what good can we do for society? I believe we can help society cultivate a habit of hearing. Composers are famous for their ability to listen deeply. By nature and by training, they hear beneath the surface and beyond the moment. More importantly, there is a predisposition—widespread among composers today—to approach new music receptively, to hear what other composers are doing, to lead with the ear. There are so many varieties of music, so many modes of creativity, that many composers have learned to suspend their own reactions to new music until they have been able to hear it on its own terms. That, it seems to me, is a composerly virtue—not that composers alone possess it, but that they possess it in spades. Nor is it somehow intrinsic to a composer. Predispositions are not intrinsic. They are habitual stances that can be formed.

There are two things composers may do to help others form an ears-first predisposition. The first and principal thing is to strive to create music that invites close listening, requires close listening, and rewards close listening. Music can’t help people learn to hear unless it first invites them to listen. It has to be winsome. If it is too confrontational on the surface, it may actually cultivate close-mindedness—the practice of stopping one’s ears.

Yet having attracted listeners, it does not help matters to require nothing of them. In order to cultivate listening, music should strengthen the ear, not pacify it. When music is merely pandering, when it doesn’t require close, attentive, repeated listening, then it doesn’t do anything to help form the habitual stance I’m writing about. Such music may not cause anyone to stop their ears, but it may still cultivate close-mindedness because it keeps the ear comatose.

Yet attracting listeners and awakening their ears is not enough. The music I’m prescribing should also reward the hard work of hearing with a payoff in proportion to what was required to hear it. I imagine that most composers know full well the temptation to construct a barrier of complexity that masks a lack of substance. This is a kind of musical dishonesty. It is like a bad work of philosophy which, lacking a definite conclusion, still asks the reader to follow a difficult train of thought that leads nowhere. To beckon people in to listen closely, to require them to work at hearing, and then to offer them nothing for their efforts is a sure way to teach them to distrust what is new or hard. They will justifiably take their ears elsewhere. But if their patience and trust are rewarded with something meaningful and valuable, they may seek additional brushes with music that challenges them. That is a good start to forming a habit of hearing.

There are surely many examples of music with the qualities I am describing. For instance, almost anything by Paul Lansky could serve as a model. Whether it is his iconic electronic works or his newer acoustic works, his music has a way of beckoning you in, requiring much of you, and rewarding your efforts. His famous Idle Chatter is immediately fascinating. But it is also perplexing. You want to slow it down. You want to pick it apart. You want to discern how one element relates to another. You want to know what’s going on. You simply have to hear it again. And as you listen repeatedly, you may come to find that the piece only “makes sense” insofar as you choose to put on “sense-making” filters. You are forced to choose how you will listen to it, and forced to refresh your choice each time you listen again. The reward for your efforts is surely a measure of self-knowledge. You become more aware of your tacit filters­—the implicit ways you listen. You learn what you automatically listen for, and what you automatically ignore. By extension, it may cause you to consider the “sense-making” filters through which you experience life’s barrage. It may even lead you to wonder what there is out in the world that you automatically ignore. Such self-knowledge is a sensible reward.

Constantly creating new music with such qualities is foundational, but it isn’t the only thing we can do to encourage a habit of hearing. Composers can work alongside performers, educators, scholars, and critics to find better ways of inviting people into frequent, worthwhile encounters with challenging music. Together we can find more effective ways to guide inexperienced listeners, helping them learn how to suspend their reactions while they listen deeply. ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) is leading the way here. Through their educational and outreach efforts, they are helping young people all over the world learn how to engage music that, were it not for ICE’s winning manner, might be too strange for some people. It is undoubtedly a lofty goal, but if such efforts and similar ones were duplicated, and new worthy efforts devised, and if composers will provide a reliable stream of inviting, yet challenging and rewarding music of many varieties, is it not conceivable that many could learn, as a habitual stance, always to bring a listening ear to what is new? Is not conceivable that a whole society could be marked by a habit of hearing?

Probably you will have noticed that I have been using the word “hearing” equivocally. To “hear” strange music is not the same thing as to “hear” a strange opinion. For example, to “hear” a piece of music, in the sense that I mean, probably involves comprehending a musical element (a motive or a timbre, say) and relating it to other elements or other instances of the same element. But to “hear” a well-formed opinion probably involves comprehending one or more reasons, or at least motivations, and connecting them to some kind of a conclusion. The skills are different. I am aware of this, and I do not intend to fool anyone. I do not pretend that the skills for listening closely to new music will translate directly into skills for listening closely to a new opinion. However, even if the skills are not transferable, I suspect that the habit is. And it is only the habit that I am concerned with—the composerly virtue. And it is one, I think, in desperate need of cultivation.

