I spent a good part of last week in Cleveland where I was invited by The Cleveland Orchestra to give a series of talks for their fall festival, Fate and Freedom, which paired music by Beethoven and Shostakovich. While this was clearly not contemporary American repertoire, I was still thrilled to participate in these concerts since they afforded audiences an opportunity to deal with deeply relevant music teeming with political implications—e.g. rejecting Napoleon’s imperial aspirations, working around Joseph Stalin’s foibles. It might appear somewhat disingenuous to profess that completely abstract instrumental symphonies composed between 70 and 200 years ago—three of which by each composer were performed by the orchestra—could offer any discernible message to 21st century listeners, let alone a message that challenges dictators and asserts individual freedom. But the fact is, both of these composers were heavily informed by larger social concerns. Even though the specifics of any possible message a listener can walk away with from hearing their music is admittedly tenuous at best, it sparked some exciting discussions. And the larger sociological implications of the music were further highlighted during the week with screenings of two films that used music by those composers as their soundtracks. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange famously borrows sections from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to chilling effect in a film that forces us to reconsider crime and how it is punished. The New Babylon, a 1929 Soviet silent film about the 1871 Paris Commune, was the first of 35 films to be scored by Shostakovich; his score helped to create an extremely effective piece of cinematic propaganda against the avarice of the bourgeoisie.
Of course, the music that can most clearly relate to the ongoing concerns in our society is the music that is being created right here right now. Which is why, despite how wonderful my time was in Cleveland during the latter half of last week, the most memorable of my concert-going experiences was attending the American premiere of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera.
Much has been made about the fact that Muhly (b. 1981) is the youngest composer ever to be commissioned by the Met, having been approached to compose an opera for them when he was only 25 years old. (That’s when we started paying attention to him as well.) I’ve already made quite a big deal of what a rarity a new opera by a composer of any age is at the Met. But Two Boys is much more than a new work by a very young composer. It is one of the only operas composed thus far that deals with the way people interact with each other online (although I imagine there will be many more similarly-themed works in the years to come). More importantly, it deals with some very complex moral issues—specifically fears about sexual orientation, the way the internet makes it so easy to lie about who we really are, cold blooded murder versus what could possibly be interpreted as assisted suicide—that are at the forefront of conversations taking place at dinner tables through the country. That the opera does so without clearly taking sides allows it to be open to multiple interpretations, which can only lead to even more nuanced conversations about these weighted topics. One of the most effective ways to get people thinking and talking about sensitive issues is through the prism of a work of art. Film has played this role for generations now. Music can and should have that role as well.
This all came back to me in Cleveland as I was packing my luggage on Saturday for my return back to New York City, and had C-SPAN on in the background. (This is about the only context in which I ever turn on a television.) Anyway, the program I was tuned into was a call-in show with Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Ed. The show was serving largely as ambient sound for me since I was tending to a myriad of tiny details—folding shirts, making sure I didn’t forget to unplug the charger for my cellphone, etc. But one caller forced her way into the foreground of my attention when during her complaining about the mega-college her grandson was attending exclaimed, “My grandson had to take a jazz class. He was even forced to go to jazz saloons. What does a 19-year-old care about jazz?” Lederman responded by stating that university educations have largely become a way in which we ensure that members of our society become better citizens and that we as a society need to be very clear about “what … we want higher education to do?” The fact that someone ringing up a call-in cable TV program about higher education could not comprehend the value of music while somewhat astounding, is not surprising. We who make and disseminate musical experiences need to constantly remind folks that what we do has relevance and that without it our world would be a more shallow and less livable place.