Amidst the Chaos, the Arts Provide Connectivity

Physicians, social media, and social psychologists are saying that, if at all possible, social distancing does not necessarily mean emotional distancing. 

With this in mind, artists of all kinds have been doing their uplifiting “good work”—i.e., mobilizing their artistic citizenship or “artivism”—by putting the arts to work for emotional and psychological well-being.

Indeed, while concert halls, school auditoriums, museums, galleries, clubs, and other places of/for artistic experiences are closed, many musical, visual and other kinds of artists across the nation and around the world are going online and taking to the streets. 

Diplo is live streaming DJ sets from his home five times a week on YouTube. The shows run Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with distinct themes each day. Paul Simon and Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real are “coming together” on Twitter through #selfdistancetogether

When the times call for social distancing, cellists of the New York Philharmonic respond with J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello in G major. I: Prelude, Nathan Vickery II: Allemande, Principal Cello Carter Brey III: Courante, Sumire Kudo IV: Sarabande, Alexei Yupanqui Gonzales V: Menuets I and II, Eric Bartlett VI: Gigue, Maria Kitsopoulos

The above-mentioned do not provide monetary comfort for those producing the art nor those experiencing it. Alongside many newly-found unemployed persons, artists and arts-takers are not immune to financial loss despite the Internet’s outlets and potentialities.

As reported in The Guardian, some visual artists are taking to the streets. 

These artists are not benefiting financially for their efforts, and neither are people who are experiencing these performances. Obviously, unemployed people, including art-makers and audiences, are not immune to financial loss.

Still, we must say “thank you” to all the artists across genres and practices who find the perseverance and courage to continue doing what they do. In fact, we might be more accurate and honest if we ask: Where would we be right now without the arts? And: How might we feel if artists—whether professional or amateur—failed to provide us with ways and means of/for connecting?

Far Beyond the Iron Curtain

In what ways can satire, sarcasm, comedy, and artistic excellence come together to help illustrate some of the potentials found within the concept of “artistic citizenship”? Rather than answer this question literally, we would like to pose the following example for your consideration. Does this arrangement and performance of Shostakovich’s music suggest a possible interpretation of understanding “artistic citizenship”? We leave this question with you as you listen and watch.

Protest Needs Music; Does Music Need Protest?

According to The New York Times:

“Every successful movement has a soundtrack,” the songwriter Tom Morello told reporters after he had tried to fire up the crowd at the Occupy Wall Street Protest last week with a Woody Guthrie tune and one of his own labor songs.

Perhaps he is right, but the protesters in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan have yet to find an anthem. Nor is the rest of the country humming songs about hard times. So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people.

Where have all the protest songs gone?

Good question! 

In attempt to trace the history of the “protest song,” and the relationships between those songs and the artists who created them, Dorian Lynskey published 33 REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day

In end, Mr. Lynskey can’t help noting, the protest song is nearly an extinct art form; few mean nearly as much as they once did. “I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music,” he says. “I finished by wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.” If the Bush years didn’t provoke scorching and popular protest songs, he asks, what could?

There are many reasons political songs no longer resonate. The Vietnam War bound people together as few issues have since. We no longer expect music to change the world, and we’re more atomized in our tastes. In the Stewart-Colbert-Gawker era we’re couch potatoes, and our default mode is sophisticated, needling humor. We’re lazier than ever too. “Placards and sit-ins,” he says, “have given way to charity wristbands and Facebook groups.”

However, this was back in 2011. Have things changed at all? Perhaps somewhat.

In Hong Kong, where mass, pro-democracy protests have rocked the political landscape over the past four months, the protest song seems to sing loudly and clearly.

Written and composed anonymously, then modified in online forums popular with protesters, “Glory to Hong Kong” features the kind of brass-heavy backing and soaring lyricism common to anthems, including the line “May people reign, proud and free, now and ever more.” In a slickly produced video version, an orchestra and choir dressed in protester garb — black shirts, helmets and gas masks — perform through a fog machine, meant to evoke images of tear gas.

A composer named Thomas, who has not shared his last name, first posted an instrumental version and lyrics on Aug. 26 to LIHKG, a forum used by protesters, and asked others to record themselves singing it. He collected audio versions via Google Drive, and assembled them together to make it sound as though a choir were singing. He adjusted the lyrics based on suggestions in the forum. 

The song was then uploaded on YouTube on Aug. 31 with English subtitles and rousing scenes from demonstrations, such as crowds parting for an ambulance, a child leading chants and a banner hung on a mountain. The composer recruited video editors and musicians to create new versions. 