John Wykoff

John Wykoff is assistant professor of music theory and composition at Lee University. He holds a Ph. D. from the City University of New York, and an M. A. from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He studied composition with David Del Tredici, Bruce Saylor, and Jeffrey Nichols and choral arranging with Alice Parker.  John writes for choir, piano, organ, orchestra, and a variety of chamber ensembles. His music has been premiered by groups such as ICE, MIVOS Quartet, and Enso String Quartet. He was given the Opus Award by the Missouri Choral Directors Association for Panis Angelicus for string quartet and choir. In collaboration with poet Michael Dennis Browne he wrote Now We Belong, a choral work about the nation’s immigrant identity, which was commissioned, ironically, for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

Speak Now: Our Job as Composers Has Now Changed

Washington DC Metro Escalator

In his address at Amherst College, JFK said, “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. Where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Ours is a humbling profession. Creating and studying music often forces us to stand on the shoulders of giants and consider the long arc of thoughts and creativity that came before us. They remind us of our humanity, oftentimes in a way that many others might lose track of when society gets involved in a heady mix that declares that we can all be cleansed through politics.

I straddle the worlds of being a composer on the one hand but also a journalist and foreign policy commentator on the other. These things unite my passions, but today I can also see them being united in other ways.

A few days ago, the press corps released an open letter to the new president. It read, in part: “Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.”

Journalism and art are essentially about illuminating truth to the best of our ability. This seems especially relevant in an era where the very validity of absolute truth is being brought to question, and also in an era where, if the warning signs of corruption are any indication, we will need much cleansing at the end of it all and all throughout it.

Today a new America begins. I’m not going to talk about racism, sexism, misogyny, or any of the scourges we have seen time and again in our society. The main feature of this new America is something astonishing that we have seen begin this year. Via Twitter and on cable TV, our new president has targeted you and me; creative thinkers promoting ideas. Those who would think that ignoring assaults on Hamilton, the Musical on Meryl Streep or on any artist is a secondary thing engineered only to divert attention away from an “important” news story like the declassification of a CIA report is missing the point. Beyond the fact that people can walk and chew gum at the same time, this misses the point that the assault on the First Amendment, on artistic expression, and on the articulation of ideas is actually so important to pay attention to. It’s the heart of the matter. Intimidating the expression of ideas is the vital bedrock of any anti-intellectual movement.

Beyond this, when we sit down to compose a symphony or an opera or build a museum or construct a city, it speaks of the same basic desire: to affect a grand gesture of our humanity.

These grand gestures are important. There’s a lot of talk about opposing extremism and intolerance in the world and it’s fine to oppose violence and destruction through developing a counter-narrative or developing a cogent military strategy (those are vital things), but the ultimate response of resistance to violence and destruction is creation. It’s a simple statement of fact that creation is the polar opposite to destruction. That means building a city or composing a symphony or sending a mission to Mars. Creation and invention are the ultimate “show me” forms of opposition to violence.

Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. But remember: we’re playing the long game.

Vigilance is vital. Our norms will be violated in such a way that will be progressive and imperceptible. In the first movement of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony the famous march begins in the most unassuming way possible. Hardly threatening. Almost laughable. But just follow its growth into a terrifyingly grotesque distortion of itself. The most terrifying thing perhaps is how the terror it builds up to is such a logical conclusion but one we could never have dreamed of when the gesture began so innocently (descending the escalator). Our job has now changed. Over the coming years, every American composer who is not deaf will be hearing some of the most violent sounds known to humanity.

As the open letter from the press said, they have been forced “to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for.”

Previously our profession was important. Today it is existentially vital. This is not a call to propaganda. It is a call to truth. My aim here is not to promote a message but to urge you all to promote an infinite variety of messages and to never shy away from self-expression.

I’ll end, as I started, with President Kennedy:

“Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”

Mohammed Fairouz

Mohammed Fairouz (photo by Samantha West)

Mohammed Fairouz‘s compositional catalog encompasses virtually every genre, including opera, symphonies, vocal and choral settings, chamber and solo works and his music has been performed at major venues around the country including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall and The Kennedy Center, and throughout the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia. Fairouz’s large-scale works engage major geopolitical and philosophical themes and his cosmopolitan outlook reflects his transatlantic upbringing and extensive travels. By his early teens, the Arab-American composer had journeyed across five continents, immersing himself in the musical life of his surroundings. Recordings of his music, which is published exclusively by Peermusic Classical, are available on the Deutsche Grammophon, Naxos, Bridge, Sono Luminus, Albany, GM/Living Archive, and GPR labels.

