Boston: Insecure in Cambridge

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

On November 13th, composers Curtis Hughes and David Little presented their second “National Insecurity” concert—a program of compositions with political themes—at MIT’s Killian Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (The first concert was last spring.) Performances were by the percussion and saxophone duo Non Zero (Tim Feeney and Brian Sacawa), as well as the NOW Ensemble and Newspeak, whose appearance here was also the final stop on an East Coast tour entitled “Free Speech Zone.” Compositions were by Hughes, Little, Sophocles Papavasilopoulos, Dennis DeSantis, Vinko Globokar, Missy Mazzoli, John Halle, Judd Greenstein, and Fred Rzewski.

Despite a few logistical glitches, the concert was a successful political event, as well as a very thought-provoking musical event. The participants (organizers, composers, and performers) demonstrated that classical musicians don’t always have to sit sequestered in their studios and concert halls—that they can show how they, too, are people who care about non-musical matters. As for the specific politics of this concert—the dominant theme being outrage over this nightmare presidency, the sorry state of American democracy, and the war in Iraq—it was a cinch for me. I’m right there with all of them—Hughes, Little, and the rest—and admire them for their activism.

On the musical front, it also showcased the variety of means by which composers may combine the potentially disparate worlds of music and politics. This problem of disparity doesn’t come up with music that is traditionally overtly political—such as much of hip hop, ’60s rock, punk, and some of the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Max Roach (e.g. Freedom Now Suite). In most of this music, there seems to be no separation of musical and political ideals; somehow we can simultaneously absorb both the music and its message. Sometimes this may be because the musical language itself has been shaped from the beginning by sentiments like defiance. Sometimes it may be because the composers and musicians themselves have lived the issues they are protesting—e.g. racism or classism—and therefore it won’t take effort to get the sentiment into their music. (Lester Bowie spoke about being able to use his “entire experience” in playing.) However, for composers and performers coming from the classical tradition, it may in fact require some effort to reconcile the inner world of their musical minds—shaped by their very conformist classical training—with the feelings they have for matters that are, nonetheless, remote from their lives. After all, no one present was tortured at Guantanamo, or mentioned having relatives or friends in Iraq, or even having been arrested at an anti-Bush rally.

There seemed to be three basic approaches. One was to keep the literal thinking of audience members active using written documents. I missed Rzewski’s Coming Together. (Saving a heavy piece like this for last on the program is a great idea, unless the concert runs beyond three hours, as this one did, and people are obliged to leave, as I was.) However, from the little I know about this piece, the text—a prison letter by ’60s activist Sam Melville written shortly before his death during a prison uprising—is deeply integrated with the music; the detached, minimalist compositional method of reciting key phrases and fragments from Melville’s defiant but upbeat letter repeatedly, as through a tape loop, allows the listener to appreciate the sad irony of his death. In Greenstein’s and Halle’s pieces, however, the music was clearly in a subordinate role to the content of the text, juxtaposed to it rather than embodying it. During Greenstein’s Free Speech Zone, written in collaboration with filmmakers Alice Lovejoy and Jeff Reichert and performed by the NOW Ensemble, quotations of President George Bush attempting to justify the war flashed by on a screen in front of us. Appropriately, I cringed at Bush’s words, and I laughed at the absurdity of the fenced-in “free speech zones” for anti-Bush protesters, described in the account of activist Bell Neel. What I remember of the accompanying music—I was supposed to be focusing on the loaded words on the screen, wasn’t I?—was a simple, melancholy, modal backdrop which projected sad irony (i.e. commentary) onto the President and Neel’s words. In Halle’s Apology to Younger Americans, sarcasm was the tone. A letter by journalist and author Sam Smith “apologizing” on behalf of his generation, in the off-hand manner of a convicted “power broker,” for things such as the Bhopal disaster and global warming, was set to a deliberately light, unassuming diatonic melody with instrumental accompaniment, delivered frankly by mezzo-soprano Bo Chang and the NOW Ensemble. Music in both pieces was more or less a matter of mood projected onto the facts. In all three text-oriented pieces, the very concrete political message was effectively conveyed, which we can safely assume is mainly what the composers wanted. Perhaps these pieces avoided the disparity of purpose I mentioned above, since ideas and music had been intentionally separated and juxtaposed, or explicit emotion intentionally avoided.

