This last weekend Kerrytown Concert House saw a performance of “As One,” a chamber opera for two voices and string quartet by New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky. While sadly I wasn’t able to attend the event myself, a presentation Kaminsky gave Friday about the opera and her work in general caused me to start thinking.
“As One” is an opera about the transgender experience. Or perhaps it’s better to say about a transgender experience, since you can’t really lump together a huge group of people and call it the “such-and-such” experience. But, regardless, the opera follows the experience of one transgender individual, a woman named Hannah, as she comes of age and settles into her identity. From recordings that I’ve heard, the music is stirring and neatly constructed, in a sort of vaguely post-minimalist style, if we had to put a label on it. The libretto, written by Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell, is similarly well-built, poetic and conversational at the same time. By all appearances, the opera looks to be wonderful.
But that’s all I really have to say about it. What I want to talk about now is the concept of the musician — or the artist generally, I suppose — as an activist of sorts. Because, while “As One” isn’t exactly protest art, it gets at something I think can be found in a huge quantity of music. When Kaminsky and co. set out to write the piece, they knew that they wanted to add to the surrounding dialogue and to help make obvious the humanity of a group of people who some, even still, have trouble accepting. In short, they wanted to change the world around them, in whatever small way they could. And they’re far from the only ones to try to shape society through art. These sorts of projects have been happening with increasing frequency since at least the 19th century, to varying degrees and with varying success.
Every so often you come across someone who can be thought of as a “political artist.” I don’t mean someone with strong opinions whose art is sometimes obliquely political — I mean people who live and breathe politics, who are up to their neck in the issues of their day and participate as active members of governments or political organizations. There are few people like this in the classical genre, as far as I know (a notable exception that comes to mind is Jean-Frédéric Edelmann, an obscure classical-period French composer who, during the Revolution, was an active member of the Jacobin club before losing his head in 1794), but a non-classical musician who perfectly fits this mold is Víctor Jara.
Active mostly in the ’60s, Jara was a Chilean singer-songwriter who was instrumental in the nueva canción genre and worked hand-in-hand with the leftist movement of the day: the presidential campaign of the socialist Salvadore Allende. Writing music to support and promote the causes of Allende, first during the campaign and later during the presidency, Jara performed at rallies and tailored his work to the political moment. But all things end. Víctor Jara was an icon — a figure who inspired and gave hope to countless thousands. But then Pinochet and his goons staged a coup, and they shot him. And that was that.
Yet, we still talk about him.
There’s something in a tragic demise that fuels the imagination. In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoevsky wrote that, “Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honor those they have slain.” Perhaps there’s some truth to that. But I have to wonder, had Jara not become a legend and a martyr, would his music have the impact on us today as it does? I’ve always doubted the efficacy of purely political art, and suspect that more subtle approaches, quiet attempts to change modes of thought, are more effective.
This also happens to be the way that classical composers tend to express themselves. When I spoke with the composer Christopher Cerrone last weekend, I asked him about his approach to the political in his work, as an upcoming composition of his includes the epigraph from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which certainly isn’t an apolitical play.
“I’m such a subscriber to the idea that the personal is the political,” Cerrone told me. “So in a sense I’ve always been a political artist, and I’ll never be a political artist.”
Cerrone explained that, to him, his work doesn’t need to have an explicit political message to have an implicit political character. And this character can be a quiet thing, something that makes an impression but not a proclamation. It can often be as simple as an emotional openness, a sort of tenderness or, as he called it, “vulnerability as political statement.”
“It’s the idea of the personal, of the people you know, and how you live your life and how you treat other people,” he said. “And I think that’s sort of like how you make music, too.”
This quieter politicism seems to be the approach of a number of classical composers and isn’t something that an audience will always catch onto. But there are certainly some who make it more obvious. David T. Little, in his piece “and the sky was still there,” tells the story of Amber Ferenz, who was dishonorably discharged from the army under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy against homosexual members of the military. Ted Hearne, in his vocal ensemble piece “Coloring Book,” writes a moving protest against police violence towards the Black community. But perhaps the most vocal of all was the brilliant Julius Eastman, a composer who was both Black and gay, and not afraid to affirm these facts. With provocative and attention-grabbing titles like “Evil (N*****)” and “Gay Guerilla,” Eastman wrote music that was exciting, artistic, intelligent, moving and unapologetically pointed. In “Gay Guerilla,” for example, he takes the classic Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and turns it on its head to become a gay anthem. It’s fairly easy to get the message.
But those composers who take a more subtle approach are no less effective. John Luther Adams, who lived for decades in Alaska, has been lending aid to the environmental and climate change struggles almost as long as he has been producing work. Often this isn’t explicit in his musical output, but his inspiration is often drawn from nature, such as in his Pulitzer-winning piece “Become Ocean.” Recently, Adams premiered a sequel to “Ocean,” called “Become Desert,” which perhaps shifts towards more obvious activism. But even in ways outside of his musical work, Adams agitates for a better world. A few weeks ago, in The New Yorker, Adams published “The End of Winter,” a compelling article about the shifting climate he witnessed over his years in Alaska. It might be a drop in the ocean of change needed to secure our future, but it’s something.
But whether it’s overt or implicit, confrontational or oblique, musicians who use their work to change our world are essential to the way we do art. Because nothing exists in a vacuum, and nothing ever changes without a push. So maybe that push is exactly what a musician can give.