Tag: protest music

I Can’t Breathe:  A Virtual Dialogue

A protester carrying a banner stating "I CAN'T BREATHE." Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.  Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.

I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.

Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)

It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.

I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.

I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.

GFH:  Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.

At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”

The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”

That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.

Marco_Blaauw playing his specially desined microtonal trumpet (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Marco_Blaauw (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.

GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.

Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:

MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.

GL:  I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.

MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.

GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.

GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.

GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.

MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.

In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.

However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).

Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.

In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).

By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.

Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question:  Where did this classification come from?

GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.

GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.

Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.

While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.

Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:

GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.

Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:

MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?

GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?

Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).

This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”

As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from  contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.

The first page of the musical score of Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe” Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna.

The first page of the score for Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe”
Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition Vienna, publisher and copyright owner. This license is valid for distribution and usage in the territory of the world.


https://www.facebook.com/Musikfabrik/ 10 June 2020

Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.

Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.” https://www.musikfabrik.eu/de/blog/georg-friedrich-haas-i-give-no-sound-perpetrators-ein-kommentar

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.

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 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.

Listening to Protest and Resistance in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Robinson's Cave

Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

I am at the mouth of Robinson’s Cave, a small recess in a hill above New Straitsville, Ohio. It is late winter, and the area is overwhelmed with the sounds of melting ice and snow crunching underfoot. The wind stirs fallen leaves and moves the canopy overhead. In the town below, an old school bell is quietly heard, and cars drive through the salty slush and snow. These sounds are a reflection of the cave’s contemporary soundscape, but the past echoes here, too. In the late 19th century, coal miners met here secretly to resist unfair wages and to unionize. Local historians note that the secluded cave had “great acoustics,” and miners could meet quietly and still hear each other. Whispers reverberated and remained there. These meetings were key to the formation of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890.

Inside the shallow cave, I listen to the acoustics of an underground space as it alters natural and human environments. The cave carries an additional significance when imagining another meeting that took place here in 1884. Unknown agitators—perhaps miners or operators—supposedly met here, conspiring to set the mines on fire. These fires ended mining in the immediate region and they continue to burn today, more than 125 years later. Brandon Labelle sees the underground as a place of opposition and resistance, and suggests that it functions as “an explicit zone for transformation.” These events, combined with the fact that the cave was used for its acoustic characteristics, give an aural insight into the cultural identity of the Little Cities.

Protest connected to extraction, quiet for several decades in the area, has undergone a shift from labor to environment. Now, it is groups outside the energy industry who carry on the disruptive acts of striking miners. In an area with many seeking work, the new promise of employment further complicates tensions between industry, labor, and environmental activists. It is against this conflicted backdrop that local groups mount strategies of protest, focusing on hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in particular. Clashing soundscapes of ecology and politics are revealed, and we hear an arrhythmia of discord between the two.

Stairs leading to Robinson's Cave

Stairs leading to Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson

“Direct Action” in Training and Practice

In the basement of a community center, I join a dozen women and men forming two lines facing one another. Over just a few minutes, one side moves from curt conversation to confrontation to yelling. “What are you doing here?” screams a woman, pointing her finger close to a man’s face. “Get the hell off my property! You’ve got no right to be here!” The room is reverberating with anger, shouting, and tension-filled voices. At the same time, some of the participants are quiet and calm. They do not say anything despite the screaming that is directed toward them. My stomach is hurting, and I feel disoriented. The situation seems uncomfortable and out of control. I cannot wait for it to be over. When the yelling tapers off, there is still tension in the room as everyone assesses what just took place.

In this moment, the sonic qualities of silence, repetition, and impassioned shouting are entwined, and perform the logic of resistance. As part of a “direct action” workshop, we were in a “hassle line,” a role-playing exercise where participants act out a confrontation between industry workers and protesters at a fracking site. According to the instructor, direct action is a strategic, non-violent event “unmediated by the political process to stop an injustice where it happens.” Simulated situations are a chance to practice “de-escalation,” and staying calm in the face of antagonism. Here, silence is used as a tool of protest. It helps prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Silence also creates a unified message, simply through the group’s physical presence without further explanation.

The “mock-actions” undergone during the workshop are tested later when the group blocks the entrance to an injection well storage site. Chants such as, “Our water, our air, no fracking anywhere!” are shouted antiphonally across the group. “I’m pissed off because those tanks up there are filled with poison,” a woman announces through a megaphone. As trucks drive by carrying frack-waste, the group sings “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and a version of “We Shall Overcome” altered to “We’ll Protect Our Water.” In the end, eight farmers and local business leaders are arrested. They are quiet while the protesting crowd continues an air of celebration around them. Cheering and clapping erupt as they are led away. Words of encouragement are shouted to the arrestees: a woman calls out, “You look beautiful in handcuffs!”

