Musicians Follow the American Election’s Deceptive Cadence
An old Pete Seeger song that ran through my head in the autumn of 2016 ends with the lines: “And by union what we will can be accomplished still. / Drops of water turn a mill; singly none.” In 2020, I’m listening to folk singer Lee Knight sing that same song (“Step by Step”) on the Kronos Quartet’s “Long Time Passing.” The group’s latest album is a tribute to Seeger, who once wrote on his banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
“Long Time Passing” was recorded before the United States shut down due to COVID-19, but made in anticipation of the country’s 2020 election. And, in light of the ongoing pandemic and the delays that surrounded the election (in terms of both absentee ballots and tabulating results), the title takes on new meaning.
“When I think about [Seeger’s] life’s work and the way he brought his audience into making a community, to me that likely is part of the answer now,” says David Harrington, founder and first violinist of Kronos, in an early-morning phone call from his home in San Francisco. After a late night and fitful sleep, he was game to take a call at 7:45 a.m. (his time) from a reporter in Berlin who had been up (and refreshing updates) for the last 10 hours.
To some extent, this sleeplessness was to be expected. The pandemic’s devastating toll on the United States led many states to see an unprecedented uptick in mail-in ballots in the interest of social distancing. This created a feedback loop between both sides of the aisle: The more that the President warned his followers of absentee ballots being tantamount to voter fraud, the more voters likely to reelect Trump for a second term went to the polls in person. The more that voters likely to endorse Joe Biden saw this rhetoric play out, the more they in turn mailed in and dropped off absentee ballots. The phrases “red mirage” and “blue shift” became common lexical currency.
As this feedback loop reached critical mass, the ideological chasm became proportionally wider. The country hasn’t been as divided as it is now since the 1850s, Harrington tells me, referencing an article written for Slate by Fred Kaplan. “I wasn’t alive then,” he deadpans, “but it feels very divided now.”
Harrington was one of seven musicians I spoke to yesterday to ask the question that is now the new catchall greeting in an untenable year built on an already-precarious foundation: “How are you holding up?”
Another was Sarah Rothenburg, artistic director of Da Camera. Rothenberg normally divides her time in the U.S. between her native New York and Houston, and chose to remain in Texas when the country went into lockdown. This has been the longest period of time Rothenberg, who is also a touring pianist, has spent in the state.
“I’ve been in such a state of anxiety for so long, and it’s really like two viruses,” she says. “It’s the state of public discourse and the constant lies, and then there’s COVID.”
David T. Little tried to mitigate the mental custody battle between hope and dread. A composer whose works are dramaturgically fed by his omnivorous consumption of news sites of all stripes and biases, Little spent part of his lockdown working to get out the vote in Pennsylvania. He credits both his reading habits and the experts he met during his time volunteering with preparing him for what he calls “that moment [Tuesday] night when the red mirage took hold.”
It was a feat easier said than done. “I think that human beings aren’t really wired for that,” says Donald Nally, conductor and leader of new-music choir The Crossing. “Television then really plays into that—and then social media even more plays into that.” Nally spoke from his empty office on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois, where he teaches at the Bienen School of Music. “Nobody wants to audition for a major position in an orchestra or something, and then have to wait and find out three months later, You know, guess what, it worked out.”
While Nally wasn’t surprised to wake up on Wednesday morning to no news, the extended wait time—amplified by the volume at which Trump and his followers have operated—still elicits a sense of adrenal fatigue. “Selling fear has become institutionalized,” he says. “It’s been there for thousands of years, but I think we really perfected it in the 20th century.”
In 2020, fear is an intersectional emotion for the more than 5 million people who work in the American creative arts sector, many of whom have been without work and a steady income since March. “I’m trying not to think about the fact that, if Trump wins again, that might actually be the end of my career—at least internationally,” says countertenor Reginald Mobley from his home in Boston.
Mobley, who has toured and recorded with John Eliot Gardiner and the UK-based Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, is one of many American artists whose livelihoods are in part tethered to their passports. The fear that a second Trump presidency could lead to ongoing travel restrictions is a valid one given the false information, lack of resources, and increasing case numbers in the United States: “We get to be Number One in everything, which apparently goes double for COVID-19.”
Still, both Rothenberg and Mobley remained cautiously optimistic on Wednesday morning. The election seemed to offer less of a cataclysmic shock to the system as it did in 2016, both thanks to tempered expectations and a year of unrest. “Generally the whole year has been anxious, so I don’t feel like last night was that far out of line for how I felt the whole year,” says LA-based composer Thomas Kotcheff.
