Imagine here that the Zendo in the valley is our imperfect community of contemporary music. The mountaintop is the fantasy of “more important” work, even “real” work. But since the work of music won’t let us go — since it seems to be our lot in life, our dharma, to do it — how can we be sure that we are serving liberation and light during these days of political darkness?
II: Getting our own house in order
In her book Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley writes: “Nothing is more powerful than a community discovering what it cares about.” In the harrowing weeks after the election of Donald Trump, our society is indeed in the process of discovering what we care about. We are discovering where we draw the line: not only in our political alliances and our economic participation, but also in how we treat one another.
As contemporary music practitioners (and frankly, humans) in the 21st century, we have already been engaging in this process of discovery. We have been working for years—slowly and imperfectly—to acknowledge and untangle the injustices and shortcomings within our own community. I am thinking here of the session at New Music Gathering 2016 about safer spaces in new music (and the awesome accompanying zine); the panel at Darmstadt devoted to the legacy and future of women’s participation; radical writings at VAN magazine on race and the privilege of “choosing” a musical life; grassroots publications like Cacophony Magazine and FOCI Words. Through our writings, discussions, performances and compositions, we are publicly grappling with the fact that we’ve often failed, excluded, and alienated the most vulnerable members of society. These are the very same people, of course, that Trump’s ascent threatens most.
If we ever thought that the work of healing and transformation within our own community was unimportant squabbling, we know better now. In fact, our society’s survival may hinge on our ability to grapple with our collective wounds. If we can remain conscious and sane, we can use our small community as a vital training ground for speaking wisely, listening well, and empowering the vulnerable.
It is also becoming clear that in Trump’s America, it will be important for those of us who possess privilege and security to loudly and clearly defend those who do not. Andrew Norman set a great post-electoral example, by using his Grawemeyer Award to draw attention to the lack of diversity in orchestral commissioning. When an interviewer at NPR suggested that the Grawemeyer might lead to more commissions for Norman, he retorted:
If I get more commissions, great, but maybe I can use this moment to talk about things that are important to me … For instance, this award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission?