Stealing the Devil’s Fiddle

Not a lot of blogging going on here over the last few months. What to write about music when the world is blowing up around us? Fiddling while America burns, and all that…

There is something to be said, something to be found in our work as musicians that can meet the moment and move us to a new place, a new understanding, but I’ll be goddamned if I can figure out what it is. I’m going to try anyway, but the combined plagues of the past year have left me stunned and stupid; I haven’t even had Covid and I still feel brain-fogged.

Little triumphs: at the start of the pandemic my wife, Caroline Stinson, and I started doing concerts on our porch for the neighborhood. Intended at first as a gift for all the shut-ins on our block, it quickly became apparent that we needed it as much as they did, needed to perform for someone we could see, whose energy we could feel, needed to feel needed by other human beings seeking musical connection. People started coming from around the area, bringing lawn chairs, setting up on the curb, distanced while grooving to Bach, Haydn, Honegger, Coltrane, improvisations, whatever we could throw together on a week-by-week basis. It transformed our spring and summer. One good thing.

Teaching has also been a blessing. Fall was weird, like some masked, alien courtship ritual, bodies taking up their positions at 8-foot intervals, a somber, distanced cortège at ingress and egress, half the class Zooming in from Seoul, Ankara, San Francisco. And yet we made it work, felt the current of elation that bound us to Black, Brown and Beige of Ellington, Milestones and Bitches Brew of Miles, 9 Levels of Greg Osby, and felt it running between us, one to another, closing the gaps that separated us. We also shared the chill dread of facing down the minstrel show; the terror of touring the South; the offhand dismissal of an entire cultural tradition by the Classical establishment; the sotto voce tarring of Ellington as uppity for having the temerity to imagine a Jazz symphonic in scope, presented in a temple of high culture; Miles beaten by cops as he stood outside Birdland between sets. The racism that runs through the Jazz narrative as a volatile, lethal accelerant was mirrored in the streets around us like a malefic instance of quantum entanglement. The racist past gave context to the violence of the present; the present laid bare the evolving now of the past. And we lay awake at night, the thoughts looping in deafening orbit around our heads: what if I get Covid? will the election go off as planned? will democracy survive? will we be consumed by hate? And, most of all, what can we do?

What can we do?

We have a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard; two, actually, one the standard-issue lawn sign from the BLM website, the other made by a local artist. Virtue signalling, yes, unfortunately there is probably that aspect to it, it must be said. But at the same time the signs form a curtain of strength around the area, stretching well beyond our little university bubble into the suburbs and countryside beyond. I’m proud of Durham for that. And they tell friends who stop by our porch, as well as the faithful cadres of delivery workers who keep us well-supplied during the weird times, virtually all of whom are people of color, that in our yard they’re on friendly ground. That is not nothing.

But it’s not much of anything either. Of course throughout the summer and fall we marched, we wrote letters to voters in swing states, gave money, wrote senators and congresspeople, worked (we’re still working) to open up representation in our music festival, and have aspired to kindness, compassion and respect for all with whom we’ve crossed paths, the while maintaining an imaginary six-foot blast wall around ourselves. And like musicians everywhere we’ve created, we’ve streamed, written pieces in response to the twin plagues of Covid and hate, dedicated performances on our porch to the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, countless others. Many artists have done much more, with a much broader platform, to raise consciousness, raise a fist, say the names. It’s all essential. And yet the tide of hate rushes on.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone, this murderous flowering of racism. It certainly hasn’t surprised Black folk, nor has it come as a shock to immigrant or LGBTQ communities. And any white people paying attention could have followed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s monthly advisories over the last forty years which have laid out the threat in no uncertain terms. The tea leaves were written in neon: WE ARE IN TROUBLE. And yet…

Back in 1988 I wrote an orchestra piece called The Train. Based both in spirit and in rhythmic shape on the words of Dr. King and Sojourner Truth, it was intended as a rumination on the nation’s still-evolving history of racial injustice. The piece got around a fair amount for a few years, which made me happy for all the obvious reasons but also because I hoped it might quicken the conversation just a bit, might get the molecules of discussion dancing just a little faster. At a pre-concert event in Los Angeles I was asked, “But why this piece now? Where’s the urgency?” I answered, “Because racism is the number one problem facing this country.” Huh?? Really??! Didn’t we get that all sorted out twenty years ago? The molecules stopped dancing, the subject was changed.

I don’t tell the story to suggest that I was prescient, I tell it to state the obvious: The Train didn’t prevent one mortgage from being denied a black family, didn’t save one person from inadequate health care, didn’t ameliorate the asthma of one child cursed by environmental racism, didn’t come between one young black man or woman and a policeman’s bullet. It did express both my reverence for the civil rights movement and my alarm at the current state of affairs, and it certainly assuaged my conscience. And perhaps it got a few people thinking, inspired some reflection, some renewed sense of activism on the part of someone who had thought the matter settled. It was not a waste of time, it was a work of art. It lives on as a trace through which one can access one specific, personal experience of a collective tragedy, and that has value. But it had no material impact and, even as a kind of musical homiletics it couldn’t possibly reach across oceanic cultural divides and speak to the people who needed to hear it most. Decades before Facebook The Train’s whistle echoed inside its own finite chamber.

Of course the main objective in making socially conscious art is to bear witness, to say “Here it is. What are we going to do about it?” The Train certainly does that. I’m wondering at this point, though, whether those of us who are committed, however imperfectly, feebly, awkwardly, to work for the tearing down of structural racism need to keep bearing witness to each other. There is power in the mutual support such witness provides, but its echoes keep reverberating across the same rounded, resonant landscapes. We now have at our disposal an incredible range of tools for the remaking of our racial consciousness, a rich and quickly-expanding library of works by Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nahisi Coates, Henry Louis Gates, Mikki Kendall and many others (not to mention the literary canon we should have been reading in the first place: DuBois; Wright; Hurston; Ellison; Baldwin; Morrison; Wideman, et al. Say the names!) that taken together have utterly transformed our awareness of the pervasive, endlessly-mutating nature of racism and our complicity in perpetuating it, however inadvertently, however much we thought we were doing the opposite. The term now on our lips, the only one that can possibly do justice to the reach and foundational nature of the thing, structural racism, has become an irreplaceable part of speech in the national conversation. For anyone ready to take the first steps toward rewiring the archaic cultural circuitry imprisoning them in an imagined hierarchy of bogus racial categories, help is on the way.

Not everyone is ready to take that step. As the past few weeks have shown us, there is now a monstrous amalgam of creeping, sulfureous, disjointed forces unleashed upon the nation fueled not only by systemic racism, but even more importantly by the ravening, bilious, active force of hate. They’ve been there all along, under the floorboards, but all it took was one infantile, narcissistic sociopath validating and inflaming their sense of grievance to bring them scuttling out into the light. Seen collectively this bizarre consortium of the hateful represents evil in its purest, most uncut, unadulterated form. It must be forcefully resisted and wiped out utterly. Seen as a mass of individuals, however, it presents a different picture, that of fragile, broken, frightened human beings, crippled by ignorance and desperate for belonging, susceptible to a range of increasingly hallucinatory delusions. And we ignore them at our peril. We must reach out to them, but how?

Anyone who has tried over the last four years to have a productive exchange with someone wandering blindly in the Trump miasma knows that it is virtually impossible to cut through the fumes, to see and be seen authentically as fellow souls worthy of mutual respect. This has been exhaustively documented by everyone from the Pew Research Center to the late-night comedy hosts. The problem is less acute with principled conservatives who hate what has happened to the country but they, unfortunately, are in the minority. We seem to have reached an impasse so deep as to require the solving of magical riddles to cross to the other side. We’d better get to it. And we’ll need to start with something better than “What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?”, this offered not just as an Easter egg for Python fans, but to say that much of what has been tried so far is at about that level of efficacy and integrity. We tend either to take refuge in wholesale demonization (they’re all nuts, they’re all idiots, just forget about them) or, and this means you, NPR, a kind of flabby, feel-good validation of the looniest, most toxic fantasies in the hope that the fantasist will feel “heard” and thus will begin to listen to reason. This never, but never works in trying to uproot racism and nationalist extremism. There is nothing to be gained in even pretending to understand and appreciate the assertion that one’s perceived station in life is the result of an attack on one’s whiteness.

But listening does not equal validation. There are a number of models out there, from the Truth and Reconciliation rituals in South Africa and Rwanda; to the Rx Racial Healing Circles following the T&R template, being implemented now on college campuses across the country (many thanks to Prof. Charmaine Royal for making Duke faculty aware of these); to the Community Wide Dialogues facilitated by InterFaith Works of Central New York, that allow for the unimpeded sharing of personal experience without judgement, but also without the expectation of being affirmed in one’s opinions. The point is to sit together, listen, and work toward the discovery of commonality, of shared humanity.

I’m wondering if there isn’t a role for music here. Music being perceived as a universal language (it isn’t, but it does often cross cultural boundaries much more effectively than speech), could we envision a musical project of exploring the mechanics of division and proposing a fix? Isn’t this one of the things music does best anyway? What if, instead of always expressing our rage (again, I’m not pointing fingers, for if I do they will inevitably and forcefully swivel back in my direction), we were to work toward a… a what? Like I know. Let’s say, a voice, at once familiar and arresting, a color born of stark juxtapositions, a distinctive rhythmic character, all of the above, a whole aesthetic, joined to a historical, or literary, or dramatic point of departure sharp enough to get at the deep, wide roots of marginalization in this country that connect so many of us.

