Whenever we have initiated a discussion about whether or not music can be or should be political on these pages, there is usually an outpouring of very interesting reader responses. David Smooke’s post last week more than lived up to these expectations, with extremely articulate rejoinders from a wide range of perspectives. Among my favorites were Phil Fried—”Long after the rubble has been cleared art will bring the remembrance and the forgetting” and Mischa Salkind-Pearl—”Beethoven’s 9th never set anyone free. But just think how many people it may have motivated.”
My own feelings about contextualizing music in any way have always been somewhat ambivalent. While history clearly reveals that music has served as a catalyzing influence for just about every significant group activity for which there is surviving documentation (from marriages and funerals to wars to the establishment of new religions and the perpetuation of older ones, and on and on), I’m also well aware that the very music that might have been used for such contexts can just as easily take on new meanings if listeners are not aware of its original intent and, sometimes, even if they are. Music transcends place, era, and language, but to some extent that’s because it’s untranslatable. At the same time, as important as music is in my life, it is not the sum total of existence. An essay that Daniel Felsenfeld wrote for us back in 2005, which urged readers to directly help the victims of Hurricane Katrina rather than write a symphony about it, still makes a lot of sense to me. In my own compositional efforts, I’ve always been reluctant to create something that is a direct response to a specific event even though I’m well aware that such responses have triggered some extremely valuable musical works from others, e.g. even Katrina, which inspired Ted Hearne’s tremendous Katrina Ballads.
Several of the events of the past couple of weeks have been extremely unsettling—the civil war in Libya, the earthquake in New Zealand, and the even more massive earthquake and tsunami and their aftermath in Japan immediately spring to mind. Some may find in these tragedies the seeds for extremely significant artistic statements that will stand the test of time, which is all well and good and which I will not discourage. But for the present moment I would like to shine light on another aspect of how the things we can do can make a difference in more immediate and tangible ways.
It was particularly heartening to learn last week that a March 27 concert that John Zorn put together at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre to benefit Japan earthquake relief efforts sold out in less than seven hours after tickets were announced. Zorn has organized an additional benefit concert—which will include performances by Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Ikue Mori, and Norah Jones, among others—at the Abrons Arts Center on April 8. And on April 9 from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Zorn will participate in a 12-hour long Concert for Japan presented by the Japan Society which will also feature Philip Glass, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Bill Laswell. In addition, on Wednesday, March 23, Wynton Marsalis and his quintet will appear at EN Japanese Brasserie, for a fundraising effort which will also include a meal featuring regional Japanese recipes from the areas most affected, as well as a silent auction. Tickets are $250 in advance and $300 at the door and 100% of the proceeds will be donated to the Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund and the Japanese Red Cross. And on Thursday, March 24 in Baltimore, violinist Hilary Hahn, whose upcoming concert tour to Japan had to be canceled, will headline a benefit which will feature performances as well as an art and jewelry sale at St. John’s of Baltimore. All proceeds will go to Direct Relief International’s Japan Relief and Recovery Fund.
We’d very much like to hear of other such events involving musicians taking place around the country (please provide as much information as you can: links etc.), all of which is extremely inspiring testimony that music can indeed have a direct impact.