Another, contrasting approach (remembering that we were meant to be kept aware of the political component at this themed concert) was working the appropriate emotions into the music—emotions of anger, sadness, and anxiety. (“Hope” was also used, if that can be considered an emotion.) Notice, I wrote: “working the appropriate emotions into the music.” Without text to spell things out in these works—but with the need remaining to convey the designated sentiments unambiguously—gestures of “anger” and “sadness” took center stage. How many ways are there to convey anger, instrumentally? Loudness, multiphonics, and distortion are obvious choices. (Think Jimi Hendrix playing “Star-Spangled Banner.”) Frantically animated rhythms are another means, as well as that old stand-by, “dissonance.” All of these featured prominently in several works. (As I watched a group of people leaving in annoyance at the first intermission, I felt the urge to call after them: “OK! But just as long as you know: this wasn’t the alienating dissonance of contemporary concert music you’ve heard so much about! This was outrage over social injustice! See you at the next new music concert, right?!!!”) I won’t get more specific than to say I wasn’t nearly as convinced by the use of these devices in some of the works, when emotions felt calculated and clichéd, rather than genuine (like Jimi).

On the other hand, Globokar’s ? Corporel, performed by Tim Feeney, was by far the most visceral and direct statement on the program and was decisive in making this concert feel like a potent statement of protest. This was a piece for solo percussionist in which the shirtless and barefooted player pounds his own body—head, chest, thighs—with his palms and fists, slams his teeth together, ruffles his hair, moans, and otherwise brings the sound of bodily violence directly to us, with rhythmic riffs propelling the whole thing forward. Here was a complete uniting of percussive technique, the body, music, and the message. Even without the benefit of program notes for this piece, there was no doubt in my mind that this performance of it, in any case, was a tribute to victims of torture. Whether the victims in mind are in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, the secret CIA prisons overseas, or your next-door neighbor’s living room may not be important. Midway through, a statement was muttered about the hopelessness of mankind. Feeney held nothing back. To execute this piece, I can only imagine he reached out and “channeled” something (the victims’ experience?) via who knows what means—method acting, compared to some of the stylized emotions of other works. The effect was that of a true homage.

A third approach was symbolism, as in Hughes’s Two-Faced, for alto saxophone and percussion, performed by Non Zero, and possibly also in other works without explanatory program notes, such as Still Life With Karl: An American Psalm, by Sophocles Papavasilopoulos and Patriot Act by Dennis DeSantis. Obviously program notes and titles came in handy for most of these pieces, as well as some of the emotion-based ones—either to explain the symbolism or simply to remind us where specifically the sentiments in the music came from. In Hughes’s notes for Two-Faced, a few possible analogies were offered, having to do with the “dilemma” of opposing musical urges and the hypocrisy of today’s politicians, and in Mazzoli’s notes for her melancholic In Spite of All This, she wrote: “I sought to describe not only the vulnerability and anger but the compassion, optimism and renewal that marks these otherwise destructive times.” (“Brutality,” “Assimilation,” and “Defying” were among the movement titles in Little’s Electric Proletariat.) Really, I wanted to listen without program notes, to see if I would “get” all this on my own. Out of the context of this concert, I would, of course, have perceived the opposed forces in Hughes’s piece, and the melancholy of Mazzoli’s piece, but would it have occurred to me that these things had anything to do with world affairs? In Hughes’s case, he may not care so much how exactly we interpret intellectually what happens musically, as long as we’re thinking. He wrote to me: “I’ve started to title some of my pieces in politically suggestive ways more as an invitation to the listener’s imagination than as an attempt to dictate what unilateral ‘meaning’ should be read into the music.”

It was interesting to see how, amid the urgency of political purpose, the unpolitical part of the composers’ minds were, out of necessity, still busy with that emotionless thing called “technique” (structure, counterpoint, tonality). I was admiring the technique of Hughes and Papavasilopoulos and others—not to mention the excellent performances of Feeney and Sacawa—but it felt almost inappropriate to do so at this type of concert.

Speaking to the audience, David Little recalled moments of doubt he’s experienced recently; with so much to worry about, such as essential matters of human rights, to be sitting and composing abstract concert music can feel pretty insignificant. I certainly have experienced these types of doubts. How can we reconcile these concerns (music and politics) in our lives? His (their) logical answer is to get busy writing politically themed music and holding politically themed concerts. Of course, there are those who believe that all art is political. American expatriate composer Gerard Pape pointed out to me last year that simply being a composer in this age—devoting your life to a musical world that is so very far off the commercial radar screen—is itself an act of non-conformity, even defiance. Maybe I should feel defiant, rather than alienated, whenever I try to explain to non-musicians that my profession (composing) is something that will never earn me a living, and that for a living I teach more people to do this thing that will never earn them a living. As for more pressing political issues, I don’t think I have the ability to portray the political in my music, and may have to be satisfied keeping those worlds separate and unreconciled, as long as I stay active in both.

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Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She currently teaches music theory as an adjunct faculty member at universities in the Boston area, and also is Director of the Boston Microtonal Society, together with her former teacher and BMS President, composer and jazz saxophonist Joseph Maneri.