Tag: politics

Retaking the Stage: What Artists Can Be In Our Society

Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance, which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.

“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.

“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”

That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”

Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.

“On the one hand we’re at this experimental music center [UCSD’s music department], redefining what music can be,” said Liang, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang (which has its own political subtext). Like Xiaoxiang—indeed, like most of his works—Inheritance tests, and even expands, the limits of the opera’s eight-member instrumental ensemble (two clarinets, trumpet, two percussionists, guitar, harpsichord and contrabass), creating a unique and wide-ranging sonic palette that extends far beyond the mere use of harmonics and multiphonics. “You can discover a lot of new things in things we thought were old,” said Liang, who is also research artist-in-residence at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “It’s just the way of thinking was old, the way of playing was old.

“[On the other hand,] Susan and I share this passion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves in a box. Of course there are a lot of things that are kind of fun just because you discover something new, but they have to find their right context, their right message, their relevance to the story. With all these inventions and creating our own new music language, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the importance of what is really urgent in our society. We have to face it.”


While it’s difficult to generalize that Liang’s impulse to engage with social and political issues is shared by a growing number of composers in an increasingly polarized and politically charged environment, politics is proving to be fertile ground for composers looking to connect with an audience, and not only in chamber opera (a form Du Yun also used in her 2017 Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, which offered an allegory on human trafficking) and opera (whether John Adams, who has repeatedly relied on current social and political themes, most recently in the 2017 Girls of the Golden West or David T. Little, in particular his 2016 opera JFK, but also his earlier Soldier Songs and Dog Days).

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean and Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields both gently raise contemporary issues (climate change and the culture of coal), and both won Pulitzer Prizes (Adams in 2014; Wolfe in 2015), while younger composers such as LJ White, are dealing with issues that are no less immediate and in White’s case, particularly personal.

“There is a school of thought in contemporary classical music that music should be above everything else, that it should have a purity about it,” said White, who is on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. “To me, that doesn’t make sense. Everything we do in art comes from what’s around us and who we are as humans.”

White uses his own life as a metaphor. He is transitioning, and has been coming out over the last several years, which has inevitably affected his music. But even before that, he found himself interested in which musical elements signify genre. “I’ve been fascinated with the boxes we put ourselves into and how we can sort of combine signifiers from different worlds to create something that isn’t easily classifiable,” he said. “And I think that has a lot to do with the way I present myself in the world as well.

“I like my music to be a series of microdecisions, any of which could go in any direction to best convey what I’m trying to convey, the feeling or the purpose, rather than something that starts from a large decision that automatically makes a lot of your smaller decisions. That’s kind of what genre is, and also what being male or female is in a way. And that’s something else that’s charged and political, especially in the current moment.”

White’s compositions include pieces that are overtly political, such as his most recent work, Shuffled ‘Notes from “A Guide to Drag Kinging”’, based on a poem by Franny Choi and commissioned by Pushback, a new “modular contemporary music ensemble” whose mission is to advocate for groups that are “underrepresented and oppressed,” both in and outside the world of music.

I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate.

“We feel that a lot of the art we have made, and we have seen others making, seems a little distant from our sociopolitical lives, and the rest of our lives, really,” said soprano Ally Smither, who co-founded the project with bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. (They met while students at Rice University.) “I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate and they didn’t interact,” said Roidi-Ward. “I think it’s important, especially within the community and in creating new work, that the work has something to say about the world that we live in, and the world we want to live in, and the type of community we want to build.” Pushback, which formed earlier this year, has already commissioned pieces by Binna Kim, Karim Al-Zand (Songs from the Post-Truth Era), Theo Chandler (Tamora Monologues) and White, who has also just completed a work for Schick and the La Jolla Symphony, which will be premiered at UCSD on February 9, 2019.

White’s new orchestral piece for La Jolla, Community Acoustics, is inspired by phenomena in natural ecosystems where, in White’s words, “a stratification develops among species where they all kind of have a certain register that is theirs alone and that they use for their calls and communication with other members of their species. It forms this sort of interlocking registral environment that allows everybody to be heard…And scientists have observed this and seen cases where it’s disastrous when this gets disrupted.”

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see that even nature can be political. “Maybe ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been a charged topic,” said White. “But it is now. Everything is political.” Schick, who commissioned the piece and is music director of the La Jolla Symphony, increasingly eschews the term “political music,” and in a new commissioning program he and Brenda Schick (his wife) are putting together, he’s focusing on music with “optimistic social values,” of which White’s piece is the first commission.

“I really realized that my objection to, in quotation marks, ‘political music,’ is that it is so often proscriptive,” said Schick, a faculty member at UCSD and an esteemed percussionist in addition to his activities as a conductor. “It is a statement built on a negative. ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ ‘We can’t have that.’ ‘Look how horrible this is.’ ‘Look at the problems here.’ I wouldn’t say that is the definition of political music, but I think it turns out that a lot of the music that takes on things that cross over into real life takes a remedial approach. And what I’m trying to do, and I believe this is what distinguishes my interests from at least some people, is that I see the job of music in this regard as an affirmative action toward a moral society as opposed to a punitive action toward an immoral society.”


Liang and Narucki had similar concerns. They were not inclined to make a piece with an overtly political message, but were committed to doing something on the topic of guns. “There are works that are the result of some circumstance, some commission, some external reason, but there are also works that just have to happen,” said Liang, whose own experience with guns dates back to 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when as a teenage protester, he found himself face-to-face with armed soldiers.

“This is one of those topics we have to do, especially because it is so hard,” Liang said. “It’s such a difficult topic to deal with. It’s such a black and white thing (in terms of people’s opinions). It’s so easy for people to think, before they even see it, ‘I know what the conclusion is going to be,’ and it seems people have already made up their minds. It’s so hard to find the right angle, to say, ‘No, there’s a humanity in this we must face and we must rediscover as we find ourselves in this conversation.’ I think that’s the thing that took us a while to find: what is the perfect angle to do this, a personal one for us?”

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

Liang had met Donovan, the librettist, while both were fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and Donovan, a poet who is director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, had been doing research on gun violence. “I’m really concerned about gun violence in this country, so it seemed like something that would be worth thinking about as a subject,” said Donovan. “But I will say I was reluctant. I was cautious from the outset about pursuing the topic because I didn’t want to write anything that would at all be didactic. I wanted to write something that would address the issue, and allow the issue to resonate for the audience, but I didn’t want to be presumptive, and write something that would be any way instructional about how this very complex issue might start to be resolved in this country.”

