Can Music Make Us New?

Henry Louis Gates, in his elegiac history of reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, Stony the Road, states flatly “While all art, inevitably, is political, one cannot launch a political revolution through art alone.” Gates’s point of reference in this instance is the work of the Harlem Renaissance, as the cultural expression of a so-called “New Negro”, a social and political construct intended to counteract the corrosive evils of Sambo art and the pervasive stereotypes of the minstrel show. What Gates reminds us, and what black artists and intellectuals of the time learned through bitter experience, is that what was needed was not a new negro, but a new white person. The sheer tectonic force of racism in American culture was not about to yield to the undeniable but politically weak reality that African-Americans were not, in fact, childlike yet dangerous savages unworthy of both the franchise and full inclusion in the human family. All the collected works of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Florence Price were not going to make a dent in this grim truth without a sustained, relentless program of agitation and activism. The persistent need for that program is still made manifest in every morning’s headlines, every status update, every cellphone video, every tweet. All of us who hope to count ourselves among the “New White People” forged in the crucible of this work of generations are continually reminded that ours is no salvation by faith alone, but of the daily recalibration of our assumptions, our relationships, our actions as citizens. We often reveal ourselves to be, regardless of our age, very old white people indeed.

All of this is swimming in my consciousness as I sit in a coffee shop in Copenhagen, readying the premiere of a new piece of mine inspired by the work of James Baldwin. Called Now, the Fire, the piece tries, somehow, to conjure an emotional, cognitive experience of the conjunction of seething rage and transcendent love that defines Baldwin’s beautiful, seminal, The Fire Next Time. I feel Gates over my shoulder, gently chiding, interrogating: what do you hope to accomplish with this? Is Baldwin your new negro of the moment? Baldwin would, did of course, have something to say about that. Gates might add In Copenhagen no less? What the hell? All good questions…

I’m not a “political” artist, it should be known. While I’ve composed a number of works with political or social contexts, when it comes to the actual, tangible power of art to effect social change, I’m with Gates. There are exceptions, of course, but they generally have little to do with an artist’s intentions and more to do with the serendipitous alignment of a particular work with a volatile historical moment (Guernica; The TImes They Are a Changin’; or Do the Right Thing come to mind). To project undue political significance onto art is delusion; to imagine art as wholly apolitical is fantasy. The early quartets of Haydn are no less politically charged than the Requiem for a Young Poet of Zimmermann: they both reflect their composers’ relationships to stylistic norms; modes of construction; psychological, literary and cultural contexts; means of dissemination; and creative economies in ways that anchor them in flesh-and-blood political realities.

But of course they are both more than the sum-totals of all that. They are unique traces of thought and feeling, describing varied narrative arcs, enriching the cognitive potential of the listener, all in ways that can be read, understood and felt as entire and self-contained. Their fullest experience comes in the interaction of that wholly constructive level with those of personal and collective history and experience, to be sure, but their integrity as expressive traces is objectively independent: nothing in the score of either is dependent upon our sharing a political worldview with either composer. It can be (and often is) argued that music only really becomes accessible to us when its worldview, when the conscious intention of its creator is known to us, but this, of course, is cultural narcissism of the first order. We stand in stupefaction at the cave paintings of ancestors at a 40,000 year remove, without any, or indeed any hope of attaining any, sense of the artist’s daily experience, let alone his or her theology or political philosophy, beyond a basic set of assumptions around a nascent sense of the image as a powerful totem, in what we assume to be a generally animistic spirituality. We don’t have any idea, to use the metric most hallowed at present, whether or not we’d even like these people, let alone think of them as appropriate role models for our children. And yet the paintings reach us.

So what of Baldwin in Copenhagen? At its heart the answer is not very impressive. The group and series that commissioned the piece, the Rudersdal Kammer Solister, were mounting a set of concerts around the image of Fire, in all its various natural and emotional significations. A subset of performances was to be centered on fire as an image of love. I was reading, when the request came, the Baldwin. I wanted, as an American in Denmark, to approach the commission with something unique to my culture, something underrepresented on the world stage to which I felt deeply connected and of which I was deeply proud. And (even more suspect when viewed through a purely political frame) I needed a starting point that could expand into music, something that allowed me to hear, not just material, but argument, shape, a whole musical action. Baldwin.

There is perhaps no single document in the entire American literature of race more direct and unsparing in its expression of rage than The Fire Next Time. Even the title carries an apocalyptic encryption, coming as it does from the spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep, and the line God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time. This is not a portent of post-racial schoolchildren celebrating MLK day but of a culture destroyed by fire as a result of its own wickedness. But Baldwin doesn’t stop with rage, isn’t content with what could have been an excoriation of mustache-twirling villains, but writes with equal passion of the absolute necessity of love in transforming human society. More than that, he states with fierce defiance a personal intention to love whom he will, prevailing pieties be damned. One can read this, of course, as a veiled expression of Baldwin’s identity as a gay man, but one need not go that far (though it is, no doubt, part of the larger picture): he states flatly that he will love white people, even as he declaims without hesitation that there is no good reason not to see all white people as a race of devils. In this he seems perfectly in line with the thinking of Elijah Mohammed, with the result that he is invited to the reverend’s home. But Baldwin will not join up, will not commit to an ideology of demonization: for him the line between looking evil in the face and, at the same time, refusing to take that evil into oneself in an act of violent, mass repudiation, is clear. He will know the white man for what he has proven himself to be, but he will nonetheless love white people when they prove themselves worthy. He will accept the possibility of the New White Person.

