Political Music Under Biden
For me, the most memorable part of Barack Obama’s first inauguration wasn’t the cold or the TV wheeled into the classroom or the flubbed administration of the oath of office or the supergroup of Gabriela Montero, Anthony McGill, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman taking the inaugural ceremony on a Thanksgiving detour. Somehow, the most memorable part of the day came on the back of the bus, when I overheard a classmate express unfiltered joy at the prospect of going shopping in Obama’s America—his ascendancy to the office of the presidency had apparently fixed the economy in mere hours, and that meant sales and discounts for everyone. I silently mocked the student, not believing they could possibly be that naïve about the office and powers of the presidency. In my self-righteousness, I was way too pleased with myself for knowing that adults didn’t think that about the president. They—we—knew better. And then: November 7, 2020.
Technically, the season finale of “United States Presidential Election, 2020” aired on Tuesday, November 3. But, as expected, we got hundreds of hours of bonus content and director’s commentary: essays, digital cartography seminars, the occasional speech, a Charlemagne tha God guest appearance. It all came to a head that Saturday, though, when outlets called the election for the Biden-Harris ticket. I was in Brooklyn at the time, and New York came alive in joyous din. So I donned a mask and grabbed a microphone and wandered outside to explore this suddenly social city.
Make no mistake: Many celebrations were rooted less in a Biden victory and more in a Trump eviction. But when I looked around, I beheld white folks banging out on noisemakers, dancing the cha-cha slide, and otherwise putting the values of white liberalism on full display. And I realized that, despite Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s warning, these grown-ass adults were excited about going back to brunch.
That is a frightening thing, to think this electoral victory returns us to normal. Conflating Biden’s eventual inauguration with an eventual accession smacks of school-bus naïveté. Just because you’ve got a different guy in the Big House does not mean the rest of us are suddenly granted our own Requiem aeternam. Thinking so is a dangerous delusion that puts us hurtling down the highway to the danger zone.
Classical music has long been wandering in the desert of its own identity crisis, and 2016 was an unexpected checkpoint. Overnight, it seemed that artists had sprung into creative overdrive, making works to comment on the moment: I think about the late composer Glen Roven’s “The Hillary Speeches,” a setting of two of the presidential candidate’s public addresses that was live-streamed during Trump’s inauguration. I think about A.Z. Madonna’s cataloguing of artist action in VAN. I think about how all of these artist responses contrast with the 2017 inauguration performances: The “apolitical” smorgasbord featuring Jackie Evancho, The Piano Guys, and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“I always joke that, if Trump gave me anything, it was so much despair that I felt like, as an artist, I had to find a way to do something,” composer and University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Felipe Salles told me in the weeks after the 2020 election. “If there’s one silver lining, in those moments you really feel so impotent that you look for ways to do something about it. And that was a conversation that I was already having with myself in terms of being an immigrant who became a citizen in a different country and raised a family.” Artists make, it’s what they do.
But think about it: Given the political nature of art itself, these reactions aren’t that remarkable. American composers have been engaging their music politically long before bloviating, fugazi military dictators arrived on the scene. But because Donald Trump is sentient polemic, it seemed that every cultural institution suddenly had to figure out how it would exist at this particular moment in the American experiment. This, of course, included institutions that felt they were doing audiences a service by avoiding politics altogether. And, perhaps unexpectedly, for four years they programmed “diverse” composers and celebrated immigrants and washed their hands of allegedly criminal characters despite being privy to knowledge of their behavior for decades. Casual stuff! But their actions prompted a massive question. After the cartoonish villain was fired by the majority of the American body politic, would institutions continue to “do the work”?
One of the unexpected but serious impediments to lasting social change is that the goals of 2016-2020 were too clear. Many folks were (righteously, some would argue) singularly focused on “impeaching the motherfucker” and giving the agents of chaos hell whenever they sought to undermine justice. The details of the political situation acted like lane dividers in a pool, defining a clear path in which the Republic’s Loyal Opposition could race to those goals (restore a modicum of decorum to the office of the presidency; get a chief executive who will “say no to racism”). But the legacy of injustice is oceanic, and some of us have been treading these troubled waters for a long time.
This mission wasn’t limited to the halls of policy powermakers. They were embraced by the classical music elite as well—it’s what explains the messaging of inclusion and diversity, and corresponding programming. It’s a no-brainer to position classical music’s most prestigious institutions in opposition to Trumpian rhetoric. Politics say Black lives don’t matter or immigrants need to leave? Boom, you’ve got an all-Black or immigrant-centric program. And sure, that’s putting in work, because there’s an obvious villain that highlights your good. But the process is continual; you don’t get to be like a student who goes downtown to march, then packs it up to return home at the end of the semester. So once you’ve rid yourself of said “motherfucker,” but don’t have any ideas of what to do after that… let’s just say it’s not going to be a good look, institution.
Make no mistake, this responsibility falls primarily on these institutions because they drive these conversations, whether we like it or not. Composer Raven Chacon was very forthright in his assessment of the Shape of Classical to Come. “I would like to say that the audience has a responsibility to do that research, to seek out different kinds of artists that are making work today,” he explained. “But at the same time, I think it’s up to the institutions and the people who are creating these not to just have the ‘Black show,’ [or] the ‘Native Show.’ Because then I don’t trust audiences enough to be able to even understand what might be happening in any of the individual artist’s work.”
For these reasons, Chacon is generally critical of “the group show” that’s emerged, a frustration I understand: A concert hall gets to say that they’ve done an all-[insert demographic] show and cleanse themselves of any criticism that they aren’t diverse enough, while a passive audience (and we know how classical music adores a passive audience) fails to place this music in concert with the more familiar oeuvres of the historical European elite. Such programs can easily feel like a job; a social obligation. And if anyone knows anything about doing what they don’t feel like doing, it’s that they’ll stop doing it once they’ve reached the minimum requirement.