Fracking Protest in the Wayne National Forest

A group gathers at the Wayne National Forest headquarters to speak against proposed hydraulic fracturing wells. Jack Wright, a musician, filmmaker, and teacher, stands up in front, holding a piece of paper. “Fresh off the press,” he says, to the laughter of the crowd. He sings a modified, unaccompanied version of the well-known Florence Reece song, “Which Side Are You On?” The song was originally written in response to striking coal miners in the 1930s. Wright sings, “You rulers of the forest, this song to you I’ll tell/Do the impact study, save us from fracking hell…” Wright’s adjustments to the song are a part of a folk tradition of localizing music to fit to a place, in this case the Wayne National Forest. They are also a form of musical borrowing with a historical awareness.

“That was a good day,” Wright tells me later. “I wish they could have listened a little bit clearer to what we had to say. We still have to insist that what we believe be listened to.” Wright’s assessment points to the struggles of raising one’s voice to not only be heard, but to change the course of events. Singing becomes a forceful act of resistance and listening is the hoped for goal, but without any assurance of communication or success. Voice and listening may be important tools in the battle over fracking in the forest, but are not necessarily enough to change policy. Wright continues, “It was just for the moment, to try to help get those people together and let the Wayne Forest people know we were there in force. If they could hear the force of the song and hear us shouting, that sort of made our crowd a little bit bigger. Even though in the long haul it didn’t change their minds, at least they knew we were there to contend with their violations.”

Co-presence, Becoming, Returning

In this series, sound, place, and traces of history are bound together as they continue to change through time. Addressing issues of place and sustainability, Jeff Todd Titon cites “co-presence” as a sonic trait that allows one to sense “the presence of something greater than oneself through sound.” As I continue to listen to the Little Cities, I observe co-presence again and again, and it is often contradictory: job growth due to fracking threatens many years of sustained efforts to reverse environmental degradation; “geo-tourism” markets the region as a travel destination, while many residents must commute to larger cities to find employment. These contradictions become a web of environmental, economic, and social issues, and they begin to feel like a never-ending game of rock-paper-scissors.

In the acts of protest cited above, shouting, speeches, chanting, and singing bring groups fighting for environmental justice together. These qualities strengthen the groups’ ability to resist hostile opposition. Sounds of resistance also lend an air of celebration to tension-filled moments. They simultaneously bring together and diffuse, and meaningfully hold in suspension situations that could easily descend into chaos and violence.

Through listening, I too hold these diverse and often conflicting realities together. Soundscapes of protest, recovery, labor, and social life all emerge and dissipate at different rates and rhythms; they affect one another, and are often in tension. Henri Lefebvre understands these rhythms as a fusion of both cyclical and linear time, rhythms of “becoming,” or of clock-time, “returning” rhythms, or metronomic rhythms.

Listening is an unfolding process. It observes continual change, becoming, and returning. It is also stratified, a co-presence that opens a sonic space for critical analysis. These qualities become compositional tools to evoke the many voices and sounds of the region. When Alvin Lucier states that “careful listening is more important than making sounds happen,” he is empasizing attentiveness over compositional virtuosity and technique; listening itself becomes performance. I follow this directive and make listening to the Little Cities the central aspect of my writing and compositional work.

Unquiet Riot

Pussy Riot

Three of the members of Pussy Riot at the “scene of the crime.”

The trial of three members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot and their subsequent sentencing to two years in prison for performing a song calling for the ouster of Russian leader Vladimir Putin at an impromptu flash concert in Moscow’s largest Orthodox cathedral has garnered a tremendous amount of attention all over the world. Popular music luminaries ranging from Paul McCartney to Björk to Madonna have publicly spoken out in support of the group, though Norman LeBrecht has pointed out that the classical music community has pretty much remained silent on this topic. He has even suggested that some major Russian musicians actually tacitly support what happened.

While my own personal political views on all of this are beyond the scope of this particular publication, which is dedicated exclusively to music, specifically new American music, there might be important musical matters around this particular issue that are worthy of discussion and debate on these pages. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate musical issues from political ones in this case. Some people would argue that it is impossible to do so in any case and that all art is political, so I know I’m treading on shaky ground somewhat. Bear with me.

I have often argued that the inability to associate specific meanings with music in and of itself is its greatest strength in that it can cut through divisions between people (whether ideological, linguistic, geographical, or temporal). But that elusive aspect of music can also make it somehow seem less relevant to our daily lives. We may love music, but we don’t really know what it stands for. Since other forms of art allow for more precise communication and interpretation, artists in those disciplines have become cultural icons for their stands on very specific topics. For millennia, authors of poetry and prose have run afoul of governments all across the political spectrum for the views expressed in their writings. Visual artists have had their share of censorship problems as well. But music? Beethoven has long been raised as a role model for individuality and a force for social justice—after all, he wrote a symphony in honor of Napoleon when he viewed him as an agent of societal change but then tore up the dedication after Napoleon declared himself an emperor. You can listen for clues in the Eroica Symphony and find them once you know the biographical details, but would you really be able to hear it if you came to the music tabula rasa? Luigi Nono inferred into the equal distribution of pitches that serialism allows a metaphor for a communist social order in which members of the proletariat are all equal, but it is doubtful that anyone hearing his music on its own would make such an association.

