Friday, September 8, 2017

In the Aftermath of Charlottesville

By Bonnie Gordon

The "Unite the Right" Rally on UVa Campus.  Photo Courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As the church service in Charlottesville ended on the night of August 11, cell phones vibrated. A local friend with whom I went to synagogue as a child texted: “Holy shit are you at the Lawn [UVa’s central grounds]? You have to get out of there, huge marches, torches as far as you can see, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ ‘Fuck off commies this is our town now,’ and ‘Blood and Soil.’” She included pictures she’d gotten off of Facebook.

By now you have probably seen images of the torch march on the University of Virginia’s campus or of students guarding a statue of Thomas Jefferson. The march began in front of Old Cabell Hall, which houses the music department. Marchers stormed across the green space where music classes sometimes meet outside, where student groups perform, and where the summer camp of the one synagogue in town takes the kids, including mine, to play. My family’s car was parked on the other side of those screaming Nazis and by the time we figured out what to do the church was on lockdown. The Pastor said, “We’re going to need y’all to sit and prepare to duck and take cover.” My ten-year-old son held my hand tightly and said, “I knew it was a bad idea to go to church on Shabbat.”

We live in Charlottesville in part because of the Music Department at the University of Virginia. The department takes great pride in being home to a relatively new PhD program where students interested in non-traditional approaches to the study of sound can thrive and where our composers relish new medias and sonorities. Our programs are Critical and Comparative Studies of Music and Compositional and Computer Technologies. The undergraduate major is equally progressive, maybe even a model for departments thinking about diversifying their music major curriculum. Surreally, Richard Spencer, perhaps the most recognized music major in the country, is a 2001 graduate of the University of Virginia. And how did he use his majors in Music and English? He coined the term “alt-right” and served as an impresario for the sick operatic rally staged here in Charlottesville.

I want to dwell on Richard Spencer because he reminds me that a progressive curriculum alone does not defend against white supremacy. And his story signifies that white supremacists are staging a culture war that raises questions about transporting toxic, violent imaginings of western culture, especially opera, to the former slave-holding South. This Charlottesville event digs into the dissonances in an academic field that, in this country, was founded largely by central European and German refugees but which nonetheless often tacitly endorses the white supremacy that got us into what feels like the middle of a dystopian novel.

It’s no accident that Spencer used a college campus as the stage for the prologue to his Unite the Right rally. This past November, he made it clear that he would target college campuses and he has made good on his word. A March, 2017 report from the Anti-Defamation League identified 107 incidents of white supremacist activity on college campuses in the 2016-17 year. This targeting comes at precisely the moment that the Trump administration is doing its best to dismantle affirmative action and Title IX. 

A musical civic engagement event, held several years ago, on the same lawn where the "Unite the Right" rally occurred this past August.  Photo Courtesy of Bonnie Gordon.
Charlottesville was a major battle in this culture war. Despite what Spencer said and what the national news reported, this “Unite the Right” invasion was never about two statues of Confederate generals. Beneath the Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and loud cries of white nationalism, music scholars of any period and place should find familiar the refrains, rhythms, and narrative arcs of our discipline. The power of linking apocalyptic narratives to racialized nationalism is not news to anyone who studies music or history. Spencer, of course, learned that linkage as both powerful and dangerous. But he knew exactly what he was deploying when he used the chant “Blood and Soil.” Although he might pretend that, in the South, this phrase could translate as “‘heritage and the land of the Confederacy,” it originated and rose in popularity just before the Nazis came to power and its racist xenophobia fueled many of their most heinous laws. When my high school friend texted me that Spencer’s torch-bearing marchers were chanting those words, they rang through my ears in German, “Blut und Boden.” I heard in them the nineteenth-century ideologies that bound German land to German blood, ideologies that I first learned about when studying Wagner in music class.

Moreover, anyone caught unaware by the attack on the lawn did not listen. It’s not just that by 3:00 pm on August 11 the interweb buzzed with the impending torch rally. Spencer’s musical and theatrical experience rendered the torchlight rally as predictable as a Rossini opera. In college, Richard Spencer created stage sets for Shakespeare on the Lawn. He took classes in the Music Department — one of the first music departments in the country to attempt to de-center the western canon. He went on to write a Master’s thesis on Wagner, Adorno, opera and anti-Semitism at the University of Chicago. Recall that in Trump Tower on election day last November, Spencer said if he couldn’t be Secretary of State he wanted to be Minister of Culture and “spend millions of dollars on Wagner.” Spencer’s words should speak volumes to those of us trained in contemporary cultural analysis. His words align with the cultural backdrop put into place by Hitler’s minions, who knew that musical overtures to fascism could fuel political overtures.

