Music and Social Change

Arts and Civic Engagement was the theme of the 2008 Alliance of Artists Communities Conference held in Seattle. Cellist, composer and community arts liaison Paul Rucker invited me to speak on the panel Music and Social Change with Amy Denio, Wayne Horvitz and James Whetzel.

Paul's first question was whether we considered ourselves activist/artists. We agreed that performances can disseminate propaganda. However, art informs in a less literal way and most importantly provides options for how to question prevailing assumptions.

Wayne said that the two dominate ideologies we've inherited from the 20th century are socialism and capitalism. Both assume product-based societies. The American badge-of-honor is to have multiple projects. Successful musicians supposedly produce many recordings. I want to produce less and reflect more, yet am caught in the web of feeling the need to create many products.

Back to the place of social change in the musical equation: when creating work, I may not have a political agenda. Musicians may threaten the status quo no matter what their intentions. Wayne mentioned how John Coltrane was continually asked if the music he created towards the end of his life came from anger. Coltrane said no, but music critics heard otherwise. Similarly, I feel implicated whether my music is overtly angry or not, so I might as well be conscious of my musical actions.

Two phrases I liked from the conversation were "protest as symphonic" exclaimed by Chris DeLaurenti, who explained that a protest has massively intricate moving parts like an orchestra. Amy spoke of "Darwinian hybridity" in how musicians synthesize multiple influences to generate new genres that become popular.

This provocative panel was a too-brief teaser in a conference where directors of artist residencies considered ecology, community and creativity in new ways. Keynote speaker William Cleveland drew upon his portfolio of struggle to speak about how words can subvert and create. Paul and I agreed that we needed to expand the Music and Social Change conversation to provide a space where our intrinsic value as musicians leads to community transformation.