Are orchestras lazy? Or worse—are they scared? (It was a little green galactic philosopher who warned us that fear led to suffering.) If it’s the former, then they should heed the advice of Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Anthony Davis, who argues that there needs to be an overhaul in both aesthetics and management. We’re at a point where we can’t return to a milquetoast liberalism, he told me as he connected the plight of classical music to the lessons learned last month in Georgia.
“Biden’s victory wasn’t possible without the activity of Black people in Georgia and Wisconsin and Michigan,” he says. “There can be no return to white liberalism that doesn’t understand the dynamics of race.” Simply put, non-white audiences cannot be ignored, which is what happens when the repertoire is made an object immovable. Traditional logic has held that this is because seats must be sold. But Davis calls this poppycock: “Audience is not everything. No institutions are in the black because of audience participation. It has to do with all different kinds of funding and philanthropy.” Now that COVID has cast a hush on halls, which may reopen only to limited capacity, the question of selling a full house is moot. It’s time for institutions to step up their game.
And that brings us to the question of fear; the concern that doing work that benefits the social welfare of an institution’s own community means people will stop showing up to the concert hall. This fear is laughably dumb.
Melanated folks aren’t missing from the sacred temples of Canon because we have a gene that predisposes us to flight at the mere suggestion of a string section. We’re missing because no consistent effort is made to reach us or appeal to us. It’s clear that many of these institutions don’t care for our dollars, and I hate to break it to you, but it’s extremely difficult to show up to these events when it’s clear your presence is neither wanted nor valued. Solving the Case of the Missing Classical Negro should be fairly obvious. This is not a Scooby-Doo mystery, and it’s bonkers that it’s treated as such. And if that fear is genuine among organizations, I’d encourage them to remember what happened when Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra put on the (much belated) world premiere of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha”: It sold out.
If classical institutions want a more contemporary example, they can take some inspiration from conductor and Orchestra Moderne founder Amy Andersson. During a recent phone call, she reminisced on the success of the project Women Warriors: The Voices of Change, on which she pulled double duty as a producer. “It was an incredible success,” she recalls. “People were crying in the audience, people were cheering all the way through. People have never been to orchestra concerts. This was one of the most thrilling things. I never knew it could be so exciting.”
As she shared her experience with me, Andersson made it clear that the pandemic shutdowns have handed large organizations a massive opportunity to pull themselves together and reflect the communities in which they play. But the temptation of ease is a powerful one. “The danger is, conventional wisdom says let’s go back to the tried and true,” said Andersson. “[Institutions say,] ‘We should open the concert with Beethoven’s Ninth, because it’s about brotherhood and humanity and it’s feel-good.’ But that would be a shame, in my opinion. There’s a vast landscape that’s uncharted, that’s there waiting to be discovered and it just takes courage.” Courage, however, is hard to come by.
Soprano Lauren Michelle takes a slightly more nihilistic tack when asked if she thinks institutions will stop putting in the work now that a “good guy” is the American head of state. “Absolutely, of course. They’re going to go back,” she says with blunt incredulity. “That’s the danger in all of this, right?”
And she is right. It’s funny, though, because if the classical music establishment adores anything, it’s messages of hope and unity and togetherness and collective reverence for the sublime potential of human creativity. Optimism is so thoroughly baked into the rich pastry crust that is classical music, that attempting to take it out would destroy the pie. But maybe we should. As Michelle argues, the historical record makes it very hard to hope about any kind of progress, let alone progress concerning classical music. Some people may hate “making everything about slavery,” but here’s the thing about a place like America: You kind of have to.
In Michelle’s estimation, the counterpoint to slave mentality—“master mentality”—does not get discussed enough. She defines it as a set of coping mechanisms and survival tactics that were developed to succeed in a world where people were legal property; you had to tell yourself something so you could sleep at night. These get passed down generationally, and one doesn’t simply snap out of it. “There are people who can call themselves allies,” she said. “They want their organization to move forward. And unfortunately, they’re going to be stopped by these ideas that were just passed down, and they don’t even realize that happens.”
But if the maintenance of the artistic systems is inexorably linked to the psychology of antebellum America, then what were they trying to achieve by “waking up” these past four years—especially the late spring and early summer of 2020? Was it politically expedient? Michelle thinks so: “I think a majority of the organizations were just posing because they’re afraid of backlash.” But she did leave me with a metaphor packages this conundrum neatly. And it has to do with the gym.
In a few weeks, we’ll be welcoming 2021, and no doubt many people will declare new fitness goals and training regimens. By spring, many will fail. This is to be expected, because both imagining yourself post-goal and planning and committing to something new are infinitely more pleasurable than actually putting in that work. Culturally, Michelle likens all sorts of institutions—not just classical music—as entrants on a new fitness challenge, and undoubtedly, most will fail. Classical music is unique among them because, in her opinion, “I don’t think that industries are even realizing that they got a gym membership, and they’re not going to go. We’re not even really in a place of understanding our truth to even seek the kind of help that we would need to be able to get through it.”
Trump’s exit from the White House is no doubt cause for millions to breathe a sigh of relief, whether because he can no longer use the bully pulpit to advance ghoulish conspiracy theories, a grade-school understanding of science, or to enable hate crime. Just because he’s gone, doesn’t mean those things are going away. For many of us, the outrage we poured onto the streets was not a fad. We have to be real and say what it was. The gatekeepers would be wise to understand that distinction and be clear about where they stand, lest we queue a requiem and wonder aloud: Who Will Survive in America? ¶