Thursday, March 08, 2012

Humanitarian Music Theory

Yesterday I listened to a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson, which got me fired up.  I started thinking about what I could do to combat injustice in the world.  I am a music professor, with five young children, so my time and money resources are somewhat limited.  I can't just write a big check, though I do donate as much as I can.  I also can't camp out protesting at a courthouse or capitol building, I've got to chauffeur kids to piano lessons and violin lessons and karate and dance class and cub scouts.  Not to mention my job, though I have flexibility this year with my sabbatical.  I'm also not a lawyer, my training is in the musical arts and in science.  So my thoughts went to ways that I can bring that training to battling injustice.  Just as I was thinking about this, I heard a story on NPR about the Stockton Symphony wrestling with this issue themselves.  They commissioned a children's piece by Avner Dorman, using narration of an Israeli folk tale. 

I applaud the efforts, though I wonder if the narration takes away from the power of the music to touch the soul with enough power to change lives.  The dialogue imposes a strict interpretation on the music, instead of allowing more individualized reactions that could be more meaningful.  I never found "Peter and the Wolf" to be as emotionally powerful as "In the Hall of the Mountain King" when I was a child.  So what would be a good example of humanitarian music?  If the music is presented without a program, how can we trust audiences to get the right message?  How does one compose or perform music that portrays justice? 

I think it is not the subject matter of music that matters, it is the location of the performances that communicates justice.  In that regards, the Stockton Symphony has done well, performing at schools in the more impoverished areas in town, and giving out free tickets.  El Sistema has come under fire recently for being too political in its connections to Hugo Chavez.  But the major point of the program, to bring beautiful music to the people who need it most, is so inspiring that it has engendered similar efforts in the US and Australia (probably others as well, feel free to let me know).  I think these efforts to allow beauty to grow for everyone that will help battle injustice.  Music allows us to express and become directly aware of our emotions without words getting in the way.  Music inspires us to become part of something bigger, whether collaborating in a choir or symphony, or jumping up and down with fellow enthusiasts at a rock concert.  And when we are in concert with other people to make or appreciate beauty, we will be less far less likely to treat these other people unjustly.

Are there unjust uses of music? I will attempt to tackle this question soon.


John Chittum said...

the topic of unjust uses of music came up in a music and politics course i took. I shall wait for you to tackle the issue before chiming in on the issue

Peter (the other) said...

Wow, a question that to answer might require more then we already know.

I once was asked by a curious, Washington DC based party, whether music can be truly scary (I imagined the caller might have had some nefarious "agency" type applications in mind). While pondering my answer I again pictured the various levels and types of possible musical communication, between the phenomenological response to sound to the semiotic. Justice (and its negative) is such a complex idea I can not imagine how it might be conveyed, so I am eagerly awaiting more from you and El Johno.

I accept that music can exhibit an affective morphology that is similar to human emotions though (as noted by Langer, 1957), and when one reads Tan and Frijda's (1999) list of types of melodramatic narrative plots (many of which contain justice as an element), one can find many examples of media music underscore in films where justice (and its lack) is the question. Perhaps that would be a place to look?

In any case, an interesting question but it is late and I am rambling (ooh, be careful with some assumptions " make or appreciate beauty").

Scott said...

Peter, just to clarify, I have a very broad definition of beauty. In fact, as it comes up fairly regularly in my conversations, I should devote a post to the subject. Your idea of looking at successful underscoring is a good one.

Peter (the other) said...

" ... a very broad definition of beauty."

I suspect so does god :-) (whomever she is).