Monday, January 21, 2013

An Open Letter to Longy: Ignoring History?

Dear Dean Wayman Chin, President Karen Zorn, and the Longy Community:

Fifty years ago, we learned that dreams were the fuel for action, and action was the path to resolution. While perhaps my little dream is seldom discussed, it is subconsciously manifested and of colossal importance for the well-being of generations to come: and so I dream it. In my dream, artists are inexorably linked to the health of society, and thus tied to the decisions that society makes, and tied to the policies that create and shape our societies. In a way, this dream has already come true – without poetry, from which element would Lincoln have carved his words? Without music, how would the strength and resilience of the black American community be communicated to populations around the world? President Barack Obama himself has emphasized the importance of the artist in saying that “the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment -- they're not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they've also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars." Yet, today, I interpret this reality as a dream, because the links are muddied, the artists consistently teetering on a precipice of imprisonment and disengagement. (To write a letter to my congressman, or to practice? To sign a petition, or to practice?) Many of us do not even exercise our right to ask these questions, because our classical music community faces perpetual veiling from the outside world. It is for this reason that I ask: how does Longy expect to educate civically engaged, community-minded students – a self-proclaimed goal, as outlined below – when it ignores one of the most important days in recent history?

Today, January 21, 2013, President Barack H. Obama, our first black president, took his second oath of office on the bible of Dr. Martin Luther King. It also happens to be Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday for remembrance of his life and message, and it also happens to be the year which marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s revolutionary “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet at Longy, classes were in session, even though busses ran on a Saturday schedule, even though staff was off, even though NEC, Boston Conservatory, Berklee, and all public institutions were off. We, at Longy, missed the Inauguration coverage.  When my children learn about this in their history classes in the decades to come, they will ask me in their sweet voices – “where were you, mommy?” I will answer, “I was in seminar, watching someone perform a Mozart aria.” Is this the legacy we want to leave to our children, as artists? As art administrators, as art educators? I ask you, dear Dean and President - how does Longy expect to positively contribute to the relevance problem of classical music if it continues to operate with such civic nonchalance?

Longy’s mission statement, even in its clarity and pragmatism, draws many students (including myself) because of the artful repetition of the word “world.” Indeed, Longy claims to “[prepare] musicians to make a difference in the world” and “foster an attitude of inquiry about the role of music and the musician in the larger world.” From today, however, one might surmise that the method of inducing inquiry included ignoring important public events and meaningful holidays, in hopes of provoking responses such as this. With apologies, I’m not sure if I can attribute my “attitude of inquiry” on this day to Longy’s indifference, but rather to the efforts of my undergraduate institution, Whitman College, which, while imperfect in its civic engagement, attempted with a Sisyphean attitude to remedy this. Every year, we took off classes for a day to have a school-wide conference about race and privilege. And every year, more students graduated with a fire of public service ignited inside of them. Whitman, which in its size and prestige has many elements in common with Longy, can serve as a model for honest desire to connect to the “larger world,” as Longy strives to do. Further, Longy claims to “offer programs which provide our students with opportunities to engage with the world in new ways” – this, in its manifestation in the Experiential Education sequence, drew me to Longy, and I am ecstatic to embark upon my final EEP work this semester. Departing from the theme of this letter, I am thrilled to have been able to ask and discuss these very questions while at this school, and will continue to sing Longy's praises. But it begs the question: what about students who struggle, through their background or even through their natural interests, to connect to the outside world? What kind of message does it send to ignore these meaningful holidays, to force class attendance when the rest of the nation is witnessing history? What kind of EEP project will they present, through no fault of their own curious and hard-working souls, and, beyond Longy, what kind of career, will these students hope to have when, outside of this sequence, they’ve been living in a cultural vacuum? Is that the kind of student that a school, in our increasingly global, diverse, and connected world, will want to hire to teach their music classes? And is that the kind of student that doctoral programs, increasingly pressured to produce professors who can research outside the box and teach even further outside the rectangle, will want to admit? And is that the kind of performer that audiences will want to see? And is that the kind of performer that will even accrue an audience? We’ve asked these questions before. Do not misinterpret: Longy is genuine in its mission and the faculty and staff are skilled and passionate in executing it. But awareness works in small ways too: observing MLK Day, thereby encouraging students to have watched this historic inauguration, would only have served to support Longy’s self-proclaimed values of “dynamic interaction with the larger world,” “creative thought and innovation,” “the freedom to explore,” and, above all, “advocacy for our art.”

While advocacy for art is essential for its dissemination, there remains an unspoken and elemental bond between great art and awareness of the human condition. I have often heard classical musicians disparage popular music for pervasive and vapid messages of dance floors and puppy love. And if these themes are truly the avenue for meaningless art, then we can surmise that art loses meaning when it disengages from the profound conundrums of life and society. While I don’t necessarily agree with such a blanket statement, there is an element of truth in that great music of any style – from the heart-wrenching laments of Kurt Cobain to the celebratory frenzies of Senegalese mbalax to the profound implications of Beethoven’s fifth – deals with universal themes. And what better place to look for universal themes than OUTSIDE of the conservatory hall? Think of the days and days of music that grew out of the Civil Rights movement, the myriad wars of a torn Europe, and, now, the music that is erupting from our globally connected and impassioned generation. Great art happens when artists are engaged in life that hasn’t already been made into art. I guarantee you that I would have found more inspiration to meaningfully sing my Alma Mahler songs if I had stayed home to meditate on the words Dr. King and President Obama; more fodder for a work I’m composing about race and privilege. Instead, I learned about audition technique and a few things about opera librettists. Essential knowledge, sure, but did I have to learn it while history was happening, instead of history? The moment I realized this, I was graced with a laughable wash of absurdity. It felt silly. This, right now, is more important than THAT? I realize my words are impassioned and not universally felt, but I do believe it is a question worth asking – one that conservatories must ask every moment of every day in order to continue to exist in our new world.

I ask that you consider the future observance not only of Martin Luther King Day but of Veterans Day, which also meditates on the values of public engagement and global awareness. Perhaps, as Whitman’s model suggests, these days are opportunities to present concerts of music and art that deal with related themes – and think of the weight the performances would hold, the audiences would feel, the performers would harness, on such days! Countless composers have honored the words of Dr. King in their work, be it direct or indirect – there exists an entire repertoire of music dealing with the inherent rights of human beings. In postponing honoring these important holidays, Longy risks perpetuating the indifference of the artist, which is contrary to its mission. In the words of Dr. King: “This is notime to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” And from President Obama, today (which I missed and had to watch later): “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.  You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast,but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduringideals.”

Art is an essential vehicle for those voices. Let us observe our dream.