To put this in terms of a curricular challenge, it’s relatively easy to get college students to see the grotesque potential of some of the music they love, especially if it includes sounds mobilized by the likes of Stalin and Hitler. And most undergraduates who take music classes learn about sonic performances of nationalism; it’s a box or chapter in many textbooks. But it is so much more work and so much more important to make our students hear the ways that racialized nationalism played and plays out today in our own spaces — politically and musically. We need to make sure they can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements with the same critical eye that they turn on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. In other words, if we, and our students, can’t read the signs in the current climate and can’t respond to them, then I’m not sure we are doing our jobs.

Here at the University of Virginia, as with many other institutions, such self-examination grows twisted quickly. This is a campus built by the hands of the enslaved and founded by Jefferson, who among other things truly believed that blacks were subhuman and thus not fit for citizenship or personhood. UVa and the Music Department have deep ties to eugenics through the composer John Powell. Among other things, Powell founded the Virginia Anglo-Saxon club. In 1934, a UVa student of eugenics wrote, “In Germany Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the racial deficient.” Eugenics as a key part of the Biology and Medical School curricula lasted at UVa into the 1950’s, and UVa scientists shared eugenics practices with the Nazis. Not surprisingly, almost none of those central European academics who came to the United States to flee Hitler’s racism chose to come to UVa. That’s a lacuna the natural sciences here may never recover from.
Memorial to Heather Heyer.  Photo Courtesy of Bonnie Gordon.

The Morning After
Music departments face a special challenge in the aftermath of these events. There is a collective fantasy that making music necessarily heals and unifies, but that’s simply not the case. Even setting aside examples of music-making that directly fuel fascism, collective sound isn’t the same as collective action. As the Reverend William Barber said to a packed church the week after August 12, “you can’t heal by singing ‘We Are the World.’” Healing and social progress don’t come until you understand the causes and structures of the problems. There has been a lot of “We shall overcome” at UVa in the aftermath of August 12. Too little, too late. “We shall overcome” says we shall overcome someday. For those central European refugees who came to America and helped to build the discipline of musicology, I’m quite certain that they thought 2017 was past “someday.” We have not put our songs into action. I’ve spent a good deal of time with the Kerman/Lowinsky debates, published in the 1960s, in which nationalism rose to the fore. Many in that generation fought against segregation. I’m glad most of them did not live to see young white men wielding torches and screaming Nazi slogans. 

Everyone is quoting James Baldwin these days, but it’s worth doing again here because he isolates the variable that spells the difference between a healing song and a fascist chorus: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty... the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.” To cultivate our students’ and citizens’ capacities for human decency, we need to remain vigilant about both the potential and limits of music-making and of critical reading. It is crucial to continue making creative work and to keep thinking and writing, though the regimes of violence and terror are crashing through the gates. But it’s not enough. And the faux-harmonizing language of diversity won’t be enough either. The only choice is to fight back. As Music scholars and practitioners the language and history of our discipline is a massive weapon in this culture war, but we really have to stay awake for it to work. We should know firsthand the good and the bad work music can do, we should be able to hear between the lines, and we should know about the pitfalls of nationalism.

I want to close with the two songs that comprise the soundtrack of my August 11 memory and that offer singing as a weapon in the current cultural war. As cell phones exploded with news of the alt-right torch parade, the Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou — who had trained locals in non-violent direct action in preparation for the August 12 rally — led the entire congregation singing and stomping “This Little Light of Mine.” It made the building shake. “We have some company,” he called to us, as we were singing. “Let’s show them love conquers hate.” In that moment, the song became a weapon and training: it fueled the courage that would become our armor in the hard phase ahead. Non-violent protest and staring down the face of evil are not peaceful or easy. There’s a powerful myth out there about the 60’s and it comes with a common time, consonant and diatonic musical backdrop. King warned against moderates who worked to avert tension. If you went to Reverend Sekou’s training you got trained in having your ass kicked sonically and physically just by sitting or standing there as a witness to hate.

