‘Voters’ Broadcast’: Music of the people, by the people, for the people

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 10:54am

NOSELL

Courtesy of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design

When most people hear the phrase “contemporary classical music,” they immediately become disinterested, assuming it’s either for the bourgeoisie or academia, which, to be quite frank, is true for the most part.

But not always. Music should be for the people, and that’s exactly what Lisa Bielawa’s “Voters Broadcast” is: the peoples’ music. With the pandemic still raging and election season in full swing, it’s easy to feel lost when we must ask ourselves questions like: What does the voice of the people sound like in a democracy? How can we create art that is unique to our current circumstances? These are questions that “Voters’ Broadcast” answers in creative and insightful ways. 

“Voters’ Broadcast” is a contemporary classical piece that was commissioned by the University as part of the Democracy and Debate-themed semester this year, developed in partnership with the Kaufman Music Center in New York. Lisa Bielawa is the composer and producer of this piece. Many of the performers in the premiere of this work are students and faculty from the University; others are from Wayne State and the Kaufman Music Center. The text comes from Sheryl Oring’s I Wish to Say,which is a collection of postcards to the president across many years. The “Voters’ Broadcast” is divided into three parts: the first two are already out, and the final part will premiere alongside the full work on Oct. 28 (Register here for free!). It continues with Bielawa’s trend of creating aleatoric music that is unique to the pandemic; elements of “Voters’ Broadcast” definitely echo her “Broadcast from Home” project.

“Voters’ Broadcast” is a collage of various voices, instruments and performers, recorded individually and submitted to Bielawa. Due to the amount of freedom given to the performers, the music sounds incredibly liberating; this is only achieved through the very open-ended instructions given to participants. Bielawa said in a conversation with University Musical Society President Matthew VanBesien, “most of the composition occurred after the participants submitted their parts.” The music has an ebb and flow to it while still managing to be unpredictable. It builds on top of itself, voice laying over voice, instruments lending their sound to the crescendo until it’s borderline cacophony. Then, it recedes, the sounds disperse until it’s down to one solo voice, and it repeats again. Bielawa artfully weaves an incredibly diverse sample of sounds into one beautiful tapestry. When the music swells and all the voices congeal into one solid block of sound, it’s truly a wonderful experience. It’s like you are hearing the voice of America — and in a way, you are. 

The piece is incredibly raw; it doesn’t feel like it’s pretending to be something it’s not. It acknowledges the pandemic we are in and doesn’t attempt to replicate a live performance. Instead, it is something special to our situation. As Bielawa puts it, it is “an instrument for our current paradigm.” It also doesn’t seem rigid or inflexible, which is a breath of fresh air, something that is in direct contrast to many of the other contemporary compositions of today, which are often marked with very specific instructions for the performers. 

Part 1 of the “Voters’ Broadcast” is a collection of salutations, vocalists singing “Dear President … Dear Mr. President … Dear President-Elect,” or some other permutation, in different snips of melodies, with diverse instrumentations. This part is surprisingly poignant, as it conveys brilliantly the vulnerability of addressing one’s leader. Around halfway through the piece, many of the salutations shift from “Dear President” to “Please Mr. President.” The music and melodies shift to match the plea, perfectly pairing with the words like wine and a good steak. 

Part 2 of the “Voters’ Broadcast” is more somber, continuing the tone set by the ending of the previous section. It sounds like an elegy: The music lumbers on and slowly drags itself. A highlight of this movement is toward the middle, when the sounds of a typewriter drone on in the background as the pleas of various people are layered on top of it. It’s as if the typewriter is verbalizing the lines that the people typed on it — it really is quite surreal. 

I recommend everyone to go give the “Voters’ Broadcast” a listen, even if it might not be something that will instantly catch your ear or get stuck in your head. If listening to your favorite songs on Spotify was like reading short fiction, then listening to this piece is like reading a classic — it’s definitely a harder listen, but it’s worth it.

Daily Arts Contributor Jason Zhang can be reached at zhangjt@umich.edu.

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