A little over a year ago, I wrote about a Leonard Bernstein quotation. It's something that gets tossed around compulsively during tragic and/or politically charged times. The quote in question:
This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
A few days ago, I enjoyed reading "Making Art in a Time of Rage" in the New Yorker. In it, Alex Ross explores the very same Bernstein quotation in a meaningful and nuanced way. Specifically, he looks at the role art and artists have played in trying times.
Throughout the piece, Ross quotes several thinkers who've found the Bernstein quotation hollow. While defending Bernstein's aesthetic and political convictions, he concedes:
"[Bernstein] ignored a dark historical reality: not only are intensity, beauty, and devotion insufficient to halt violence, they can become its soundtrack... At heart they were mute, noncommittal, open to appropriation. The same may be said of any form of artistic expression that fails to make its political convictions explicit."
He then comes to his own measured response:
"At the other extreme are those who believe that, in a time of crisis, the ordinary rituals of making art must cease... If artists everywhere were to give themselves over to agitprop, something essential would be lost. To create a space of refuge, to enjoy a period of respite, is not necessarily an act of acquiescence."
On January 15, Salastina participated in the LA Chamber Orchestra's "Lift Every Voice" Festival. The orchestra described the festival as "a three-week, city-wide series of concerts, conversations, and community engagement exploring themes of tolerance, compassion, cooperation, creativity and the power of music to encourage understanding and promote peace."
LACO's outgoing Music Director Jeffrey Kahane conceived of the festival two years ago. Naturally, he did so well before America's political climate became what it is today. The festival's opening coincided with Inauguration Week and the Women's March. You can imagine that the festival's themes hit a nerve the moment it began.
Salastina's performance was the day before Martin Luther King Day. Backstage, Brian mentioned that now felt like a good time to program Shostakovich. "You don't even have to say why," he said. (Shostakovich is known for covertly painting the horror of political oppression and the nobility of dissent into his music. Ultimately, his music transcends both.)
I agreed with him. Perhaps because it's just easier that way. Or perhaps because, as Alex Ross points out, "to create a space of refuge is not necessarily an act of acquiesence."
Later that week, LACO gave a set of concerts featuring the music of Kurt Weill. The title of the program was, and had long been planned as, "I Will Not Remain Silent." The second piece on the program bore the same title. Storm Large and Daniel Hope -- my girl crush and violin hero, respectively -- were headliners.
Before each performance of "I Will Not Remain Silent," Jeff spoke about our new political reality. His point of view as a descendant of Holocaust survivors was clear. "This looks like fascism, smells like fascism, tastes like fascism," he said. As the LA Times noted, Jeff's speech received a standing ovation from the audience.
But from the second stand of first violins, I could see a man and woman seated together in the center of the first row. They were apalled. As others lept to their feet, this particular man and woman sat motionless in their chairs. At some point during "I Will Not Remain Silent," the man pulled out a pen and paper and started writing. Several minutes later, he showed what he'd written to the woman, who nodded in agreement.
At the conclusion of the piece, they left, and did not return.
For obvious reasons, nonprofit classical music organizations are loathe to say or do anything that might turn audience members away. In that moment, I was proud to be part of an organization that took the risk of taking a stand through music. Some things are more important than whether or not that particular couple ever buys more tickets, or makes more donations.
I had a hard time keeping it together when Storm sang her encore, "Stand Up For Me." She described it as a song sung from the point of view of Love itself. Specifically, she said, she wanted to convey what Love might ask of us -- not what we ask of it. At the Saturday performance -- the same day as the Womens' March -- the audience gradually rose to its feet as she sang. I was toast.
In a more defiant moment, Storm donned a pussy hat during Weill's Seven Deadly Sins. That expression of political solidarity takes a degree of guts I do not feel I share. But maybe that's ok. Again, Alex Ross:
"Ultimately, artists of integrity will have no choice in how they respond to the Great Besmirchment. Those who thrive on politically charged material will continue in that vein... Yet those who devote themselves to numbered string quartets or painterly abstractions should not feel pressure to forsake their destiny. The task of the audience is to absorb art’s conflicting messages and remain alert to unexpected revelations."
I found the conclusion of Ross's piece most compelling of all. In it, he quotes Wallace Stevens:
" 'As a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.'
At first glance, this appears to be an exceptionally eloquent version of Bernstein’s “reply to violence”—the self-justification of an aesthete who wishes to stay the course. But the phrase “violence from within” has a sharper edge. It implies a kind of agony of rededication, an emergency of the soul. It forbids the indifference of routine. Art becomes a model for the concerted action that can only happen outside its sphere."
Pussy hat, or no pussy hat; explaining the rationale for programming Shostakovich, or not; pulling out a copy of the constitution before a concert, or not... To me, both writers' words ring true both ways. There's room for all of it, and all of it is necessary.