Composing a Community Dialogue

A quintet sits on a raised platform at the front of the hall. Although they perform together, they are not always in tune with each other. Sometimes they even sound like they are in several different keys and rhythms at once.

Phillip Bimstein
Phillip Bimstein
photo by Timothy Archibald (Outside magazine)



Nonetheless, over the course of the evening, there are moments of both harmony and dissonance. When one member solos, the others listen carefully, preparing for their own turns. Sometimes they develop a theme which was heard previously; at other times they provide counterpoint or boldly strike off in a new direction.

The people gathered in the hall listen with intent. But at certain times they actively participate, contributing their own expressions, while the quintet listens.

This is not a musical concert, but a community meeting. The quintet is a town council and I am the mayor—conducting a town meeting and a public hearing. But it is still a concert of sorts, with mutual communication of opinion and views.

As author and former mayor (of Missoula, Montana) Daniel Kemmis observed, the one thing that rarely takes place at a public hearing is "hearing." Advocates come to sound off and amplify their concerns, but they often neglect to truly listen to the opposing view and therefore miss opportunities to solve their own problems.

What if we listened to issues with the same level of attention we bring to music? What if we took the time to understand a dialogue before we entered it, the way a good jazz musician listens respectfully to what is being put down before she jumps in, even if she wants to go off in an entirely new direction?

During my two terms as mayor I viewed our community dialogue as an ongoing composition, a constant overlapping of scored passages with spontaneous improvisations, a creative collaboration of all the participants. It always worked best when the participants, like good musicians, listened to what their fellow collaborators were saying, and when we appreciated the complexities and nuances of the piece we were creating together.

In what ways do you engage in your community’s dialogue? Does your listening affect the way you participate? Are there any parallels between speaking on an issue and composing or performing a piece of music? Using music as a model, in what ways do you think we could improve the quality of discourse in our communities and our country?

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Phillip Bimstein is a composer, AMC board member and the former mayor of Springdale, Utah.