This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Yoni Ki Baat’s “Bravado” in Munger’s South Commons. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should explain that I attended the event largely to hear my amazing Daily news colleague, Claire Hao, read a piece about the abuse she faced earlier in her life.) I left the event both saddened by the alleged abuse and oppression that the speakers had faced and inspired by their willingness to confront it in such a public setting.
This got me thinking about art and tragedy. In particular, I was reminded of how effective art can be in allowing us to think about, react to and move past tragedy. I thought of the different ways that artists have chosen to react to tragic historical events, the different routes that artists have taken to reach an appropriate place of contemplation and reflection, of sad remembrance and meaningful thought towards the future.
In particular, I thought of the MUSKET “Cabaret” performance this past year. (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll mention that I was the bass player in the pit orchestra of this show. This role afforded me the opportunity to see the show many, many times and analyze it at length.)
For those unfamiliar with “Cabaret,” the show opens with a simple love story: An American writer living in Berlin, Cliff Bradshaw, begins to fall in love with a cabaret dancer, Sally. While many characters allude to socio-political upheaval throughout the first act, it is only at the very end of the act that the audience understands these oft-alluded-to changes to be rise of the Nazis and the end of the Weimar period.
I remember witnessing this moment of revelation for the first time and the inevitable punch to the gut that it evoked. I’d been laughing along with the characters, following their budding romances with great interest. But all of a sudden, I felt guilty — ignorant to a society that was turning increasingly anti-Semitic, complicitly oblivious to a political system moving irrevocably towards fascism.
One other aspect of “Cabaret” that I will never forget is the audience’s vocal responsiveness to the humor of the first act and the utter silence of the second act. At the beginning, for example, the sexual jokes of the Emcee, the host of the “Kit Kat Klub,” are quite funny and met with audible, and sometimes abundant, laughter.
But in the second act, as the anti-Semitic undertones to the Emcee’s humor become more apparent, the audience neither laughs nor applauds. Yet the cast and crew play on, acting as though nothing has changed; it is not the nature of the humor that has changed, they seem to imply, but the audience’s understanding of its implications.
When I think of art that responds to tragedy — particularly art that responds to genocide, or the millions of pieces that seek to respond to the Holocaust — my initial assumption is that the pieces will be sad, frightening and powerful. I assume that they will appeal to pathos, reminding me of the emotional horrors of the Holocaust, for example, and the many reasons why we must never allow something like that to happen again.
But when it came to “Cabaret,” I was confronted with a totally different sensation. This was not “Schindler’s List.” I was not sad about humanity’s moral failings, but inspired by the actions of one brave individual. I was disgusted and guilty, angry at myself for not understanding the true implications of my thoughts. I was incredibly, irreversibly moved. I was unable to dismiss what I had witnessed because of the heroic actions of a few to save the many.
On the other hand, Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” is a stunning, gut-wrenching 10-minute work for string orchestra about the first use of atomic weapons in warfare, the bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War II. The piece is the opposite of “Cabaret.” It evokes the horrors of its subject matter from its opening moment. It deals not in subtly or in unexpected plot devices but in abject terror, in abject sadness.
Both works, I realized, compel audience members to think critically about their subject matter. But “Threnody” does this through raw, emotive force. It is one of the most frightening things that I have ever heard, one of the most frightening works of art that I have ever experienced. What “Cabaret” accomplishes through subtly, “Threnody” accomplishes through utter lack thereof.
Somehow, despite their disparate means, both works manage to achieve the same end. And in some way, strange as this may sound, I began to see the magic of the arts reflected in the diversity of these works.
As Leonard Bernstein famously stated at a concert shortly after the death of John F. Kennedy, “this will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more desperately than ever before.” It is through the arts that we respond to tragedy both personal and societal. It is through the arts that we address these events in all their emotional complexities.
As a composer, I’ve often been obsessed with the idea that music expresses what words cannot. But in the context of tragedy, I’ve begun to realize that the arts do more than that. In this context, the arts begin in a place past words. The best pieces of art, however, take us a step further: They connect places within ourselves that we hadn’t known existed to events and subject matters that we did not experience. They force us to think critically about ourselves and about society; they provide us with new areas of thought and demand from us new degrees of emotional complexity.