By chance, Donovan came across an essay about Sarah Winchester and her San Jose “mystery house,” where she moved after the death of her child and then her husband, and she renovated and expanded continually for nearly four decades. Donovan explained how that shaped the work itself:

Clearly there are some apocryphal stories that are all wound up in her legacy, but if you believe the legends, or at least take them at face value for a moment, I think what we have is a woman who is concerned about bloodshed from guns, but complicit in it in a very direct way. But then, her response to that concern, and her response to the violence that was caused by the guns [that her late husband produced and which now supported her] was to move out West and create a labyrinth from which there’s no real escape and no clear resolution.

And that for me became a rich metaphor, because I see America in Winchester. I see a lot of people, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, who are concerned about gun violence, but we are at such an impasse given how polarized the topic is, that I don’t see a clear resolution, and I don’t see anyone building a clear path toward any kind of change. So the labyrinth metaphor, it resonated with me right away and aligned with this idea this piece will be suggestive rather than instructive.

Liang and Narucki immediately embraced the idea and engaged Donovan to write a libretto and began developing the production, supported by grants from Creative Capital, the NEA, ArtPower, UCSD, and New Music USA. “It was beautiful to discover Sarah Winchester, this person who embodies the complexity of this issue,” said Liang, continuing:

The thing that moved me the most was when I went to the Winchester House, and saw she was such a wealthy person and everyone thought she was keeping some hidden wealth in a safe. It was typical of her; she had a safe within the safe. And when she died, they [her servants] rushed to get the key to the safe and discovered only two locks of hair [of her husband and her daughter]. It was such a powerful moment; it really showed what meant so much to her. It was life, it was her daughter’s life, it was her husband’s life, and she was living in this long period of grief because of loss of life. So that just made me feel there’s something we all can connect with.

It’s the humanity of it. We can let go of everything else in life, but not the ones we love. That is just something as a father, as a friend, as a son, I can relate to very, very deeply. I thought she gave us a really great opening to discover who she was, and in that process, discover what’s happened to us.

In developing the score over a period of three years, Liang said he wanted to build his own “mystery house,” his own sonic labyrinth. Within it he incorporates references to Winchester, whether in the use of the number 13 in the work’s rhythmic scheme (Winchester’s favorite number) or the inclusion of a Japanese scale, as Winchester had a close relationship with her Japanese gardener and his family.

Divided into ten scenes within a single act set in Winchester’s house, the piece juxtaposes past and present, myth and reality, the character of Sarah and three ghosts who double as a tour guide and two tourists (sung by Josué Cerón, Hillary Jean Young, and Kirsten Ashley Wiest in this production). At the end of Scene 8, the character of Sarah finally gets fed up with hearing the tour guide explain her life and her motivations and confronts him:

This, then is madness? To mourn the dead, to at least attempt to respond? To keep the hammers pounding in order to bear the dead in mind? …

Madness is not to be haunted, to ignore the dead, to act as if they’ve never been alive. Madness is to do nothing as the numbers of the dead grow.

That’s as close as Inheritance comes to making an overt political statement, but in the context of the opera, it seems an inevitable conclusion as we realize we’ve somehow normalized the “insanity” of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women, and children needlessly dying on a routine basis.

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

“Right now, given the political climate not only in our country, in the world of culture, the world of politics and society, there’s a lot of upheaval,” Narucki said. ”I do think, no matter how much I revere and adore the works of the operatic canon, that new works that are small scale and address contemporary issues in this way, puncturing the balloon, or puncturing that wall, will end up adding more vitality to the form, and attracting new audiences.

“Hopefully, it’s actually much more. It’s not as much about attracting new audiences as it is about retaking the stage for what artists can be in our society. I feel artists in our field, in the classical field, have in some way ceded their power. Music and performance is an incredibly powerful way to connect people. We doubt that power. We doubt the power we have to move and connect, and works like this bring people together in a way that’s very unexpected. That’s what’s very interesting to me, the idea you can create community and discourse and new ways of understanding each other through pieces of art like this. We do it with film, we do it with some museum installations, we do it with popular music. Why can’t we do it with this?”

Speak Now: Music of the Travel Ban

The Trump Travel Ban unceremoniously strips citizens from the countries on its list of their humanity, essentializing them as stigmatized non-Americans and even actively anti-American. Now on its third iteration, the so-called Muslim Ban has suspended acceptance of certain refugees, blocked immigration, and revoked visas from a shifting list of countries. Immediately after the policy announcement, thousands gathered at major airports to protest and stand in solidarity with those now denied entry. This reaction is a snapshot of the larger and ongoing resistance to the Trump agenda that ranges from daily phone calls with congressional representatives to globally linked marches involving millions, with myriad activities in between. We need not move mountains to defend our values. By leveraging power and privilege within our own spheres of influence, however modest they might appear, we can all effect real and positive change.

We need not move mountains to defend our values. By leveraging power and privilege within our own spheres of influence, however modest they might appear, we can all effect real and positive change.

For Trump and his nativist advisors, one’s nationality alone is enough to trigger the end of a conversation. My colleague Ben Harbert and I consider it the start of ours. Using the resources available to us as faculty members of Georgetown University’s music program, we organized “Music of the Travel Ban” as a way to resist through music and through presence. The concert series provides a space for the voices from these banned countries to be heard as people, recognized as neighbors, welcomed as friends, and celebrated as a vital part of our artistic and intellectual communities. As a model for campus engagement, this series is our rejection of policies rooted in racist ideologies and reflects our unwavering commitment to a multicultural ethos.

Music of the Travel Ban poster

Within “Music of the Travel Ban,” resistance occurs in more and less predictable ways. As the motivation behind the entire series, the specter of the Travel Ban is ever-present and inescapable. Shockingly, however, none of the first three concerts appeared overtly political; the conversations between the audience and musicians during the performances and the subsequent Q&As were wholly devoid of Trump and of his policies. When the topic of politics finally emerged in the fourth concert, it came from the sphere of ally-ship rather than from those immediately affected.