The other song I remember so clearly from that Friday night church service was sung by the two rabbis from the synagogue which the next morning was surrounded by rifle-wielding right-wingers and was not protected by police, state troopers, or national guard. They led the congregation in “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” which translates as “the world is built through love,” although the translation that’s used as a refrain in the song is more of a proclamation, a call to action: “We will build this world with love.” The song’s folksy sound feels familiar to Jews and non-Jews alike. Our rabbis have beautiful voices, every Jewish kid who goes to religious school in this town knows it, and anyone can catch the tune. The interfaith crowd rocked it. It’s melodious, but not sweet. 

“Olam Chesed Yibaneh” has been embraced by the activist group IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-racist group that opposes the Israeli occupation. The song’s words come from David—the same David who slew the evil giant Goliath in the age-old story. Earlier that night at the church, the nationally renowned political organizer and spiritual leader Reverend Traci Blackmon had told the congregation that the small, young David did not just kill the enormous Goliath—who she equated to the poison of white supremacy—with a small pebble from his slingshot. He didn’t stop with the pebble. After David killed Goliath, he cut off his head and held it up for all to see. Now is the time, she reminded us, “Let’s show them love conquers hate.” She said, with a sound that crashed through the microphone, that, it was time to take off the head of the white supremacy giant. David’s refrain sung to the chorus of Olam Chesed Yibaneh became a conviction and fierce weapon. 

The response to hate cannot be just performing smooth, perfectly-in-tune versions of folk tunes and it can’t be just saying we stand against white Supremacy. We will have to admit that we can graduate not only the Richard Spencers, but his followers. Those of us with tenure have a special obligation to be brave in our efforts. It might mean some really uncomfortable conversations, and it might mean saying things that go against chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents; making them sit with dissonance. When real live white supremacists come to your school, implicit bias training, inclusive syllabi, and safe space statements don’t do any good without a willingness to use the musical and musicological toolkit to hear the current situation and speak or sing out against it. This is a good time to remind everyone not only of the white supremacist traditions that undergird all of our disciplines and schools, but of the tradition of progressive faculty and student activism.

Bonnie Gordon’s primary interests center on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and the affective potential of the human voice. Her first book, Monteverdi’s Unruly Women (Cambridge University Press, 2004), frames the composer’s madrigals and music dramas written between 1600 and 1640 as windows into contemporary notions of sound, body, voice, and sense. She uses vocal music written for sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian singers to illuminate our understanding of the music, science, and culture of that period. She co-edited an interdisciplinary and cross cultural volume of essays about courtesans entitled The Courtesan’s Arts, (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lessons from the Archive: On Creativity, Process, and the Working Life of John Adams

By Alice Miller Cotter

John Adams. Photo Credit: Margaretta Mitchell
None of us is entirely sure what lures us to the creative act—or to studying it, for that matter. For some, it’s the quiet of being alone with raw materials and shaping them into something to give back to a community. For others, it’s the unknown, the chance to navigate unexplored terrain. There’s a flurry of pressure and risk, the thrill of the search, the understanding that success is uncertain. The inner noise can be chaotic. Even the physical labor of transcribing sketch after sketch can take a toll on the hand. Once a draft is completed or a premiere carried out, the mind can rest, it seems. But just as often, the messy processes that precede the product deny perfect resolution. The noise persists, the labor of writing and re-writing continues, the creative act remains unresolved. But in this restless space of revision, the best ideas evolve.

When I arrived for the first time at John Adams’s home in the hills of Berkeley, CA, the composer greeted me with a nervous smile and introduced me to his dog, Eloise. He had spent the early part of that morning revising The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), a work whose premiere had taken place seven months prior, but one that required some re-writing for its next performance the following month. His deadline was that day. He led me to his dining room, where several large boxes labeled “Doctor Atomic” rested on the sprawling table. He had grabbed them from his storage unit in Emeryville the day before. “Let me go through to see if there’s anything personal in here,” Adams said as he opened one of the boxes. There was virtually no order to the contents. “These are the sketchbooks, and here’s Peter Sellars’s various libretto drafts. Those are probably worth looking at. Oh, this is pretty juicy. This is classified stuff from I don’t know where. Here’s my application to the Library of Congress when I was looking for recordings for the finale.” He then flipped through one of his sketchbooks and found the first sketch for what became his celebrated setting of John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.” “I don’t know how interesting this is because it’s basically the grunt work,” Adams said, referring to his scrawl: a descending chord progression and a two-note sighing figure that repeats in a rising stepwise pattern. “Take your time. Stay as long as you like. I’ll be upstairs if you have any questions.” He then disappeared to work on the Other Mary revisions, leaving me to sink or swim in a sea of disordered documents.