And, for many artists, the stresses of 2020 are simply nothing new. “It’s been [a mixed bag] for so many people this year,” says Mobley. But that same sentiment has gone on “even longer for people who look like me and feel like me.” He quotes a phrase used during Mozambique’s War for Independence and by LGBTQ activists in Uganda: “A luta continua. The struggle continues.”
“Any time we ask each other the question, How are you doing?, it comes with all of these mixed feelings,” adds musician and visual artist Raquel Acevedo Klein. Though a native of Brooklyn, Klein’s family is largely in Puerto Rico, and she recalls vividly the sense of being emotionally uprooted in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017. “That was the first time in which we were feeling this incredible loss and specifically [the sense of] an attack from our country, our government.”
None of the musicians I spoke to on Wednesday are without some qualified optimism—or at least they haven’t been overtaken by despair. “I think it’s really important to put on the public face of This isn’t over yet,” says Rothenberg, who also expressed concern for first-time voters who may leave this election feeling disenfranchised with the whole process. But they also spoke about concerns beyond the numbers. “There’s this horrible sinking feeling that we are all in the same world we were in yesterday.”
“I feel like I don’t know my own country,” says Kotcheff. “[On Tuesday] night, when I was yelling at the TV, my thought was: This person was caught on video recording admitting to sexually assaulting people. When dealing with a virus, he was so shit at it he got it himself.… Who sees that information and then goes, Great! That’s the guy for me!”
“At one point [on Election] Night, the incomplete returns showed exact ties between the parties in both the House and the Senate,” Little recalls. “It felt like a neon sign to me, telling me exactly who we’ve become: two big immovable groups with a big gap between us. We just can’t go on this way.”
“The concern that I have sometimes is, when large-scale events like the pandemic or sources of trauma occur, that we don’t forget them over time, that we don’t just get used to it and then normalize whatever state we’re in,” adds Klein. “It was inherent in the idea of democracy that we’re always striving to make things better, knowing that we can’t just relax as soon as things are OK.… We recover from one crisis, but we have to really consider [what could happen] going forward.”
How music fits into this future is ambidextrous. In recent months, Mobley joined the Quodlibet Ensemble for “Come Together,” a film that included Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together” and partnered with nonpartisan organization VOTESsart to help register voters. In April, Klein organized “The World Wide Tuning Meditation,” a Zoom-based version of Pauline Oliveros’s “Tuning Meditation,” led by International Contemporary Ensemble cofounder Claire Chase and Oliveros’s widow, performance artist Ione. On December 21, Da Camera will stream a performance of Schubert’s “Winterreise”—a work with its own deep political roots—with Rothenberg and baritone Tyler Duncan, viewed through the lens of the refugee crisis.
But it’s a fine line between agitprop and art that exists for something more meaningful than its own sake. “The pieces that we do, there’s a lot of people who interpret them as very political. And of course, the origin of them probably is,” says Nally, under whom The Crossing produced a pre-election video series of four new works by Robert Maggio, Ayanna Woods, Nicholas Cline, and David Lang. “But nevertheless, I look at them as journalism. I don’t look at them as like, I have to drive my agenda through and beat people over the head or anything. I just wanna report on what’s going on in the world while I’m living in it.”
“It’s kind of like, maybe we’ve spent our whole careers getting ready for this next moment,” says Harrington of Kronos, a quartet whose 45-year trajectory has been shaped by influences as diverse as Seeger, Angélique Kidjo, Mahsa Vahdat, and Howard Zinn. “I definitely want our audience to know more about [Zinn’s] approach, which basically looks at history from the standpoint of normal people.… And yet I want music to be music and to exist freely and unfettered, in the way music can just enter one’s life and not be a lecture.”
Harrington reminds me that, during the Obama administration, music was not a foreign presence in the White House. He points to President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the 2015 funeral for South Carolina Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. My mind immediately goes to an impromptu performance of “Sweet Home Chicago.” This diptych of a White House with and without music becomes a metaphor that resonates more deeply as I speak with more and more musicians. As Mobley notes, musicians are “trained to really take stock in emotion and empathy and compassion.” Surely a White House without music, or at the very least any memorable music, is indicative of an inherent lack of empathy. “It’s about being part of a larger continuity, and I think that’s where—for people who are not religious—art provides that sustenance,” says Rothenberg. “It’s being part of a community that goes way beyond who’s alive and who’s dead.”
“It was possible to breathe a little deeper—a deep Pilates breath,” says Harrington. “And when you breathed out, you lifted a little bit more than you can right now.” ¶