And yet, the refusal to engage rhetorically with or even acknowledge these policies, despite their very real and disastrous consequences for performers and audience members alike, is a mode of resistance in its own right. It is imperative that we engage forcefully and directly in a fight against policies that we find unjust. However, in the specific context of our series—itself predicated on defiance of the Travel Ban’s broader agenda—the performers’ insistence on their right to share their music freely, and moreover that we focus on their music and not on their biographies or birthplaces, becomes paramount. This form of resistance is no less potent, and presents advantages for those more directly vulnerable under the current administration. The refusal to engage is a rejection of false categories rooted in propaganda rather than reality.

The very physical presence and proximity of the performers forces us to contend with human beings rather than abstracted ideals. The bodies on the stage in front of us defy and deny erasure. We watch them breathe and we see them perspire. They speak to us and we to them, and all the while their humanity is foregrounded, demanding that we reconcile the one-dimensional racist stereotypes this administration pushes with the living people we see. The message is unavoidable—policies impact people.

The multicultural influences embraced by these performers complicates the current administration’s reductive narrative of an evil other. This too is resistance. Multiculturalism—practiced here on the level of the individual—reflects the global ethos of the concert series. We’re confronted with the porous nature of artificial genre boundaries, the ease with which performers cross musical borders, and the compelling artistic reasons to do so. Through “Music of the Travel Ban,” we come to understand that a construct like “the music of Syria” is problematic, that defining something necessarily circumscribes and therefore reduces it. And just what does it mean to be of a place?

The series opened with a performance by Huda Asfour and Kamyar Arsani, whose music has a visceral, teetering-on-edge power coursing throughout. Its particular urgency doesn’t feel native to the classical Arabic traditions they both grew up listening to and eventually learned to perform. Instead, this rawness derives from their love of punk rock and their deliberate efforts to incorporate its attitude, aesthetic, and energy in their own music. By combining elements from these seemingly disparate genres, the duo successfully forges a musical identity that resonates strongly with a number of cultures without being bound to any of them.

Asfour and Arsani exemplify the multicultural in music in a very literal way when choosing to play “Bint El Shalabiya.” With early roots in Andalusia, which at the time housed Jews, Christians, and Muslims simultaneously, this tune spread throughout Arabic countries and beyond, appearing in Turkey, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, India, and Greece, among others. Asfour and Arsani discovered this cultural overlap during a fortuitous moment in a free-form jam and have since uncovered still more versions of the tune in additional countries. By explaining this intercultural context before performing their own version of the tune, the duo reminds us just how historically interconnected traditions can be.

Lubana Al Quntar, who performed on the second concert along with Eylem Basaldi and April Centrone, is in many ways a living realization of what musical multiculturalism can be. In addition to her extensive background in traditional Arabic vocal performance, the Syrian native is the first woman of her country to earn international acclaim as a professional opera singer. This allows her to create cultural overlaps where none seem to exist. Responding to Al Quntar’s performance of Puccini’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” an audience member described the transformative impact the experience had on her own cultural understanding, saying, “I grew up very proud of Arabic music and thinking it was the best. But when I heard you sing the opera, I realized there was another side of you that couldn’t be expressed by Arabian music but needed the opera. I think it was very beautiful.” Nor was such an epiphany unique to this woman, or its direction exclusively from Arabic music to opera. Venturing beyond the dictums of genre opens up otherwise hard-to-access musical worlds. We tend to be receptive towards something new if we can understand it within the context of something familiar. Musicians like Al Quntar, who occupy these different musical worlds simultaneously, can help to facilitate this move beyond the familiar and into the new.

The solo act for the third “Music of the Travel Ban” concert, Jorge Glem, is a living legend on the cuatro, the four-stringed instrument that is so fundamental to Venezuelan culture that it adorns the walls of many homes throughout the country. Along with prodigious, forward-looking techniques, Glem’s revolutionary approach to the cuatro is defined by his ceaseless incorporation of different styles of music into the traditional repertoire. Describing how he cultivated his own style, Glem stated, “I felt it necessary to play on the cuatro what I listen to on the iPod.” He brands non-traditional music with a characteristic Venezuelan sound while simultaneously continuing to transform traditional music. One such multicultural mashup was Glem’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” replete with blistering bebop solos redolent of Charlie Parker and accompanied by a “salsa army” of short, percussion-derived loops played on the cuatro and looped on the fly. By transcending both geographic and stylistic borders, Glem opens up new paths for Venezuelan music and for music globally.

Amy K. Bormet, along with Karine Chapdelaine and Ana Barreiro, led a cosmopolitan jazz trio on the fourth concert. Although a last-minute line-up change dissolved the explicit tie-in to the Travel Ban theme, this concert was the first to feature an open denouncement of the Travel Ban. Bormet used her position of privilege to speak as an ally, condemning Trump, his administration, and the Ban. Turning one of the conservative criticisms of migration on its head, she urged us to “be grateful for the people who’ve decided to come and live here.”

Even as her actions embody our idea of what commonly constitutes resistance, Bormet uses music to reinforce her advocacy. Prefacing her slow, contemplative performance of “America the Beautiful” by calling for all of us to “take ownership of our country,” Bormet challenged us to discover ways in which we too can advocate for our values. The deliberate inclusion of an established patriotic symbol like “America the Beautiful” within the “Music of the Travel Ban” series is a political statement, and one Bormet reinforced by speaking explicitly about the valuable historical and ongoing roles that immigrants play in our country. Trump’s vision of a beautiful America is a bleached one, the Travel Ban in full effect, a giant wall to our south, and all refugees, asylum seekers, TPS-holders, and undocumented immigrants summarily vanished. Bormet presents her vision of a beautiful, inclusive America through her framing of the tune so that we conflate “America the beautiful” with a “nation of immigrants.”

Music is a medium through which we share our cultural experience and share in the cultural experience of others.

Music is a medium through which we share our cultural experience and share in the cultural experience of others. Its communal identity becomes a celebration of the I, the you, and the we. Through “Music of the Travel Ban,” we reflect on how we define ourselves as a country, how we reconcile ideas and ideals of freedom, brotherhood, and equality with religious persecution, racism, and systemic inequality. That these values have in practice never been as inclusive as they should have been does not make these latest aggressions any less egregious, nor suggest that we cease striving to reach these ideals.

