Tag: protest

How Can Artists Respond to Injustice? Thoughts from Seven Musicians

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

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

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

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

Marcos Balter, composer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer

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

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

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

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


Pamela Z, composer/performer and media artist

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

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

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

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


George E. Lewis, composer and musicologist

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

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

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

A creolization of the field is needed.

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

Courtney Bryan, composer/pianist

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

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

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

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


Nathalie Joachim, flutist, composer, and vocalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

History Repeating: Today’s Net Neutrality Day of Action

Here we go again.

You may have noticed that the internet is upset today. Lots of organizations and individuals are participating in a coordinated effort to raise awareness surrounding the issue of net neutrality. What is net neutrality? Allow me to reduce the complexity a little: your internet connection should be like a phone line, no one should be able to tell you who you can or can’t call, what you can or can’t say on that call, or when you can or can’t make that call. Those adverse to reductionism can start a more detailed exploration here.

Every few years the issue resurfaces, each time in a slightly different guise, not unlike the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. Before discussing the mole peeking up this time, some history. Two years ago the Federal Communications Commission (think the beat cops of the internet) finally took some definitive steps and set in place what seemed to be a long-term solution. They established a set of very clear rules for internet service providers (think Comcast or Verizon): no throttling (slow lanes), no paid prioritization (fast lanes), no blocking (censorship), and some decent privacy rules, to boot. ISP’s were allowed some wiggle room, under the rubric of “reasonable network management,” to make small adjustments to the flow of network traffic in order to keep things humming along or to route around damage. The rules withstood the inevitable and immediate court challenges by AT&T and a cadre of telecom industry associations (CTIA, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and American Cable Association). It seemed like the world could get on with its business—and watching cat videos, this being the internet, after all.

Alas, the political winds changed direction and now what seemed long-term is likely to be undone in just a few months time. A new president appointed a new chairman of the FCC, and his first order of business was to start undoing the new rules to which he is ideologically opposed. Net neutrality is once again up for debate. The contention of the new chairman is that the rules are unnecessary and will stifle competition and innovation. He paints a picture of slow connections, ageing infrastructure, and high prices. He ignores the fact that this is already our current reality and undoing needed regulation will only make matters worse.

That’s the business side of the issue. Let’s talk about the artistic side.

Alex Shapiro weighed in on this in 2010 with a great discussion on the primacy of the internet to our creative practices and promoting our work. Read it now, read it again. Nothing’s changed.

What to do?

Well, it so happens Congress, long ago, told federal agencies like the FCC that they have to listen to the public. So, the FCC is required to accept comments on their proposal from interested parties before making any decisions. New Music USA is certainly interested in preserving the rules put in place in 2015 and has filed a comment to this effect. (The full text is posted below.)

You can, too. I’m sure you’re interested. So, say your piece here.

And while you’re doing that, the legendary Ms. Bassey has a potent reminder for us all…

New Music USA’s Comment to the FCC on the proposed rulemaking “Restoring Internet Freedom”

New Music USA

Comment to the FCC on Restoring Internet Freedom (WC Docket No. 17-108)

America is a very creative country. Millions of people, at the very moment you read these words, are engaged in the act of creating art. Most of that art will find its way to an audience via the internet. Most of that art can live forever on the internet, a testament to our cherished freedom to create without state reprisal or censorship.

The web may be the greatest library and stage humanity has yet to create. It is also the biggest marketplace we’ve ever created. Therein lie some immense tensions that need to be considered carefully.

In 2010, we published an article by composer Alex Shapiro explaining the importance of the internet to all creative artists working today. She speaks eloquently about the primacy of an open and fair internet to the vitality of creative practice–in particular, the creative practices that do not derive significant income or command a large share of public attention. It is these areas and these practitioners our organization represents and why we’re filing this comment in support of retaining the Title II Order as passed by the FCC in 2015.

Though published seven years ago, her argument is as true now as it was then. We urge the commissioners to read this article and take its arguments into consideration in your deliberations.

Market forces create good. When unrestrained, however, they can stifle all but the most robust and entrenched actors in that market, like weeds overgrowing a garden. A flourishing, democratic, and well-educated society does not allow this to happen in its cultural sphere.