Might the rest of the world learn something from Hong Kong? Are there fights—small and large—that need songs to raise our levels of consciousness up; songs that urge us to join our brothers and sisters in bettering today and tomorrow? 

Conversely, might our musical experiences—whether as listeners or performers—become more significant and, potentially, creative when we compose, create, improvise, perform, and LISTEN with the intent to move, shake-up, and confront the ills of our common world?

Music and Social Justice Resources Project

The Society for Ethnomusicology is currently collecting news items to include in its online repository: applied project news, educational outreach program news, organizational endeavors, and research projects.  We are grateful to and inspired by the Society for Ethnomusicology and their thoughtful attention to connections between music and social justice.

The Society states:

The Society for Ethnomusicology’s Music and Social Justice Resources Project is a repository of material on how people worldwide are currently using music to address issues of social conflict, exclusion/inclusion, and justice. We welcome notices on public events (e.g., rallies, performances, conferences) and other general news; proposals/reports on projects involving community engagement, activism, or advocacy; syllabi, lesson plans, and other educational material; information on activist organizations; and research articles.

To submit initiatives related to music and social justice for inclusion in the online repository, go here and follow the online instructions.

By way of example, meet Musicians Without Borders. Founded officially in 2000, this world-wide organization has been working with local musicians and community organizations to build sustainable community music programs. Why music? The organization states:

Where war has raged, people need everything to return to life: food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine. But more than anything, people need hope. To reconcile, people need empathy. To heal, people need connection and community.

Music creates empathy, builds connection and gives hope.

Rwanda Youth Music is one of many of Musicians Without Borders’ projects.

 

 

In the Voices of Their Own

In Artistic Citizenship, Aria Fani examines Persian literary cultures, specifically in Afghanistan. For Fani, and for Persian peoples, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) ignited a heightened awareness of concepts of citizenship, homeland, and exile. In the absence of a centralized political body in Kabul, Persian poets expressed variegated narratives of what constituted Afghan “identity” and loyalty to the nation.

Poetry of Afghanistan maintains ancient roots. And for thousands of years in Afghanistan, various peoples and forms of poetic expression have been and continue to be sites of resistance and, therefore, artistic citizenship. One such form is the “landay.”

As journalist and poet Eliza Griswold notes, the landay is:

an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.

Travelling in Afghanistan, Griswold collected numerous landays for the book I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan.

And since then, the New Zealand born composer Gemma Peacocke has set these two-lined poems in the multimedia work Waves + Lines for soprano, chamber ensemble, and electronics.

Hear this evocative work live on June 22 at 8pm, at Roulette. Here is “Love” from Waves + Lines

Soprano: Eliza Bagg
Pianist: Borah Han
Percussionist: Adam Holmes
Double bassist: Shawn Lovato

Recorded by: Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan
Mixed and mastered by: Gregory Wayne Hanson Jr.

Text from:
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
by Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy

 

Once You Are Not a Stranger

Janis Brenner & Dancers premieres Once You Are Not A Stranger. Created in collaboration with Bosnian-born, electro-acoustic composer Svjetlana Bukvich, costume designer Sue Julien, lighting designer Mitchell Bogard, and installation artist Eva Petric from Slovenia, this 45-minute, interdisciplinary work investigates notions of “empathy in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious world and uses the dance company as a microcosm of this world.”

Video projections are embedded in the center of an elaborate set-piece, playing a personal and imagistic role in the work. Performed with live music, including Ms. Brenner on vocals.

After a meaningful tour to Sarajevo, composer Bukvich and choreographer/singer/actor Brenner spoke about collaborating. As Bukvich states:

Janis and I conversed about things that interested us and empathy came up right away, as did the need to really hear one another. I spoke about walking in someone else’s shoes – feeling wise – and how that impacts the strangeness in any relationship…Visually, the piece unfolds in wavy patterns which “freeze” on occasion, or so was our intention. There is a hanging set piece onto which video is projected in the same fashion. With each unfolding, messages becomes clearer, there is a shedding, a letting go, a cutting into deeper layers of pain and, yes, beauty and goodness which lurk in all of us. Like taming a wild animal, the piece comes to terms with its audience. The music is complex and electronic at first, then becomes gradually acoustic, with a string quartet, then a voice, a scrape of a shoe, and into silence. Art-rock-meets-electronic experimental-meets-old world sentimental.