“Music of the Travel Ban” arose out of the crossroads of frustration and incredulity, a speculative “what if” that grew into eight concerts, the first four of which I’ve described here. The near-constant shocks that blast throughout the country via indecorous and vitriolic tweets, blatant and continual lies, and an endless cycle of cabinet scandals keep everyone off balance and anxious. Some consider this presidency a storm to be weathered rather than confronted, but this only works as long as you’re not directly in its path. We hope our series will inspire others to consider again the resources available to them and to speak out against injustice when they encounter it. We all have a personal responsibility for this country’s trajectory; if we lay claim to its successes, then we must own its failures. “Music of the Travel Ban” is our proclamation to all that “you are welcome here.”

How It Happened (said John Cage): A Moment of Silence

A couple of years ago as a New Year’s resolution I decided to take the plunge and start meditating. I’ve heard it’s healthy. I’ve heard it makes you sleep better. I’ve heard it can keep you calm. Highly productive people do it. Artists do it. Therefore I decided I’d give it a try with the hope that one day I would learn to completely clear my mind and find my bliss.

What I actually learned about meditation is that its purpose is not to clear my mind and help me find my bliss—it’s to allow me to become the almighty observer, one who lives in the present moment and merely observes their present moment thoughts and feelings. If you’re happy, it’s okay to be happy. If you’re sad, it’s okay to be sad. If you’re depressed or angry because the president’s FY 2019 budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s okay to feel this way too. Meditation advises us not to dwell on emotions or feelings, but rather to acknowledge them. And as your artistic guru, I would advise you to not only acknowledge your feelings, but also artistically express yourself and channel your emotions and thoughts into something creative. Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

I look to John Cage when I feel like I should be creating mindful art. Granted, I was not introduced to Cage as a mindful composer. I was introduced to John Cage in the same way many generations of music students are taught about him: he’s the dude who created a piece about silence. We were taught that 4’33” is “the silent piece,” and we were asked (as part of an exercise) to discuss this question: is this a piece of music or not? Cage argued that there is no such thing as silence. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

I know why this is the quintessential John Cage piece: it is easy to teach. More importantly, it’s convenient. There are other pieces that John Cage wrote that experimented with silence (Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, etc.), but 4’33” has made the most obvious use of silence as a piece of music.

I know that Cage was experimenting with silence in his pieces decades before the premiere of this work, but I do believe that because Cage was a mindful composer and was aware of the politics around him, there is an ounce of political protest that surfaced during its conception and performance.

A few years prior to the premiere of 4’33”, John Cage toyed with the fantasy that canned music would no longer plague the ears of a captive audience. (There was a general resentment growing against the Muzak in public spaces at the time.) Cage said during his lecture at Vassar College that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music and its title will be Silent Prayer.” In his 2010 book about 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann implied that maybe Cage wanted to give listeners a “four-and-a-half minute respite from forced listening.”

Wistful thinking aside, it wasn’t until 1952 that I believe Cage lost it. The Supreme Court, in its case Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia v. Pollak, decided that piping musical radio programming into streetcars and busses did not interfere with communication between passengers, and therefore didn’t violate their first or fifth amendment rights.

I know that 4’33” is a piece about silence, or how there is never silence all around us, but now I’m more focused on why he wrote this piece. Yes, this piece culminated his experiments in silence (in which he finally goes for it unabashedly), but I believe he (and others at the time) were just flat-out angry and frustrated that people’s right to hear and not hear music was being infringed.

Is 4’33” a protest piece?

Is 4’33” a protest piece? Yes, I believe so. This is his most controversial and hostile piece, a piece that is neither transcendent nor sacred. It resonated with him and others at the time. It lived in the present. It was mindful of the Supreme Court ruling that was issued a few months before its premiere. Cage was echoing both his and the general public’s resentment over not having agency in their musical listening, and this surfaced in his music.

So, here’s a thought: are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I will say this—no matter what you think or feel, write music. Create music. Be aware of the world around you. Read more. Write more, whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you. Do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, and breathe.

A Thousand Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I saw an advert online that mentioned the Kronos Quartet was going to be in town to accompany a documentary at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. After writing an email to my students more-or-less stating, “You need to go to this—please GO!” (and hyperlinking their infamous stint on Sesame Street), I excitedly purchased a ticket myself and offered to drive any student who needed a ride.

The documentary was about the Kronos Quartet members themselves. After a consortium of arts organizations (including the Wexner Center) commissioned filmmaker Sam Green to create one of his “live documentaries” (which pair film footage with the live performance of the soundtrack and narration from the stage), he approached the Kronos Quartet and asked if he could not only make a live documentary about them, but also if they would perform a compilation of their greatest hits while the film about them was playing in real time.

How meta.

Kronos thought this was a brilliant idea.

A Thousand Thoughts chronicles the Kronos Quartet’s 45-year history through Green’s live narration, archival footage, and interviews with various (now) well-known composers and musicians. It tells the story of their early days in San Francisco and all their efforts to transform the stodgy string quartet into something hip and cool. David Harrington, the co-founder of the Kronos Quartet, sums up both the quartet’s mission statement and the thesis of the film in this way:

I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible.

While I was watching this live documentary, I realized that the Kronos Quartet was not only hip and cool, but also absolutely relevant and meaningful.

How did they do this?

While watching the film and being completely captivated by the wonderfully interwoven live narration, music, and interactions with the audience, there came a point in the story during which the quartet was hit with a slew of devastating tragedies. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who had been with the core quartet for a good 20 years, left the ensemble in 1999 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Violist Hank Dutt lost his partner to the AIDS epidemic in 1993. And in 1995, David Harrington, the fearless leader of the group, suddenly lost his son during a hiking trip with his family. If the 1990s weren’t bad enough for the quartet personally, they too experienced the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, after the devastation of the losses Harrington and his quartet weathered, and with another controversial war brewing (one that had similarities to the Vietnam War, a war that he protested in his youth), he wondered why he was playing in a string quartet and if making music was worth it.

At that moment in the documentary, I wanted to shout to both the on-screen David Harrington and the on-stage David Harrington, “This is how I felt about the Iraq war too! This is how I feel now! We’re still supposed to make music, right? Please say yes?” And it was at this point that I paid very close attention to the film because I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.

I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.

In his search, Harrington had an opportunity to chat with Howard Zinn, historian and civil rights activist, about his true purpose in life. He asked, what was his role? What can a normal person (or even an artist person) do in this time to fulfill the needs of other people?

