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.
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.
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?
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 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.
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
by Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy
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
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.”
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.
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!
Founded in 2005, the Music Kitchen—whose motto is “Food for the Soul”—has been serving the homeless by providing what founder Kelly Hall-Tompkins calls “spiritual, uplifting help.” According to Hall-Tompkins, homeless populations are not “musically underserved,” they are “non-served.”
Over the past eleven years, NYC homeless persons have been treated to concerts at the men’s shelter at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the Antonio G. Olivieri Drop-in Center for homeless women (both in Manhattan). Hall-Tompkins has also organized and performed Music Kitchen concerts at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen, the largest soup kitchen in New York City, serving 1200 meals everyday. Because of the venue, musicians play while the hungry come and go during the performances. As Hall-Tompkins says: “At any one time, I’m estimating that there are about 700-800 people who pass through listening to our concerts. It is terrific that we can share music with so many people…”
One person wrote: “I loved the singing. It was inspirational. And the singing keeps my hope and faith alive.”
Another wrote: “Please come back when you have the time.”
Yet another wrote: EVER SiNCE MY PARENTS passed, I can’t gEt my life together. BASKETball AND MUSIC has helped ME, but I still don’t KNOW where MY life is going. THANK YOU!
Importantly, The Music Kitchen serves not only those passing through the shelters, but also the musicians serving that population. As violist Brett Deubner said: “When we go there and play from our hearts, there’s a therapeutic back-and-forth for both the listener and performer. Both are being fed.” Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist for the Berlin Philharmonic, said: “Music feeds our soul and I’d wish that there would be many more places like Music Kitchen where musicians can offer their art to people in need of comfort and encouragement and, in return, get a unique feeling of what it means to share the sensation of music. The intense interaction of giving and receiving has been a very special experience for me and has moved me deeply.”
Aside from concerts being “delivered” to/for those at the shelters, there have been a few instances were homeless persons have participated. At one particular Music Kitchen concert, a program was performed by the Bach Vesper vocal soloists (singers who specialize in Renaissance and Baroque cantatas, motets, etc.). At this concert, Hall-Tompkins asked the audience if anyone had questions for the singers. The first question was “Can I sing, too?” As Hall-Tompkins states:
I often think to myself when people ask this: Is this going to work? Here was period (Renaissance/Baroque motets) music being sung in German. So, I thought: No way. This is not going to work. But I was wrong. And it really made me think that it doesn’t really matter what music it is, or what people’s prior experience has been, people gravitate towards all music. This young man, in his early 20s, did not have any prior “formal” experience with making music, and he certainly did not have any experience speaking German or reading music fluently, but he just looked over the director’s shoulder and did his best on one song, and sat down when finished. And he felt really good about himself. And satisfied. It was truly amazing that he felt so much a part of the concert experience that he had the desire to be even more connected to the music in this way.
In addition to this kind of participatory music making, Hall-Tompkins finds that music listening has a lasting, therapeutic component.
The mission of the Music Kitchen:
To bring top emerging and established professional musicians together in order to share the inspirational, therapeutic, and uplifting power of music with New York City’s disenfranchised homeless shelter population. I believe a shelter exists to provide not only physical but emotional and spiritual support to those who, for whatever reason, have lost the foundation of their homes and communities. I believe that music reaches the core of our being and can play a vital role in nourishing hope, love and strength, particularly when performed at an extremely high artistic level and in a friendly, relaxed setting.
More recently, the Music Kitchen has expanded its reach. It opened a new series in Los Angeles on December 4, 2014. The Los Angeles Branch of the Music Kitchen is presented in partnership with LAHSA, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.