In this week’s essay on new music and advocacy, I’m narrowing my focus to show how composers and performers are looking at the diverse landscapes in which we live, with their complex human histories and changing values, as the grounds to examine the intersection of place and people—past and present. In other words, in addition to advocating for place, new music can advocate for the human and social context of place.
Composing music with political and social themes certainly isn’t new. Ruth Crawford Seeger famously pursued musical activism between the world wars to highlight social injustice in America. The songs of Woody Guthrie were employed to foster enthusiasm for the construction of massive dams to harness the power of the mighty Columbia River. Some people are uncomfortable with the subversive implication of using our artistic skills in this manner. I am not implying that we should all use music as a platform for activism. However, either in response or with intention, musicians are doing so. So are we truly experiencing a resurgence in new music composed to highlight social equity? Is this a manifestation of a larger sense of stewardship toward the places, communities, and cultures in which we live? And if so, why now?
As humans, most of us believe that we possess the power to make positive change in the world. Composer Darrell Grant has said, “I believe that we who create art possess an extraordinary power to communicate, inspire, provoke, inform, and to move others to transform society.” Across communities, new music is actively challenging us to pay attention to the issues and the voices in our society.
While many works were composed to express the horror of 9/11, the reality is that we’ve been living with ongoing war, and its partner terrorism, for nearly 15 years. Many composers are grappling with its long-term effects. Composer Ethan Ganse Morse’s moving opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna addresses head-on the crisis level of PTSD in returning soldiers.
The pieces being wrought and their means of creation are diverse. Composers are ardently responding to harmful practices affecting our environment. Cellist Kari Juusela composed PBBP Blues, a searing response to the British Petroleum oil spill that devastated the Gulf coast in 2010. Brian Harnetty has examined the human and environmental impacts of the extraction industries of southeastern Ohio, both through his music and in a series for NewMusicBox just last month. These works are sobering reminders of the fragile nature of our ecosystem and the inextricable ways we are tied to our landscape. Others are composing works celebrating our national environmental treasures.
When I compose about place, I consider various points of view that the piece could embody. While we compose as an expression of our human experience, our singular voice, each of our points of view are limited in perspective and can’t convey all facets of the experience. So composers are raising social equity awareness and understanding by telling the story through historical and social narrative. For the Oregon Stories Project, composers Mark Orton, Darrell Grant, and Douglas Detrick have created a fusion of music and dialog to recount the stories of disenfranchised Oregonians who overcame society’s imposed limitations to make a lasting difference in their community. Composer Joan Szymko worked for months with families, patients, and caregivers to share the voices of those with Alzheimer’s disease in her choral work Shadow and Light.
New music is having the greatest social impact at the interactive community level. Composers and ensembles are reaching out—not with the outward Euro-paternalistic focus of the past, but with honest commitment—to understand how musicians can collaboratively work with the community to help solve problems. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s oratorio Meditations on Raising Boys rose out of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s work with issues affecting boys and young men. The program involved lectures and workshops as well as master classes.
Others ensembles are working in their communities to help refugees manage the transition into a new life in America as they struggle with identity and racial bias. Central Ohio Symphony initiated a drumming circle program for troubled teenagers.
Music also has the power to heal. Research confirming the health benefits of live music is well documented and has spawned music therapy programs across universities. As our population ages, this has inspired music ensembles across the country to work with area hospitals, rehab facilities, and related special needs programs.
New music can advocate for the changes needed in our society by connecting us to issues larger than ourselves. But why now? Perhaps composers and those commissioning new works are seeking to better connect music to our humanity. We all want to write music that is well crafted, that engages the performer, and that may outlast our limited lifespans. By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, the intersection of place and people expands our musical palette. The resulting pieces may become some of the most compelling works of our time.