Zinn simply advised Harrington to create something beautiful.

Now, you may have heard something similar to this before. I’m certain that unavoidable Leonard Bernstein quote has resurfaced 11 times in this year alone, the one where Bernstein responds to the assassination of John F. Kennedy by stating, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

However, I’m not only talking about violence or politics here, per se. We should create beautiful and ugly music no matter what—that is our mandate. In fact, we composers and performers have always been commenting on everything and anything that inspires and influences us. Granted, we’ve been indirectly commenting on political things, too. And whether you know it or not, we are always creating a reflection and reaction to the political environment around us.

I just want us all to be aware of it. I want us to be more woke.

All the Rage: When Is Music a Political Action

There was a brief time in my life when I no longer wanted to be a composer.

This wasn’t because I thought writing music was difficult and laborious (it still is) or because my music wasn’t being performed at the time (it wasn’t); it was because I briefly believed that writing and creating my music was absolutely pointless and worthless. My insecurities may have ignited a quarter-life or existential crisis at the time, but I truly believed that writing and performing concert music was absolutely self-serving.

Yes, I felt selfish.

I bet you’re wondering what life-changing event made me suddenly question my supposed vocation.

When I went to college at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrilled to learn all things musical, but I didn’t know this would include so many things experiential. I was 19 when I was able to vote in my first presidential election and watched with naive bewilderment the news of Florida’s voting booth irregularities and recounts. I was 20 when I woke up on a Tuesday morning and witnessed on television the South Tower collapse in real time. I was 22 when the Iraq War began. I was incensed. I questioned everything. I donated to Greenpeace. I went to my first anti-Bush protest. I wasn’t an activist per se, but I thought I was being active while continuing on my quest to become a composer.

It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies that followed that I questioned my future career.

It was 2004, one year after I graduated from college. I decided to take a few years off and move way across the country to Vermont (much to the chagrin and bewilderment of my parents), a place that is both literally green and Green Party-leaning.

One of my favorite pastimes during my post-college self-deemed “study abroad” was going to the Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas on Church Street in Burlington and seeing independent films with my then-partner. When the newest Michael Moore film was released, we didn’t hesitate to see it.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film that covers a slew of monumental events that marked the turn of the century. It covers the 2000 presidential election (suggesting that George W. Bush’s election was won due to voter fraud), the September 11 attacks, the corruption associated with trying to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean (which may have been a contributing factor to the war in Afghanistan), the spread of fear-mongering post-September 11 and the creation of the USA PATRIOT Act, and how the Iraq War upended and devastated Iraqis and young American veterans alike.

I wanted to set something on fire.

I wanted to do something.

I no longer wanted to be a composer.

I thought:

Is producing music pointless? Is writing concert music selfish? What does writing and performing concert music do anyway? How does it help people? How does it feed them? How does it fix greed and corruption? How does it prevent an unnecessary war? How does it stop teenagers from fighting in combat and dying?

After the last incendiary and helpless thought left my brain, I decided to write music again, but what was the point? Composing does not bring virtue nor ethics to our corrupted society, right? It does not make me or others more noble, so why do it? I accepted that I wrote music because I like manipulating time and evoking feelings, but I decided that my music would not in itself fix anything. I thought maybe my singular role in the universe would be to someday earn enough money to donate to organizations, to maybe volunteer to work at a voting booth, or to attend a good protest here and there. These are active ways to make the world a better place, I thought, and writing my music would be my way to exist and self-indulge.

I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves.

I eventually took a steady job in Ohio in 2012 where I thought I was getting closer to my goal of being political in a more active way. I finally had a steady income stream, so I could donate to other causes. I could attend localized marches in Delaware or Columbus. I could even be on stage with Michelle Obama during a political rally. But most importantly, I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves. This was my accepted activist role: I wouldn’t be an official activist, but I could be politically active while still indulging myself by writing my music.

It wasn’t until I met a colleague (The Chaplain) at my institution that I started to question my initial assumption that music isn’t important.

Here is what you need to know about The Chaplain: he is the most affirming person on this planet. He is genuinely thrilled to see you. After meeting him, I would run into him on campus and he would thank me profusely for writing music and sharing it with others. He would say that my music was a great service to the community. I would sheepishly say thanks, but I thought he was merely doing his job by helping me feel good about myself. Doesn’t he realize that I write concert music? That I’m not a singer-songwriter who writes protest songs?

And yet, maybe he was onto something. I merely wrote music about how I was feeling at the time, but maybe I had lots to say? Was I saying what needed to be said through my music? Does writing an opera about Paula Deen choking on a donut and dragging two angels to hell with her make a statement about our socio-political problems? Probably not. But maybe writing a couple of satires about the housing bubble and Big Oil does? Or how about writing about the importance of the Cincinnati Streetcar and the future of the Brent Spence Bridge? Maybe I had something to say and I am saying it. Maybe through my actions and music, I was being politically active in ways I couldn’t fully see. And maybe because we composers reflect on our surroundings, we often (directly or indirectly) make commentary about the political environment around us.

Speak Now: Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over

looking ahead


 “…when love stirs
it asks for nothing—but a world made safe
for truth, for beauty, for this tense blooming.”
— from Megan Levad’s “Volta”

We were generously gifted a bottle of Dom Perignon. My husband Bill and I saved it for something special and chilled it on November 8, to share with our friend Matt as we watched the election results roll in. Some time before midnight that night I posted a picture on social media with Matt holding out his hands as if to say “WHAT IS HAPPENING” and Bill giving our TV a middle finger. Our fancy champagne remains unopened, still waiting for something special.

I will turn 44 in June 2017.

And, I am worried.

In the last month, I’ve been turning around and looking back at some of my earliest social media posts to check in with my past worry levels. What an odd trip—a living memory lane sky-written on the internet, where we can watch ourselves stirring and seeking public feedback, placation, or applause, for the images and versions of ourselves we project online.

As a mom, composer, professor, and professional fun-haver, I reflect on the years before the prevalence of social media with some regret: I spent a significant amount of time torqued up and spazzing and saying not-nice things and cultivating a bubble of snark and worry around my being. I can also hear a spiky unsureness in the music I wrote in those days. It took me a handful of jangled years to choose to resign from my self-elected positions as Mayor, Treasurer, and Secretary of Worry Town. I was totally winning at leading Worry Town, because I could worry more and more awesomely than anyone else.