Better yet, what if rage were still a primary agent in this music, but was directed toward the forces that have divided and conquered white and black working people since the founding of the republic: bosses, both corporate and union, whose entrenched racism has been matched only by their hatred of the poor? How about an opera on the Big Branch mine disaster, with Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blackenship as a Scarpia for the 21st century? Of course Gangstagrass got there first with their song Big Branch, but there’s still room for an operatic treatment. Reaching further back, what about Grover Cleveland’s response to the Pullman strike? Or how about an imagined musical tribunal for the Kochs? For the Sacklers? For Richard Mellon Scafe? Or a monodrama on the life and repulsive career of James Buchanon 2.0, not Lincoln’s predecessor in the White House, but the principal architect of Libertarianism, a man whose hatred of democratic norms landed him clients like Augusto Pinochet, for whom he drafted a new, fascist Chilean constitution (Look it up! Check out Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains). How about a California-based residency that explores PG&E’s role in torching the state and then shutting off its power? Or its collaboration with Enron to raise prices and gouge its customers? That would be something. The thing is, many of the people who stormed the capitol last week, many skinheads, neo-Nazis, Oath Keepers, Identity Christians, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, many who make up the whole foul tangle of nested resentments and paranoid apparitions that haunt the nation, are marginalized and oppressed, just not by the people they’ve been taught to vilify.

None of this is news, of course, but it does seem to get lost in the shuffle of outlandish and previously unimaginable crises assailing us on a daily basis. We hear vague rumblings of a “forgotten working class”, of depression among middle-aged white men, of the loss of jobs to immigrant workers (a fiction), but little about the landed interests whose program has from the beginning been the separation of white and black workers and the fostering of a sense of white fellow-feeling (that is to say, keeping their eyes off the prize) through the maintenance of a perpetual African-American underclass. The most immediate, most volatile, most potentially fatal challenge facing us as a nation is racism, systemic and overt, and it needs our undivided attention. Whatever is shared by people of different flavors who are buried under the social ladder, it is not being disproportionately targeted, incarcerated and murdered by police. That distinction belongs to black and brown people alone, and we must keep that disparity in front of us at all times. But the causes of active, intentional hate, the rich sources of recruitment for a movement that has already placed an as-yet incalculable number of true believers in the ranks of law enforcement, with the stated intention of fomenting a racial holy war, must be named and eradicated as well.

As for the music that arises from a dive into this mess, a central question would be where it should be performed and for whom. New York, it seems to me, would be less than useless. Building on the residency programs already extant from New Music USA, the Jerome Foundation and others, in cooperation with state and county arts councils, the music should be planted in the communities that need it most. There are obviously myriad political and diplomatic issues here that would need careful attention. But I wouldn’t rule out the project’s potential to connect with seemingly unlikely audiences for new, activist music (one of the two – count ’em! – standing ovations a premiere of my music has ever received was in a high school auditorium in Swannanoa, North Carolina). Any composers who happen on this essay will no doubt take some umbrage at all of this, rightly protesting that they’re already doing residencies in all kinds of out-of-the-way places. That is certainly the case, and the infrastructure those programs have created is exactly what we need to build upon in prosecuting the musical case against divisive and exploitative forces all over the country.

Blogs are often prescriptive, this one included. Cue slide: Where Do We Go From Here? This time around I can offer little other than the suggestions given above. Everything we’re talking about right now is complicated and rendered all but hopeless by the disintegration of truth, of agreed-upon notions of truth, in our public commons. Forget about truth: we no longer have agreement on the need for, or even the existence of, the commons itself. There’s a reason that in the equation for racial healing reconciliation follows truth; without the one, the other is impossible. Whatever else we take on, finding our way back to some kind of shared reality has to be number one on the to-do list, and for that the Left will finally have to reckon with its own responsibility for tearing truth to shreds in the first place; we can’t continue to assume a superior moral posture and simply blame the Right, as we generally do. This is not just one constituency’s problem, and everyone is going to have to work like hell to fix it.

Whatever progress we make in achieving something like a national consensus around truth, respect and racial justice, I know that music will play a role, just as it always has. It won’t make all the crooked places straight, but it can help to wipe away every tear. It can’t magically make racism disappear, but it can give powerful voice to the effort. No matter how limited the impact, if it can escape the closed circle of like-minded composers and new music advocates and get released into a broader community then something like the project I’m imagining will be worth trying. It seems to me that now is a good time, an essential time, to think both about what activist music should say and who we want it to reach.

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