In 1996, the Telecommunications Act conceived of the internet in mostly economic terms–at that time a perfectly reasonable approach. The internet’s role as cultural engine would not emerge until years later. But today, that cultural importance is undeniable. Applying the tenets of the unrestrained marketplace and light-touch regulation could cost us dearly. We imperil the livelihood of whole generations of artists and run the risk of robbing ourselves of the next Duke Ellington, the next Beyonce, the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The potential damages of throttling, blocking, and paid prioritization are of sufficient magnitude to require special consideration. As pointed out in the proposed rulemaking, Restoring Internet Freedom, there has been little documented damage or malfeasance–yet. The benefit of mitigating or eliminating that risk, in our view, far outweighs the costs of a stronger regulatory framework. A new balance is required. While far from perfect, the Title II Order did just that. Only two years in, isn’t it too soon to throw it out and wind the clock back twenty years?

About New Music USA

Located in New York City, New Music USA is a non-profit organization that advocates for the creation, performance and public enjoyment of new American music. Advocacy is inherent in its media work and grant-making, both of which support composers’ activities, as well as in its role as a key voice in the field. Its grant-making programs are pioneering new ways to support and enrich the field and its editorial work on NewMusicBox and Counterstream Radio sheds increasing light on emerging and established artists around the country. New Music USA has empowered tens of thousands of composers and stimulated the creation of thousands of new works which have reached audiences in the millions. Experience it all at www.newmusicusa.org.

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.

Do You Hear the People Sing? Music and Protest in the Street

People's Climate March

All images and video by Molly Sheridan

Last week offered remarkable opportunities to contemplate the intersection of music and protest. For the 300,000-plus people participating in the People’s Climate March in New York City, music was a way to transmit a message over the roar of the crowded streets, to express solidarity with one another, and frankly to keep spirits up during the hours-long process of waiting and walking the jam-packed two-mile parade route.

Musicians met and mingled and joined in impromptu group performances of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the lyrics often tweaked to suit the environmental occasion. When a moment of silent reflection was observed at 1 p.m., it was all the more powerful as a result.

The next evening in a small park across the street from Lincoln Center, the situation was somewhat reversed. Music was absent as a coalition of organizations gathered with the explicit goal of forcing the cancellation of the Met’s planned production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer this season. A crowd of roughly 400, including a bussed-in delegation of high school students, listened as speakers passionately objected to what they considered the opera’s glorification of terrorism and its anti-Semitic libretto.

In a crowd, nuance fades away of course. When the argument is literally framed by a fence in the street, the question of “which side are you on?” can take on a certain stark, if ultimately artificial, clarity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
I reflected on this first during the climate march. There weren’t really spectators for this action, I noticed. Even the weary participants who eventually camped out on stairs and railings along the sides of the route often still held their placards or snapped pictures which, one assumes, would soon appear on their social media channels with opinions, explicit or implied, attached. Actually addressing climate change is immensely challenging, but in this crowd opinions were paired down to whatever would fit on a banner or into a six-syllable lyric. Sentiments were neat in their simplicity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
The Klinghoffer protest offered something both more aggressive and more complex. One lone man who was clearly espousing anti-Semetic sentiments based on his large placard was placed in his own special fenced area at the rear of the action before being moved across the street. And those protesting the production mostly held one of a few versions of pre-made signs, so their alliance was clear. The speeches from the podium became increasingly heated as the event wore on.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
Taking up the mantle of investigative journalist, I started questioning these holders of poster board. Have you seen the opera? Have you heard the opera? Almost everyone I asked—a sample size of 15 or so, so take it for what you will—said that they had not. Some delivered this with a notable amount of pride or disgust at the suggestion that they would have endured such a thing. One woman appeared confused, because, as she informed me, the production “had not opened yet.”