Here’s the thing about Worry Town: it is a reliable, comfortable, and seductive zip code in which to reside. Also, we are super great at inhabiting Worry Town. Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at; Worry Town is reliable because there is an endless abundance of stuff to worry about, isn’t there?

Or is there?

A while back, I was both deep in the throes of a divorce and overworking myself in an effort to pile up tenure-worthy lines for my C.V. Those years were screamingly intense. The dopamine hits I got from posting silly, positive stuff online felt useful, but it was more probably a perceived protection from presenting myself online as being vulnerable in any way.

During the divorce we transitioned our son into spending nights at his dad’s new apartment slowly. We started with Wednesday nights. Our son did great, but the first night he spent across town I sat lumped on my kitchen floor for a good, long, bewildered sob-fest in Worry Town. The next Wednesday I cried again, watched a movie, ate my feelings via a giant pizza, and cried myself to sleep. The third Wednesday I enlisted help. I called my dear friend Cynthia and asked if I could come to her house and cry there; at least I’d be around other humans.

After she put her two young boys to bed, Cynthia brought out a bottle of bubbly and calmly gave me an amazing string of sentences: “Look, these Wednesdays are forever now. They just are. They feel like a shitty kind of special. Drink your champagne. These Wednesdays can also be a time for you to re-group, to make plans, to relax, to sleep, to do whatever you need for yourself so that you can be better for your boy. You can make these nights a good kind of special. They can be your special time to have and shape any way you want, or to get done what needs getting done, or to figure out what are the right things to do. You got this. Cheers.”

By simply being a kind, thoughtful, reasonable, and supportive ally, this gift from a trusted friend changed my life. That Wednesday night was a magical turning point; it helped me flip over, turn around, and turn away from Worry Town. It was also the birth of #ChampagneWednesday on my social media posts, and a cherished time I continue to preserve for specialness every week.

Now, in this new 2017, as our highly politicized climate is doing its thing, my worry muscles are re-strengthening. I am not sleeping well. I am sort-of, kind-of, almost writing music. November and December were a blur and if I don’t back the hell out of Worry Town soon, I run the risk of morphing into full-throttled Angry Kristy. Not only does no one want to be around Angry Kristy, she is blindingly not useful to anyone. Besides, the music Angry Kristy writes is stale and grey and over-tries to sound interesting.

#ChampagneWednesdays remain a vital part of my weeks, yet since November 9 I’ve not known what to do with my online presence. I have loved social media, but it’s a funky house of dissonance for me: this house is too big for its tiny plot of land within the vast expanse of Complain County. Throughout this last election season, social media sounded like metal-on-metal bending, growling, screaming through a vat of bloody bile. I felt I was watching our collective ego over-functioning so much that it was eating itself.

Using social media to initiate and cultivate conversations about the gender gap in the contemporary composition world felt productive and useful to me, and I hope it was useful for our artistic culture at large. Observing others’ successes and joys online is like a lovely, cool glass of water when pitted-out on a sticky Midwestern summer afternoon. When studies began appearing with data tracking people’s “happiness levels” in relation to their social media usage, I made a decision to be as positive as possible in my online posts. Great! Awesome? That made me feel better about what I was throwing online, but so what?

As I read this article on November 19, I felt buckets of tension release from my neck and shoulders. Consider these sentences: “(Social media) diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive … but it can be disastrously counterproductive.” Yup, that resonates with me.

Things (seeds, herbs, trees, vegetables, clouds, babies), cannot grow if they are not given the proper environment in which they can thrive. This includes the delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of worry choices we cook up for ourselves; lay out a pretty menu and pick from it any time. In this new season we will undoubtedly have to turn and shift and adjust, and possibly relinquish, the current lives that we know for lives we don’t yet know. This has always been reality—the possibility our lives will be upended, uprooted, or undone at any moment or given time. What comes with this reality is a natural fear of the unknown. However, what we DO with that fear and worry is wholly up to us.

We may or may not see upending change with our country’s new leadership, and I’ve been sautéing some fresh daily specials for my worry buffet: I worry that it will be increasingly difficult for our young composers to make a living doing their art; I worry that our entire education system may be gutted; I worry that our society will, in fact, over-function so disastrously out of fear and division that we will be set back decades from our best social progresses into a total implosion of any modicum of civility; and I worry that our future may be a shitty kind of special.

When the worry creeps in, its antidote is patience.

Patience, I’ve found, is both a most difficult behavior to learn and sustain, as well as one of the most helpful behaviors we have. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience. Things take time. The best things—joy, love, music that moves people, social change, equality for all humans, getting one’s self out of a self-made snarkbubble—take careful, slow, meanderingly focused, craggy time.

To what must we devote our time in order to cultivate the environment in which goodness, justice, love, and gratitude can pervade our society? How can we, through our art and our interfacing with actual humans in person, be useful to these fellow humans and our culture of the arts?

I don’t yet know. I’m still working out ways I can be useful. But I do know that the time has arrived for me to turn away from the worry and turn over my social media presences to better uses of my time. Also, I believe that no matter the platform or interaction, by merely being allies—with patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, reasonableness, and support—for one another, and surrounding ourselves with other allies, we can change lives and change our culture.

Our time ahead may be an extremely tense blooming. It can also be an exciting and good kind of special if we commit to making it so. It can be our special time to figure out what it means to do what’s right for the world.

And we must answer the stirring of Love, by doing everything we can to turn ours into a world that is safe for truth and beauty to survive and thrive.

We’ve got this.


Kristin Kuster

Kristin Kuster

Coming and recent performances of Kristin Kuster’s music include works for the Baltimore and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, Lisbon Summerfest Chamber Choir, Network for New Music, and multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley. Her chamber opera KEPT: a ghost story with a libretto by Megan Levad will premiere at the Virginia Arts Festival, in conjunction with the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, in May 2017. When Kristin is not working, you can find her on her deck with coffee. An associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Kristin lives in Ann Arbor with her awesome son and her badass husband.