THINGS HAVE GOT TO CHANGE!–Writing Political Music in Today’s World

I began studying composition with Fred Ho without knowing quite what I was getting myself into. I was 25 with a fresh graduate degree in composition under my belt, lost in that special way only millennial twenty-somethings get to be. I knew I wanted to write political works and, having met Fred twice before, I knew that he was the one who could help me do it.

The ensuing four years were a study in what it really means to fuse arts and politics: truly understanding the history of struggle and the historical power behind political music. Fred was the great champion of Cal Massey, a composer, bandleader, and Black Panther who was blacklisted from recording studios because of his politics. Fred’s band was the first to ever record and release Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, a nine-movement magnum opus that was commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver and tributes different figures in the black liberation movement. Cal used his music and his big band to hold many successful fundraisers for the Black Panther Party; it was for this reason that record labels saw him as enough of a threat to warrant blacklisting. Fred made sure that I studied Cal Massey’s music like it was the holy grail: his unforgettable Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change! never fails to infuse electricity into the room whenever it’s performed, tripling as protest fight song, audience sing-along, and underrated cornerstone of the big band canon.

It’s now 2015: Fred is dead, his life abbreviated by an eight-year battle with metastatic cancer. His political and musical vision transcended his time on this earth, however, and the implications of his music and lessons are more poignant than ever. As the daily news cycle goes from bad to worse and the non-indictments for cops killing young, unarmed black men pile up, I hear in my head the voice of my beloved and late mentor: WRITE. Fred didn’t believe in separating the arts from politics. Virtually all of his music—even the kitschy arrangements of superhero themes and his blazingly groovy interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes—had some political impetus at the basis of it. Fred’s works might have been political slogans, scrawled across a piece of cardboard and carried through a protest: there’s Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes!, written for the Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange; Paper Tigers are Real Scaredy Cats, his reimagining of the Pink Panther Theme for big band; We Refuse to Be Used And Abused!, a suite for his Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.

It’s all too easy for us as a society to forget that jazz has its roots in revolution: slaves used their African rhythms and tonalities to communicate on the plantation. As time passed, jazz became both a method of survival for black musicians and a profession that chewed you up and spit you out (see: the hard lives and early deaths of Charlie Parker, Cal Massey, John Coltrane, and a great many others). The jazz musician became a novelty and a stereotype: poor, sick, often drug-addicted, but genius; the music became appropriated, sanitized, and commodified.

I am lucky enough to have been taught all of these things by Fred; they were part of his requirements for me to study with him. As a young, queer woman in jazz, I take the implications of my craft and calling very seriously. When Fred became too sick, he handed over the baton to his Eco-Music Big Band to me, and I learned that he hired musicians with a serious caveat: at least 51% of his band had to be oppressed peoples. His musicians were his army, effecting change right alongside him.

As Fred’s successor, it is an honor to work with musicians who are moved to do the same. I hear the music that my colleagues are writing and understand the depth with which Fred’s legacy of political music reaches. It goes beyond the instinct to pay tribute to the greats of the civil rights movement and deals with the here and now. The MSO Trio—Albert Marques, Walter Stinson, and Zack O’Farrill (all of whom work within the Eco-Music Big Band)—has two new works that come to mind, both composed by Marques. The first, You’re Under Arrest, is a jazz-meets-heavy metal work about police brutality in the United States; the second, Jazz is Working Class, is a blues with Latin groove about the commodification of jazz for the affluent and its roots in poverty, slavery, and oppression.

If Fred were alive now, there’s no question in my mind that he would be writing works for Eric Garner and Mike Brown. He would want us to soundtrack the protests and then go out and shut the city down. He would demand that our works be virtuosic, loud, and groovy enough to lift the spirits of the masses and reach the families of these young black men.

We as musicians have a responsibility to respond to the world around us, to give the people a song to raise their spirits and fuel the fight in their hearts.

So, in light of the political climate we live in—for Eric Garner, for Mike Brown, for Palestine—I pick up my pencil and write. A melody. An ostinato bassline. It’s got to groove, Fred would say. You aren’t going to move people if it doesn’t.

Marie Incontrera

Marie Incontrera is a composer, conductor, and band leader whose work spans queer opera, political big band, and music-for-the-oppressed. Marie is the conductor and band-leader of the Green Monster Big Band (Fred Ho’s premiere big band) and the Eco-Music Band (a smaller, variable ensemble), both ensembles for which she also composes and arranges. She was Fred Ho’s last composition and conducting protege.