This is probably why over the centuries music has been far less susceptible to specific censorial attacks, unless the music is accompanied by lyrics, in which case it could be reasonably argued that it is the lyrics and not the music that is being censored. Of course there are famous counterexamples. Plato suggested banning certain modes from music claiming they invoked moods in people which were contrary to the benefit of the state. The Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu went even further and called for a ban on all music. As far as specific instances of musical censorship in history, there’s the story of how the Vatican was on the verge of banning polyphony from music in churches until Palestrina persuaded them not to in his 1562 Missa Papae Marcelli. In the 20th century, Germany under the Third Reich vilified the work of a great many composers with the label “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music) and this epithet wasn’t exclusively limited to composers whose racial identity and political leanings were anathema to Nazi ideology. Any music that referenced jazz or explored atonality was a target. Music was also not immune from the proscribed dictates of conformity during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China. A day after Augusto Pinochet’s right wing coup in Chile, Victor Jara, the country’s most prominent singer-songwriter who had clear left-wing sympathies, was arrested and tortured; four days later, after his incarcerators told him to playing his guitar, they machine-gunned him to death mid-song. In more recent times, there have been Islamic theocratic leaders in Iran and Afghanistan who have sought to eradicate any secular music, instrumental as well as vocal, merely on the grounds that such music is a distraction from the contemplation of the divine. The Ansar Dine, who are attempting to impose strict sharia law on the regions of Mali they have recently gained control over, also want to restrict music.

Russia, however, has had the longest history of government intervention into musical matters over the course of the last century. In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich was officially denounced in the Soviet Union’s government-controlled main media outlet, Pravda, in a chilling anonymous editorial with the title “Muddle Instead of Music” which specifically criticized the music for his second (and what was to be his last) opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; no one came to his defense and he feared for his life. But others fared worse. Nikolai Roslavets, who has been described as the Russian Schoenberg, was denied all official positions and not even allowed to join the Composers’ Union. Alexander Mosolov, whose Lenin-era avant-garde proto-minimalist Iron Foundry celebrated the triumph of the working class, got sent to a gulag because of the music he composed under Stalin. Both were officially written out of music history and have only been rediscovered in recent years. Through all of this, Shostakovich figured out a way to toe the line in order for his music to continue to be performed, but even after recanting the more experimental tendencies in his music in works like his patriotic Symphony No. 5 (which he actually publicly described as “an artist’s creative response to just criticism”), he was lumped together with other leading Soviet composers including Prokofiev and Khachaturian in the 1948 campaign against bourgeois formalism in music. And long after Stalin’s reign of terror, Shostakovich continued to anger government authorities when he set texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that exposed Soviet anti-semitism. But here one could contend that it was Yevtushenko’s poetry and not Shostakovich’s music which drew their ire; however, as biting as Yevtushenko’s critical words are, it is through the power of Shostakovich’s setting that their message becomes so visceral.

The fate of jazz and rock musicians in Russia has been quite different from that of so-called classical composers who created in a medium which was officially revered, even if the specific content of individual composers’ music sometimes was not. While jazz was mostly never banned per se, the music was frequently criticized since the genre originated in a Western capitalist society and was therefore completely identified with it. Rock was even more restricted. Early rock groups in Russia could not officially record since the state-owned record label did not acknowledge its existence. As a result, rock evolved as an underground music so the very act of performing rock music, regardless of the lyrics, was a subversive act. Since the days of Glasnost and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, rock has flourished in Russia but it is never lost its aura of rebellion.

So it could perhaps be claimed that Pussy Riot are being persecuted, at least in part, on musical grounds since the kind of music they play goes against the official mold endorsed by the government. Such an aesthetic purge is clearly against freedom of artistic expression and artists of any stylistic inclination should view it as an affront to the very core of the creative process. But this is a much more complicated issue. The members of the band were specifically charged with “hooliganism” for their uninvited performance, and hence, desecration of a space that is viewed as sacred by many people in Russia and it should be pointed out that the majority of people in Russia support the verdict of the trial. Of course, the source of this majority statistic is from the Russian media and there seems to be a great disparity of opinion between the younger and older generations in Russia, although this is only anecdotally verifiable. Outside of Russia, however, opinion seems completely tilted in support of the actions of Pussy Riot. As the only mega news story in the mainstream media that has any connection to music, how can we channel this broad range of public support into overall support for creative expression and ensuring that it is properly respected and nurtured all over the world?