Even as I write this I am moved by Baldwin’s fierce humanity, his cultural genius, the elegance and force of his writing. But as a composer, I’m also excited by the tension in his work as a potential musical catalyst. Baldwin’s rage/love dichotomy becomes both an expressive inspiration and a technical challenge: how can I channel the rage, without succumbing to either bathos or melodrama, the Scylla and Charybdis of musical aesthetics, while at the same time infusing it with love, with the possibility of transformation? And how to find a shape, an arc necessitated by the conflict driving the material? I hit on an opening that traces what I think of as a ritual of anger, a litany of phrases gradually spinning out into increasingly dissonant counterpoint; when this goes up in flames it leaves a new kind of litany, composed of unison melody, slow, implacable, itself repeatedly splitting into related but argumentative strands, girded by harmony that is lush, pregnant, always teetering between sensual indulgence and chaos; the fire is always present, in the piano, licking at the edges of the texture, then receding; melody surges up, explodes in the fire gestures, now shared by the whole ensemble, shot through with both the love harmony and the anger ritual, now spread over 5 octaves, now engulfed in rage. Sounds good, right? Hopefully so. If I’ve come close to what I wanted the audience can have an experience of something like what I feel in reading Baldwin. They will not have found a substitute for the book itself, but potentially a parallel, a kind of acting out of its emotional trajectory. If I’ve gotten it right.

Even if I do get it right, what can it mean to my Danish audience? They come with no history of chattel slavery on their soil, no living legacy of Jim Crow. True, they share with the rest of Western Europe a shameful record of conquest in Africa and Asia, as well as profit from the slave trade, relinquishing the last of their stolen holdings only in the 1950’s, but the specific imprint of slavery and its aftermath within their borders is a scarlet letter they are only too happy not to wear. Moreover, they have now constructed and are the beneficiaries of a social democracy defined by tolerance and compassion. Or for the most part, at least. The Danish government’s recently-enacted policies toward refugees and migrants suggest that they cannot claim to be a nation of New White People, not yet, but on the whole that is a cultural, national aspiration. There will certainly be little, if any, resistance to the notion of basing a work of classical music on a book by an African American. Accepting that I can’t micro-manage their response to my piece anymore than I can with any audience at any time, what I’d like as a minimum is for the conflict in the music, and its gradual transformation, its acceptance of its expressive poles as simultaneous and equally essential, to be vivid, palpable for them as they listen. Beyond that, I’d be a fool even to speculate. There will be as many responses are there will be bodies in the hall.

With regard to those bodies, however, there will most certainly be more of them than there would likely be back home. This is not nothing. With two performances comes the possibility that anywhere from two to four times as many people will hear the piece here as would hear it in New York or Boston or Durham. If they take from the performance, the current toxicity of American, and indeed European, politics aside, that American artists care about their own history, about justice, about the role of art in helping to quicken a sense of shared humanity, then I’m good with that. I don’t have to hide and pretend that I’m carrying a Canadian passport.

But back to Gates. Will Now, the Fire by itself change anything? In a word, no. Could it even if it (delirious, infantile, gleeful speculation) were to become a global sensation? Almost certainly not. Could it open a perceptual door, help to slide a long-awaited sense of cultural understanding into place among the individuals who hear it? Possibly, but only if it’s effective as a piece of music. There is at this point no universally agreed-upon set of principles that would definitively answer that question, but I at the very least need to be as certain as I can that I’ve done my best to make it so. And that’s where I see my job as composer most closely aligning with the the political imperative of the moment. To commit unyieldingly to an ideal of construction that I must, as a human being, never fully realize; to return to it, again and again, following a daemon that may seem utterly incomprehensible to my fellows but that honestly reflects what I want to hear; to do that without regard for the accumulation of likes or hits, recognizing that I’m as susceptible to praise as anyone; and to want to follow a musical discussion through an extended process that unfolds over long stretches of time, with multiple potential outcomes; now there’s a political statement. To tip my hand for a moment, the long and heroic legacy of Baldwin, of everything and everyone he represents, has been and continues to be the one, overarching individual and communal concern of my life, at least as far back as my middle school years in New Orleans. Its martyrs were my heroes, its musical voices, both mentors and peers, the forces that made a human being out of me. It feels entirely natural to want to give expression to that in my music. But at this point in our history it could be that the most subversive thing I can do, as an American, as an artist, is simply to make art, and to make it the best that it can be. Artists can’t achieve the revolution, but we can model it. In this our constructive choices, our lives of creative labor, matter; they matter whether or not the work in question carries any explicit political resonance.

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