I’m not a political person by nature. I’ve never even voted in a primary or local election, and if you ask me what Proposition 43 is all about… well, I wouldn’t have a clue. In fact, the thing I remember most about the last presidential election is Björk’s shoes. You see, she showed up at a concert that I curated on the very same night Al Gore conceded defeat wearing some killer pumps radiating with an intense hue of skyish blue that clashed ever so fabulously with her faded jeans.
But even a political sloth like me finds it hard to ignore the collective unrest felt across the country these days—this upcoming presidential election is just too important. Unfortunately, the skewing lens of the media tends to simplify our viewpoints and emotions down to digestible reds and blues. And we, in turn, drop the nuance of our convictions for easier ways to communicate the fact that “I’m with them.” For better or worse, in-depth discourse about complex issues apparently isn’t in today’s tide.
So in this tacit state of being, brought about by a soured presidential election, terrorist attacks, an economic recession and so-called recovery (go girlie-men!), a questionable war waged on either misguided revenge or plain ol’ greed—who the hell knows?—and on, and on, and on… how can composers and musicians get out from under it all and become the bellwethers for betterment we so sorely need?
Thanks to a healthy news blitz a few months ago, we all suddenly became aware of Bruce Springsteen, again. His Vote for Change concert tour crisscrossing the swing states convenes a stalwart posse of musicians whose societal principles, if not political leanings, have been steadfast, as evident by their songwriting or in-between-song outspokenness. Along with The Boss himself, the usual suspects have been recruited: R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Tracy Chapman, John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt, and the Dixie Chicks (have their fans finally forgiven them for their anti-Bush sins?). Hmm, add Linda Ronstadt to a bill featuring a warm-up screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 and we’ve got a jihad-worthy boycott on our hands! Meh, we better just shut up and sing.
With our pop realm counterparts joining forces for various causes—from ousting Bush to canceling third world debt—it made me wonder… What are we doing? How are creators of new music actively engaging the world around them?
Happenstance placed the Republican National Convention a mere six blocks from the American Music Center’s offices, which seemed like the perfect opportunity to hit the streets and shed some light on the socially-charged exploits arising from our community. From Phil Kline’s surreptitiously anti-war Zippo Songs to a benevolent observance dedicated to the world’s victims of violence composed by Pauline Oliveros, or even Conrad Cummings’s satirical Photo-Op (stay tuned for a webcast on October 15th), what we discovered is encouraging. Although we rarely hear about it, the new music community is actively challenging convention, as it always has, using a wide range of artistic means to engage in a civic dialogue that stretches well beyond the scope of the upcoming election.
(Speaking of which, if, for some reason, even after the televised debates are boiled down into sound bytes, you’re still finding it hard to choose a candidate, simply refer to our handy compendium, penned by John Sparks. It details the level of support both Republicans and Democrats have dolled out to the arts over the years. Now there’s one more way to vote with your pocketbook!)
But let’s not kid ourselves, there’s only so much we can do. No doubt art is a powerful force, but then again, so is capitalism. Safely inside our cocoon of art and ideals, is it really possible to make a dent in the social fabric? With all this in mind, as well as the benefit of hindsight, we asked a group of composers to contemplate the retrospective impact as well as amended, present-day perceptions of particular works motivated by other cataclysmic circumstances.
In heavy times such as these, people tend to take stock of everything around them. Some unscientific polling amidst my friends and colleagues revealed something, but can it really be true? Are all composers and performers of unpopular music (i.e. new music) diehard liberals? Well, I guess it’s human nature… birds of a feather flock together and all of that, but are we liberal because we’re creative, or creative because of our liberal ideals—insert obvious bird/egg metaphor—but with all the swirl of political discourse surrounding us, how come we never hear about a pro-Bush new music anything? There’s got to be some right wing composers out there, somewhere. And no, Ashcroft doesn’t count. “Let the Eagle Soar” wasn’t composed in sonata form, thankfully.
Of course geography plays a role in determining both your political viewpoint and your circle of friends—it obviously takes a special breed to settle down in New York City. It seemed like all New Yorkers became a little better acquainted after the RNC left town. Strangers and passersby bonded in the subways and streets like war veteran swapping stories about quiet victories and narrow escapes, and mourning the not-so-fortunate who wound up incarcerated at Pier 57, or “Guantanamo on the Hudson” as it came to be known.
Last week while in Santa Fe, I got the chance to witness a wholly different political landscape. This one peppered with oversized “Viva Bush!” placards which were somewhat eclipsed by the ubiquitous Kerry bumper stickers, especially in the Whole Foods parking lot. While I hung out with the locals—mostly ex-New Yorkers—at El Farol, I felt a calmness, a sort of sanctuary from the burdening weight of our times. Sitting next to a kindly outspoken, full-blooded Apache lady enjoying her after-work martini, I was reminded that we cannot be defined by elephants, donkeys, or whatever, and when everything seems so uncertain, as it does right now, the best thing I can do is something rather than nothing, even if it is just composing music.