So I was admittedly feeling a little dismissive when two things happened. First, a woman I asked about hearing the opera explained that she had listened to excerpts of it online and she then spoke passionately about why she found it incredibly offensive and inappropriate. I thanked her for her thoughts, but I realized as I turned away that I wasn’t, if I was being honest, really hearing her at all because I had already formed my own tightly held opinions and wasn’t listening. This was underlined with the bluntness of a made-for-TV movie a few moments later when a group of high school kids unaffiliated with the protest stopped near me and asked what was happening. I tried to explain it as even-handedly as I could—they were students, after all—and I was surprised by how thoughtfully they considered the issues at stake, even asking follow-up questions about the real-life events that led to the opera. This was the most productive bit of conversation I had had about the situation all week. Afterward, by truly listening to the various speakers without the earplugs of my own judgment, I began to hear how the root of the protest was actually less about John Adams’s opera, and more—especially since many were not directly familiar with the piece—about broader fears over examples of hate and terrorism and violence, from 9/11 to beheadings in the desert.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
This did not suddenly make demands for the cancellation of The Death of Klinghoffer acceptable to me, but it did produce a more constructive framework for a conversation about the opera. Unfortunately, we were not gathered to have a conversation. We were in the street where the only response requested seemed to be to a single question: “Which side are you on?”

The night before the protest and away from the asphalt, Justin Davidson laid out a powerful analysis of the opera itself for New York Magazine‘s Vulture website (“The Trouble With Klinghoffer Isn’t Quite What You Think“), and James Jorden, writing for the New York Observer (“In Defense of ‘Klinghoffer’“), offered eloquent comments related to some of the same anxieties I felt that night on the plaza:

The function of art, or a least of high art, is not to reinforce existing prejudices. A work of art is not supposed to agree with us any more than we are required to agree with it. On the contrary, art is supposed to inspire a dialogue, even an argument with the spectator and with society as a whole. If that dialogue is quashed by a few hundred, or even thousands of protesters, then art cannot exist.

Earlier this year when reporting on the cancellation of the HD simulcasts of The Death of Klinghoffer, I was called out on this site by a reader for failing to rally unequivocally to the opera’s defense. I don’t deny that there is a time and place for such action, but then as now, I’m actually more concerned that we take care to actually listen to the music and the responses of those around us to it. Shouting either into silence seems to me the most damning outcome of all.

Of New Music and the 99%

Carr making music at Occupy Wall Street

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

When I was asked to be a NewMusicBox columnist, I understood that one of the many points of the project is to facilitate conversation, and that “debate was welcome.” I’ve decided to embrace the idea and spend a month writing about conflict, specifically the ways in which music makers are agitating for better pay and working conditions in various parts of the industry.
Because this is NewMusicBox, I want to steer towards issues and case studies that speak to new music and its community. That said, I also want to state a belief that I plan to explore this month: that questions about funding, sponsorship, contracts, and payments are generically similar across many musical and creative domains and also across many “precarious work” contexts. Also, that these areas mostly land us in the working and middle classes in the neo-liberal West. I say this because I suspect that most people working in new music have working class or middle class economic situations, regardless of upbringing, education level, or identity. Perhaps I will be wrong in my hypothesis, and I would be more than happy to be wrong if the reality is that most music makers are actually making enough from music to be considered upper class, but I somehow doubt we are all living as “rock stars.” That is what I want to deal with in a more serious and empirical way this month.
Although I was always generically interested in music as labor, it was really my involvement with Occupy Wall Street that showed me what the contemporary struggles were in this field. The rest of this column is a short tour of how I got to the place I am now and why I consider Occupy the foundation of my current attitudes about musical labor.
When OWS sprung up in downtown Manhattan, I showed up to lend support and to hear what was on people’s minds. I was a music journalist who had played in new music and indie contexts for a decade, but I had wandered from performance when grad school took over my life. Within a few days of the occupation’s beginning, I signed an online pledge of support via the site Occupy Writers, led by Jeff Sharlet. I began editing and writing for the website, and visiting the park more often.
After my friend Will Hermes sent us a piece about Jeff Magnum’s Zuccotti performance

