“An orange-haired miscreant assumes power. Lechery, lies, and greed become the norm. Most of the people react in anger. Others revel in his anti-social behavior, and mimic it.”
This could be the summary of today’s news. It’s actually a program note for “Roman de Fauvel,” staged this fall by the Boston Camerata. “Roman de Fauvel” tells the Medieval tale in song of the orange-haired beast who abuses his subjects. Not hard to draw the modern connection.
It was performed beautifully by this distinguished ensemble. The Camerata has a long history of needling contemporary politicians, and the program felt cathartic for some. It also seemed sadly futile.
There could be no easier target. The brilliant programming got wasted on such a simpleton.
It took less than five minutes, decades ago, to figure out that he is a narcissistic, spoiled loser. No need for any more proof. Let’s move on, artistically, at least.
Robert Levin, pianist and musicologist, said about great art, “A mirror is being held up. Do you not recognize yourself?”
In today’s mirror we all look the same. Angry.
Angry at him. Or angry to show unity with him. Angry with the system. Angry even with those we agree with—if they’re not angry in the way we want them to be. So much of this anger feels justified, it spills into places where it isn’t justified. Like music.
Music needs to be a healthy aesthetic. Venting is not enough. We need to see the complexity of the problems. Let music be the better place. More inviting, less predictable, not intimidating. We yearn for leadership, and it must come from the arts.
The divisiveness of this age swallows up too many good things. It has also, curiously, made some things possible. “The heightened contention in America has fueled the intensity and the immediacy of diversity work,” says Aiden Feltkamp, emerging composer and diversity director at the American Composers Orchestra. “Social justice and diversity aren’t interchangeable, but they do go hand-in-hand.”
But direct action, for the arts, is mostly impossible. We’re shooting people in our society—music can’t do anything about that. We’ve created hate zones at our borders. Music won’t ever do anything about that. We’re destroying our environment, one piece of plastic at a time. Music can’t do much to stop it.
But being inclusive, challenging our own art-form, extending its reach outside of the normal, mostly privileged locations—that we can continue to do.
The Sphinx Organization has already doubled the participation of black and Latin musicians in American orchestras—in two decades. Castle of our Skins, an enterprising collective based in Boston, embraces all musics and performers, and extends idea of the concert hall in vigorous ways. Over the next two years, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project will blend performances of the Bach cello suites with social programs and inquisitive discussions around the globe. José Mateo’s Dance for World Community brings tens of thousands to Cambridge each June for a day of dance—and social activism. Not protest. Energy.
Women writing and talking about music are making changes. Nobody who covers classical music can be unaware of the insights of Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, or Amanda Cook at I Care If You Listen, both of whom work with talented teams. Natasha Gauthier has done it for decades. Nadia Sirota’s Meet the Composer broadcasts have opened doors. Many other composers—Sarah Kirkland Snider, Caroline Shaw, Paola Prestini—not only produce their music, they talk about it, get invested in the process, and thus encourage others.
More than anything, this is a plea for optimism. Not all music needs to be tied directly to social causes. But music needs to look outward—confidently—and lead in that way.
Be alert. Be wise and inventive, and speak to the best of the audience. Never underestimate them. The very existence of an audience means you’re already part-way there.
How have we always communicated in art? By documenting, with honesty, and, when possible, with insight. But documenting. If we’re all this angry, just say so. Don’t say it angrily. Don’t add to the festering mix. Keep a fire burning, but let’s just not burn ourselves in the process.
If great art is going to hold up the mirror, we need it to show what’s behind us, not just our own face.