Speak Now: It Is Time to Create

I don’t know about you, but ever since November 8 anxiety and fear have been choking my creative voice. I released my latest album in late October, and my plan was to begin work on the next album after a very short brain rest. However, I found myself staring listlessly at my computer during my scheduled creative time (after work and on the weekends), struggling to hear anything of interest or beauty in my head. All I could detect was the feedback of rage and despair—for myself as a woman and all other female-identifying people, and for my friends who experience hate because of the color of their skin or the texture of their hair—caused by the hate that is poisoning my country. In spite of the wall of pain that these feelings have put between my creative mind and my fingers, I have been reluctant to attempt to ignore them or block them out; I do not want to become an internal émigré while all that I love about my country is under active threat of destruction.

In this storm of anxiety I began to question the value of my weird, experimental synthesizer music. What change for good could I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What could my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

At some point in late November—as I witnessed other artist-friends deal with similar creative blocks—a tiny voice in my head said, “Fight!” It took me a few days to understand the meaning of that message: Now, even now—especially now—artists need to persevere and create. We need to fight the feeling of hopelessness and uselessness if for no other reason than that’s what the enemy always intended to instill in us. People of hate do not want us to keep creating; they want to silence us, because a healthy, vibrant art-life is one of the key indicators of freedom. You want to subjugate the millions? A good step in that direction is to squash out the life of your country’s arts.

Right about now you are all probably thinking of Leonard Bernstein, who said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Though these words have filled my Twitter feed to the point of oversaturation during the past couple of years, they nonetheless resonate in my head as I begin to learn how to remain in the world, engaging with the crisis, while also continuing to develop my creative voice. I think of all of the music and art that has “saved” me throughout my thirty-seven years, and I become thankful that those artists did not think to themselves, “Well, what use is my art anyway? Time to give up.” Don’t give up; someone out there needs your art. Don’t become an internal émigré; someone out there will need your signature, or your donation, or for you to be their witness.

My music will never be political. It will never directly change anyone’s mind about the importance of liberty and freedom. But it may provide comfort, or inspiration, or—if I’m really lucky—it may broaden someone’s mind. Regardless, I will continue to create, and I will continue to fight for the life of liberty in my country.

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on TwitterTumblrFacebook, and/or Soundcloud.

Speak Now: Amplifying Our Voices

mic w/gradient

The 2016 presidential election was a seismic event for the United States and the world. The days since November 8 have brought forth a tsunami of uncertainty, fear, anticipation, verbiage, and introspection unlike any other comparable period in most of our memories. It seems likely that the weeks and months and perhaps years to come will be similarly without precedent.

I believe that this extraordinary time will bring monumental challenges. But we don’t need to be Pollyannas to recognize opportunity in the moment as well. We can all be freshly awake to our agency within the civic fabric of our communities, and to our potential for helping bring about the country we want to live in. We all have roles to play as individuals—and as organizations, too. If there ever were a more important time to speak and act within those roles, I haven’t seen it in my lifetime.

For almost eighteen years, NewMusicBox has been driven by a core commitment to providing members of the new music community with a place to speak thoughtfully in their own voices about the truth they see. At a time when even the notion of truth itself is in question and thoughtful, civil discourse by no means a given, it’s natural and organic for us to provide opportunity for community members to share their personal views of the moment at hand.

As a first step, we’re beginning a series of posts by artists responding to a simple request that they share what they’re thinking in their roles as artists and community members. The series title is “Speak Now.” We’re not making any assumptions about how long this series might continue or where it might lead. It’s a first step, which is the way every journey begins. It is our hope that it will invite further conversation and connection as more voices and ideas come to the table—in person, via social media, and right here on NewMusicBox.

It’s important to emphasize that, as always, the opinions of NewMusicBox authors are their own. New Music USA itself is focused not on expressing specific opinions but straightforwardly on living our values. (I say more about this in a previous post.) Amplifying the voices of our community members is one fundamental way we can do that.

It Is Time to Create by Meg Wilhoite

What change for good can I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What can my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over by Kristin Kuster

Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at. But when the worry creeps in, composer Kristin Kuster has found that its antidote is patience. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience.

Our Job as Composers Has Changed by Mohammed Fairouz

Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Today a new America begins. Vigilance is vital.

A Habit of Hearing by John Wykoff

I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds (their beliefs, opinions, and convictions). 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.

Composing Advocacy: Social Voices


Photo courtesty of Flickr

In this week’s essay on new music and advocacy, I’m narrowing my focus to show how composers and performers are looking at the diverse landscapes in which we live, with their complex human histories and changing values, as the grounds to examine the intersection of place and people—past and present. In other words, in addition to advocating for place, new music can advocate for the human and social context of place.

Composing music with political and social themes certainly isn’t new. Ruth Crawford Seeger famously pursued musical activism between the world wars to highlight social injustice in America. The songs of Woody Guthrie were employed to foster enthusiasm for the construction of massive dams to harness the power of the mighty Columbia River. Some people are uncomfortable with the subversive implication of using our artistic skills in this manner. I am not implying that we should all use music as a platform for activism. However, either in response or with intention, musicians are doing so. So are we truly experiencing a resurgence in new music composed to highlight social equity? Is this a manifestation of a larger sense of stewardship toward the places, communities, and cultures in which we live? And if so, why now?

As humans, most of us believe that we possess the power to make positive change in the world. Composer Darrell Grant has said,I believe that we who create art possess an extraordinary power to communicate, inspire, provoke, inform, and to move others to transform society.” Across communities, new music is actively challenging us to pay attention to the issues and the voices in our society.

While many works were composed to express the horror of 9/11, the reality is that we’ve been living with ongoing war, and its partner terrorism, for nearly 15 years. Many composers are grappling with its long-term effects. Composer Ethan Ganse Morse’s moving opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna addresses head-on the crisis level of PTSD in returning soldiers.


The pieces being wrought and their means of creation are diverse. Composers are ardently responding to harmful practices affecting our environment. Cellist Kari Juusela composed PBBP Blues, a searing response to the British Petroleum oil spill that devastated the Gulf coast in 2010. Brian Harnetty has examined the human and environmental impacts of the extraction industries of southeastern Ohio, both through his music and in a series for NewMusicBox just last month. These works are sobering reminders of the fragile nature of our ecosystem and the inextricable ways we are tied to our landscape. Others are composing works celebrating our national environmental treasures.

When I compose about place, I consider various points of view that the piece could embody. While we compose as an expression of our human experience, our singular voice, each of our points of view are limited in perspective and can’t convey all facets of the experience. So composers are raising social equity awareness and understanding by telling the story through historical and social narrative. For the Oregon Stories Project, composers Mark Orton, Darrell Grant, and Douglas Detrick have created a fusion of music and dialog to recount the stories of disenfranchised Oregonians who overcame society’s imposed limitations to make a lasting difference in their community. Composer Joan Szymko worked for months with families, patients, and caregivers to share the voices of those with Alzheimer’s disease in her choral work Shadow and Light.

New music is having the greatest social impact at the interactive community level. Composers and ensembles are reaching out—not with the outward Euro-paternalistic focus of the past, but with honest commitment—to understand how musicians can collaboratively work with the community to help solve problems. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s oratorio Meditations on Raising Boys rose out of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s work with issues affecting boys and young men. The program involved lectures and workshops as well as master classes.

Chautauqua Symphony

Premiere of Meditation on Raising Boys, Chautauqua Symphony

Others ensembles are working in their communities to help refugees manage the transition into a new life in America as they struggle with identity and racial bias. Central Ohio Symphony initiated a drumming circle program for troubled teenagers.

Music also has the power to heal. Research confirming the health benefits of live music is well documented and has spawned music therapy programs across universities. As our population ages, this has inspired music ensembles across the country to work with area hospitals, rehab facilities, and related special needs programs.

New music can advocate for the changes needed in our society by connecting us to issues larger than ourselves. But why now? Perhaps composers and those commissioning new works are seeking to better connect music to our humanity. We all want to write music that is well crafted, that engages the performer, and that may outlast our limited lifespans. By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, the intersection of place and people expands our musical palette. The resulting pieces may become some of the most compelling works of our time.

Recovering Our Elemental Imagination

Old growth forest

Landscape is the culture that contains all human culture. — Barry Lopez

Imagine a city where every rooftop is a garden, every building a home to different plants and animals as well as people. A city filled with monumental parks, where agriculture and recreation are combined. The rivers in this city teem with life and the sky is filled with birds. Now imagine in this world, this garden city, what music would be made—ringing out amidst the soundscapes of birds and animals, winds and waters.

Everything we have in our civilization is grown or extracted from the living earth. This includes our ideas, our culture, our arts, and our music. No matter how removed from the living, dynamic non-human world we feel, we will never escape this truth. How this truth influences our creativity, and how creativity influences our capacity to live this truth is a pivotal question.

From an animistic perspective, the imbalanced relationship between human civilization and the earth is the clearest source of our social ills and distress—climate change, resource depletion, chronic and epidemic illness, and all forms of structural and physical violence. Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our culture tends to hypnotize itself, reflecting us back upon ourselves. It is all too easy to forget the landscape which contains us. This ecological crisis then becomes a cultural crisis.

This past spring I had the opportunity to stay as an artist-in-residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Founded in 1948, it is the most studied forest in the world. Sponsored by the National Forest Service, Oregon State University, and copious grants, the goal in the Andrews forest is both complex and utterly simple: study the forest ecosystem over time and use this knowledge to inform our relationship with it. This mandate has illuminated vast scientific insights and controversial ideas of policy and purpose. The Andrews forest is home to some of the last remaining old growth forest in the world (500-800 year old trees), and it inspires many long-term studies and programs as a result. One such program is the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER), an international project documenting how “humans and the forest change over time.” The LTER project in the Andrews Forest, which began more than a decade ago, is scheduled to last 200 years, from 2003-2203.

Being part of a creative project that will outlive you is deeply humbling but not unfamiliar to a composer. Our education is steeped in cultures of the past, informing our own creations. Staring up at a tree whose life spans nearly the entirety of Western music history does make one wonder. To be present in a forest is to be present in a place of primal creativity. When we are in nature, we infuse ourselves with the creative energies of the life around us. Many composers have embedded this energy within their work. Beethoven, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, and many others all held the natural world as an integral part of their creative journey. Takemitsu even said, “Music should have a profound relationship with nature,” and you need not be in Yosemite or an old growth forest to commune with it. The natural world is all around us. Like any practice, the more time and energy you devote to it, the more insights, experiences, and visions you will receive. The more we infuse the energy and experience of nature into our own imagination and music, the more vibrant and nourishing our cultural relationship with the earth will be.

Like music, our experience in nature is often intuitively understood. I’ve noticed while hiking or just meditating in the forest, ideas and potentials come to me with inspiring clarity. Whether they are creative solutions to a piece or life-long career projects, ideas enter lucidly into view. These are visions. In the presence of ancient trees it is easier to remind myself that I am merely a “vessel” (to quote Stravinsky). These visions do not originate in me nor am I the end of their journey.

Old growth forest

Trees in an old growth forest in some ways never die, spending half their existence as slowly rotting logs. Here the ancestors are not in the sky but among the living. These are nature’s epic poems, they are what scientists call “biologic legacies”—they are the culture from where we originated and, once our exhausted civilization finally collapses, like the tree we too will sink back into the earth. Theodore Roosevelt said that when he heard of a species gone extinct it was like “some great work of art had been lost”; when we lose a species, we lose the ability to learn from and grow with that being. Just as the arts speak to us across time with wisdom and insight, so does the natural world. When we deny ourselves the experience of communing with the natural world, we sever our connection to this creative potential and story.

In the forest we find a metaphor for our own relationships; art itself is a receptacle of experiences and relations passed down over generations. The composer creates a mythical sonic landscape, places which inspire and enrich our experience. Composers inspired by each other interact in communal creativity. The same is true when we experience nature. The indigenous peoples of the Northwest sacrificed a tree and carved into that tree animals stacked on top of one another—a clear metaphor for the ecological relationships inherent in the culture of the forest. Art and nature combine to tell a communal story. When a tree is transformed into a totem pole, such a tree is an honorable ambassador between human culture and the natural world.

Imagination, scholar Harold Goddard observed, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

Could music be such a mediator to heal and reawaken our senses to the greater culture of life? Shall we create music and art that reinforce the values of the civilization we have now or a different one we shall create? It was Orpheus who led the trees and beasts with song, and whose lyre soothed the fiercest spirits, whose music swayed the Argonaut’s ship away from destruction. Seek out your own elemental imagination, create the music of your own garden city.