—I was both inspired and frustrated by my own work for the movement. I was a writer, but I wanted there to be something like Occupy Writers for musicians, because music is what I loved and music is what I knew about. I lay in bed one night about two weeks after the occupation started, worrying because no one had launched a campaign for musicians.
That night I had a sensation that was new to me. I knew that I wasn’t qualified to do this thing, I wasn’t a “real” musician and felt I thus didn’t deserve to step into the space of organizing a musician’s solidarity campaign, but I decided I was going to try to do it anyway. I had a little of the Occupy spirit in my veins when I popped over to my computer at three a.m. and bought the URL for occupymusicians.net, finding out in the morning that another New Yorker had bought the dot com only a day or two before me. “Why not join forces?” Sharlet wrote, and gave me the guy’s email. And so I met Judd Greenstein, an entrepreneurial young composer who also wanted to show solidarity, and together we launched occupymusicians.com.
When we launched we didn’t know what the site would do, other than that we wanted to show the world that many—indeed tens of thousands—of musicians felt kinship with or were part of the 900+ occupations held around the world that fall. To me it meant that the musicians not only supported the direct action tactic of occupying public space, but also that they had a consciousness about where they fit in the economic space. Most musicians, even the wealthiest among our list—such as Tom Morello or members of Sonic Youth—were the 99 percent. We decided that the list was just a list–a public statement. What musicians and activists did after that step was up to them.
We launched the website, got a lot of media attention, and began collecting a lot of great music and documentation of music (check out this Occupy-dedicated piece “Occupy Air” by Pauline Oliveros, for instance). The site was a global thing, but quickly after its launch I got involved in the New York OWS music working group. This meant coming off the computer and really doing the occupy thing, in the streets. I had to become a street conductor, performer, manager, wrangler, MC, and peacekeeper. I found myself in improvisational action contexts that challenged my comfort and creativity. (For instance: helping opera goers scale police barricades to get on the people’s mic at Lincoln Center, part of an action Alex Ross also wrote about. [I’m the girl in an orange hoodie shouting in front of Alex].) I had to sit in meetings and help hash out what our group’s values were when it came to recording, licensing, sponsorship, and other forms of money and prestige exchange at a moment when big media and corporations really wanted to be part of the Occupy space. I was pretty shy so all this street stuff scared me, but really it was the meetings that were the hardest part. I was at a loss when it came to how to behave, having spent a half-decade in the apolitical, totalitarian miasma of a Ph.D. program—a place where I learned I shouldn’t speak at all (literally, I was told to stay quiet in meetings until tenure), yet alone speak up for my values.

In the music working group, we had no road map except the strict use of consensus process, and with vastly different world views and the stakes seeming so high, we had huge arguments. We were from the worlds of classical, jazz, folk, hip hop, electronic, indie, Latin, Jewish traditional, street music. We were old hippies, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, liberals, feminists, and curiosity seekers. It was like the first day of college, only where 1,000 cameras were pointed at all the sophomoric choices and inarticulations. While it brought out the grandstander or bully in some, in me the process kept me quiet, observing others for about six months. I had no idea what to say, which as a journalist and wannabe academic, was terrifying. My whole world was shifting. In that time I stopped seeing musicians in terms of genre, stopped seeing people in terms of their class or education level, and gradually began to stop only thinking of how each life decision could support my career. Then, and this is still very much in process, I began to see what I wanted to do.
By the time I figured out what I wanted to do in the movement at least, it was six months in and the official story was that “Occupy was dead.” The mainstream media said it had failed aside from planting a meme of class consciousness in the minds of Americans. Even as I read this pronouncement, I would look around and see that my own world had changed, and that all these new people in my life were changed, too.
It was around that time that I began to see quite a few music-oriented action groups popping up with organizing and agitation plans surrounding issues old (fair contracts) and new (online streaming).
Carr working with Occupy musicians

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

In the three years since the movement began, I’ve seen a definite shift in the tactics used by musicians, organizers, and other people working in the music industry as they attempt to build power and push for fair pay and conditions in the vast and strange landscape of contemporary composition, performance, and recording. As a NewMusicBox columnnist this month, my plan is to write about some of these projects and some of the issues these struggles raise for musicians and music in general.
I certainly am not any kind of expert on the topic, but merely as one who is deeply interested in helping folks in the music industry earn a decent living and have opportunities to present their work. I hope that the brilliant and deep NewMusicBox commenting community will join in on this conversation, so we can get an even greater sense of where these struggles for fairness and dignity are happening, and what we can do as a community to support them.

Carr headhsot

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

Daphne Carr is a New York-based writer, activist, and educator. She is working on a memoir about contemporary music and activism, using Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night as inspiration.