For more information on the premiere, visit Gibney Dance.

In the mean time, watch the ETHEL String Quartet perform an arrangement of this work. The following segment was performed as part of Composers Concordance’s Roundtable concert at (le) Poisson Rouge on January 26th, 2017.
Video by Eddie Papetti

 

Why the Arts Matter

What happens to us when we actively engage as art-makers or art-takers? Who do we become?

Given the complexities of today’s political, social, and emotional landscapes, engaging with/through the arts is as important now more than ever. Why? “With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or making sculptures.” While some may be tempted to question the arts at times like these, we disagree. And so does Miguel Syjuco.

“Silence, it is said, implies complicity. But that’s only half the story. Silence also confirms oppression, because the ability to speak out is too often a luxury of the privileged.

The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent – and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.”

Art making and art taking help us raise our voices to the level of consciousness. The arts confirm that we do not need to remain silent and complicit.

Pablo Picasso knew this all too well. That’s why he painted “Guernica.”

Food for thought on why the arts matter…

With Gratitude to David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael

In 2016, the world lost three musical legends and LGBT icons: David Bowie (1947-2016), Prince (1958-2016), and George Michael (1963-2016).

On January 10th, David Bowie died after a long battle with cancer. Bowie’s famed androgyny held a prominent place in the LGBT community; “he used his unconventional, ostentatious gender presentation to challenge what the mainstream public associated with virile cisgender men.”  As Maya Oppenheim writes in the Independent: “Pushing the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable, Bowie’s sexual ambiguity helped others gain the impetus to express themselves.”

Prince died on April 21st. Like Bowie, Prince defied all musical norms, social labels, gender codes, and sexual stereotypes. As Nathan Smith says in Out: “For many members of the queer community, Prince’s sheer persistent resistance to being restricted by language was an exciting and provocative feat and one through which they could channel their own frustrations and identity struggles.”

George Michael died on Christmas Day at the age of 53. In 1998, Michael came out as being gay and advocated strongly for AIDS prevention and gay rights. At a time when being gay was considered a “sin,” Michael’s openness served as a hopeful beacon to LGBT people who, themselves, were struggling to be free and proud of their identities. How should we remember George Michael? Lee Williscroft-Ferris argues that

George Michael represented a walking middle-finger-up in the faces of those right wing mouthpieces that would desexualize gay men, sanitizing our existence and barely concealing their disdain and, frequently, their outright disgust at the mere thought of gay men interacting sexually with one another.

One Takeaway Message

Music isn’t set off from the world, as too many musicians, music educators, and audience members would have us believe. Instead, as the eminent UC-Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues: “Music is in the world, doing worldly work.”

People do a serious disservice to activist artists of all kinds—or what we call artivists—when they attempt to sanitize or depoliticize musicians’ lives and legacies. Instead, let’s celebrate all three men as musical-social icons: extraordinary people who made major differences in the lives of LGBT individuals and communities worldwide.

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner

When thinking of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s typical to reflect on the world’s great writers and past winners: Alice Munro, Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Octavio Paz, to name only a few. This year, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won because, as the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said, Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Granting this award to Bob Dylan signifies important things. First, songs and their lyrics are as much poetic devices as “pure” poetry. This thinking dates back to ancient Greek poets, who recited their poetry to music. In fact, and because of this, ancient Greek poetry is not so much thought of as collections of “poems,” but as “songs.” In Greek times, the culture of poetry was the culture of song. Bob Dylan is being recognized for carrying forward this ancient tradition.

Also, and while the Academy recognizes Dylan’s contribution to the fields of folk, rock, pop music, and popular culture, this Nobel Prize signifies something important for artistic citizenship. Dylan’s songwriting oftentimes took an activist stance. Indeed, Dylan felt that songs could and would change the world. As David Yaffe notes, once Dylan got involved with CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), “he began writing songs about Emmett Till, Hattie Carroll, and James Meredith.” He created “words that would be belted out at the March on Washington by Peter, Paul, and Mary ‘How many years can some people exist until they’re allowed to be free.’” And while Dylan’s musical “art-ivism” ebbed and flowed throughout his career, his songs remain and continue to powerfully engage and transform the world.

Equally important, the Academy’s move shows that distinctions between so-called “high art” and “low art” are arbitrary categories that are no longer useful. Indeed, Dylan’s poetic songs engage in/with the world and do worldly work. “The times they are a changing,” sang Dylan. Yes, they have. Congratulations to Bob Dylan, poet of America for the world!