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Speak Now: Our Job as Composers Has Now Changed

Speak Now: Our Job as Composers Has Now Changed

In his address at Amherst College, JFK said, “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. Where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Ours is a humbling profession. Creating and studying music often forces us to stand on the shoulders of giants and consider the long arc of thoughts and creativity that came before us. They remind us of our humanity, oftentimes in a way that many others might lose track of when society gets involved in a heady mix that declares that we can all be cleansed through politics.

I straddle the worlds of being a composer on the one hand but also a journalist and foreign policy commentator on the other. These things unite my passions, but today I can also see them being united in other ways.

A few days ago, the press corps released an open letter to the new president. It read, in part: “Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.”

Journalism and art are essentially about illuminating truth to the best of our ability. This seems especially relevant in an era where the very validity of absolute truth is being brought to question, and also in an era where, if the warning signs of corruption are any indication, we will need much cleansing at the end of it all and all throughout it.

Today a new America begins. I’m not going to talk about racism, sexism, misogyny, or any of the scourges we have seen time and again in our society. The main feature of this new America is something astonishing that we have seen begin this year. Via Twitter and on cable TV, our new president has targeted you and me; creative thinkers promoting ideas. Those who would think that ignoring assaults on Hamilton, the Musical on Meryl Streep or on any artist is a secondary thing engineered only to divert attention away from an “important” news story like the declassification of a CIA report is missing the point. Beyond the fact that people can walk and chew gum at the same time, this misses the point that the assault on the First Amendment, on artistic expression, and on the articulation of ideas is actually so important to pay attention to. It’s the heart of the matter. Intimidating the expression of ideas is the vital bedrock of any anti-intellectual movement.

Beyond this, when we sit down to compose a symphony or an opera or build a museum or construct a city, it speaks of the same basic desire: to affect a grand gesture of our humanity.

These grand gestures are important. There’s a lot of talk about opposing extremism and intolerance in the world and it’s fine to oppose violence and destruction through developing a counter-narrative or developing a cogent military strategy (those are vital things), but the ultimate response of resistance to violence and destruction is creation. It’s a simple statement of fact that creation is the polar opposite to destruction. That means building a city or composing a symphony or sending a mission to Mars. Creation and invention are the ultimate “show me” forms of opposition to violence.

Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. But remember: we’re playing the long game.

Vigilance is vital. Our norms will be violated in such a way that will be progressive and imperceptible. In the first movement of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony the famous march begins in the most unassuming way possible. Hardly threatening. Almost laughable. But just follow its growth into a terrifyingly grotesque distortion of itself. The most terrifying thing perhaps is how the terror it builds up to is such a logical conclusion but one we could never have dreamed of when the gesture began so innocently (descending the escalator). Our job has now changed. Over the coming years, every American composer who is not deaf will be hearing some of the most violent sounds known to humanity.

As the open letter from the press said, they have been forced “to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for.”

Previously our profession was important. Today it is existentially vital. This is not a call to propaganda. It is a call to truth. My aim here is not to promote a message but to urge you all to promote an infinite variety of messages and to never shy away from self-expression.

I’ll end, as I started, with President Kennedy:

“Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”


Mohammed Fairouz

Mohammed Fairouz (photo by Samantha West)

Mohammed Fairouz‘s compositional catalog encompasses virtually every genre, including opera, symphonies, vocal and choral settings, chamber and solo works and his music has been performed at major venues around the country including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall and The Kennedy Center, and throughout the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia. Fairouz’s large-scale works engage major geopolitical and philosophical themes and his cosmopolitan outlook reflects his transatlantic upbringing and extensive travels. By his early teens, the Arab-American composer had journeyed across five continents, immersing himself in the musical life of his surroundings. Recordings of his music, which is published exclusively by Peermusic Classical, are available on the Deutsche Grammophon, Naxos, Bridge, Sono Luminus, Albany, GM/Living Archive, and GPR labels.

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2 thoughts on “Speak Now: Our Job as Composers Has Now Changed

  1. Guy

    Thanks Mohammed, and cheers for the first amendment…here’s my podcast (aired an hour ago) about this issue: http://guylivingston.com/radio/podcast-inauguration-anxiety/ mostly about anxiety but also mentioning some possible ways that all of us can address these issues, and of course playing very relevant music by Donal Fox, Gene Pritsker, Marc Blitzstein, Wendy Mae Chambers, and Leonard Bernstein, all political composers who remain(ed) true to themselves. – Guy

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  2. chrisotpher sahar

    Good points but this is not surprising and what I have found in the new music community is the sometimes disconnect from political realities. Maybe we had become too complacent with the Obama administration’s embracement of creative thinkers and solid support of the arts — although probably not equaling the level of JFK’s administration under Jackie Kennedy – but still ample the support.

    This complacency I have seen when a good family friend and poet did a reading and featured the fine work of Kinan Azmeh as well as a talented teenage musician at Nuyorican Poets Society fundraiser for UNICEF in Syria – it brought a crowd appreciative of poetry but I was a little disappointed by the underrepresentation from the contemporary and classical music community which Mr. Kinan is extremely active in as well as his great work helping Syrians that have suffered both inside and outside their country from the civil war. At this past Friday’s (1/20) Anti-Inauguration Ball organized in part by Jason Eckhardt, composer and professor, a great turnout there was from the new music community. Trump’s Presidency and the protest I have seen is a little reminiscent of protests against nuclear proliferation, LGBTQ rights and women’s rights as well during the time of Reagan — but seems bigger and more widespread. Yet, a published headline from Trump has him asking – Where were they when it was time to vote?

    Comparing the fundraiser for UNICEF in Syria to the Anti-Inauguration Ball in light of Trump’s quote, I think this is the time for artists to ask of themselves just what were they doing to keep the hard-won rights gained from decades of political activism and artistic expression that at times challenged, questioned or reflected incisively and accurately to challenge the political and societal values of our country. We have to ask for the reasons for complacency at times realizing complacency being not the need to rest, the need for fun , the need to take care of oneself – but rather foregoing political involvement and questioning of social values in the heat and fervor of getting your works out to that competition or to that performer or to show to give you a better chance at getting that great plum music job. With each action such self-reflection is paramount to ensuring that after trump we do not cede to the cozy chair of the concert hall and commissions or hazed into dull rote of keeping financially afloat.

    I know I am at fault for doing this. So my hope and prayer for myself and all is we become a little less like the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s great fable “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and, to paraphrase Ms. O’Connor’s words, avoid being politically active, socially responsible and caring for our neighbors ONLY when there is a gun pointed to our heads.

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