[Ed. Note: Composer, clarinetist, and journalist Jonathan Russell, who has frequently responded to threads on these pages, was eager to start up a discussion about whether composers can effectively engage in political dialogue through their music. We welcome this submission, and encourage others to submit their musings here as well. And we are as eager as he is to read your responses to his thoughts.—FJO]
Lately, I have been totally obsessed with two political/cultural issues going on in this country. One is marriage equality, and specifically the Proposition 8 lawsuit that was recently decided in district court, and will almost certainly be appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. And the other is the controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero, and more broadly the general backlash against mainstream Muslim Americans from some sectors of American society. Before anyone starts in, let me be clear that my purpose here is not to debate the sides of either of these issues. There are plenty of other blogs out there for that. My purpose here is to ask: how on earth can I find a way to relate these issues to my composing?
Right now, I’m way more fired up about both of these debates than any piece I’m writing, and writing abstract music at all feels like it pales in importance compared with these issues. And yet, I have fully accepted at this point that music is my calling, that it’s what I’m here to do, and I’m not about to turn my back on it to become a professional activist—even if sometimes it seems like that would be more worthwhile. The best solution would seem to be to find a way to integrate these issues into my compositional pursuits. But how? All too often, in my opinion, when composers try to tackle political subjects, all you get is either a gross over-simplification of the issue, or else music that is only really political because the composer claims it is, not because of anything inherent in the music itself. There are countless examples of the latter. An example of the former: I generally like the music of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, but if I really want to grapple with the issues of nuclear weapons and their impact on society, I’m far better off reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb or John Hersey’s Hiroshima than relying on Adams’s fairly superficial treatment of the material in his opera. The opera adds nothing new to my understanding; translating this issue into operatic form sheds no new light on it.
Back to marriage equality: I have been especially obsessed with the two lawyers who argued against Proposition 8, David Boies and Ted Olson, because they have a fascinating back story. They argued opposing sides in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that decided the 2000 presidential election, and afterward became close friends. Olson lost his wife on one of the planes on 9/11 and was George W. Bush’s Solicitor General. He has shocked and angered many conservative friends and colleagues by taking on the issue of marriage equality with Boies, but when you hear him speak it is clear that this is an issue he feels extremely passionate about and committed to. All of which sounds like it could make for a great opera—loss, unexpected friendship across political lines, crowd scenes of protests, etc. There’s lots of drama, lots of passion, and complex personal relationships, plus big important cultural issues. And yet when I think about actually doing it, e.g. when I think about having a singer/actor singing Ted Olson’s moving words about equality and the constitution, it’s hard not to feel that an opera would be unable to do the material justice. Why listen to an actor singing these words, when you can easily watch the real man speaking them at a real rally on YouTube? How could my opera compete with reality?
The one composer who amazes me more and more in this regard is Frederic Rzewski. A piece like Coming Together not only addresses a political issue but seems to embody the essence of it in its very aesthetic and construction. The aggressively, repetitively circling music perfectly captures the mundane brutality of the speaker’s existence. And the contracting of the motives at the end powerfully suggests possibilities falling away, walls closing in, the speaker’s fate being sealed. It takes a simple, somewhat dull letter from a prison inmate, and extracts from it the full sense of isolation, brutal conditions, and defiance that its writer experienced. And by its very existence and continued popularity, the piece keeps alive an issue—the Attica prison uprising—that most of us no longer remember or never knew about in the first place. I want to do what he does. But I don’t know how. Anyone who has tried to talk to Rzewski himself about it can attest that he has little interest in discussing it and isn’t much help. Any thoughts? How can you effectively connect your political passions to your music in such a way that the musical setting actually adds something, extracts new or deeper meaning, or puts the issue in a different light?