As an aspiring musicologist at the start of a PhD dissertation, I was in a privileged position, faced with a trove of material that not only fulfilled the requisites of a satisfactory dissertation topic, but also seemed to contain the promise of insights about Adams and his music reachable in no other way. But I was in over my head. Beyond the immediate, if formidable, task of cataloguing and making some sense of chronology were more complicated questions about the issues at stake, assumptions to evaluate, and the basic goals of this type of research. Then there were the problems of working with a living composer. Maintaining critical distance would be the big one. Moreover, sensitivities continued to surround works like The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). What was off limits? (Adams had not said whether anything in the Doctor Atomic box was in fact “personal.” How would I identify it as such?) How much would off-limits material (if I happened to see it) inform my broader view of the composer and his process? It was slippery territory. I knew I wanted to approach it carefully, with integrity and respect.

On the surface, the objectivity of philological source studies seemed like a safe entry point into Adams’s compositional life, a way to ostensibly the complications of working with a living archive. Sketch research has always been one of the most technical and esoteric subcultures of the musicological discipline. Compositional sketches are remarkable tools for establishing chronology, reconstructing manuscripts, or identifying unfinished works. They can also help us understand the complexities of the creative process and offer support for preexisting analytical insights or stimulus for new ones. The goals of modern sketch studies, developed through painstaking work on Beethoven’s sketchbooks (perhaps the most fragmented and scattered of all compositional traces), have been reexamined over the years. Technical problems of transcription and dating can be resolved (systematic analysis of watermarks and frayed edges, for example, offer one way to assess chronology). But, as Douglas Johnson admitted in the late 1970s, basic questions will always remain about the relevance of a composer’s preliminary or discarded sketches. In what way could (or should) observations about a composer’s choices, hesitations, and discoveries inform the larger view of not only a completed work but also an individual’s creative life?

In the case of Adams, the distinction between draft and completed work is particularly blurry. Klinghoffer, for instance, has seen multiple compositional revisions since its 1991 premiere. Adams, to this day, continues to adjust his scores in response to performer feedback and other internal and external pressures. Although most of his music is in print, definitive editions have not really coalesced yet, a fact that makes critical comparison of “the drafts” and “the finished work” seem premature. (How can one privilege what the Germans call die Fassung letzter Hand—the composer’s “last word”—if the composer is still around, still mulling over changes?) The positivist orientation of sketch research, while enabling a strong technical grounding, seemed to limit, if not displace, necessary discussion of politically and emotionally charged collaborations, not to mention the immense reception histories of works like Klinghoffer. This project was going to require a mode of critical reflection and analytical rigor that could speak somehow to the technical aspects of the sketches and music, as well as to the moral, political, and collaborative imperatives of Adams’s creative enterprise. The only way to uncover that mode was through determined immersion into the materials themselves.

After a period of delicate negotiation, Adams generously granted me access to his entire archive. For the rest of my graduate career, I looked at upwards of 6,000 documents: diaries, letters, research notes, sketches, autographs, revisions, and more. The materials shed light on both the creative act in the moment, as a kind of snapshot, and a broader evolution of Adams’s working habits over time. Sketches from the 1980s, for instance, find him wrestling with his academic heritage and the limits of musical minimalism. Voluminous material for each opera documents his search for informed responses to sensitive, often contentious passages of recent history. Journals and letters reveal insight into the working relationship between Adams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman, and how they together sought to recover opera’s potential to meditate on living history.

John Adams, calendar charting initial progress on Nixon in China (December 1985)
Adams rarely dated his sketches or offered explicit clues about his creative motives on the page. Our conversations about specific documents or the sequence of compositional events filled in some necessary gaps. But it is within the pages of his date-stamped journals that the most vital information about chronology and the composer’s experience emerges. For example, a hand-written calendar found in one of Adams’s notebooks shows that he began composing Nixon in China on December 6, 1985. With a rigid series of milestones to hit and less than two years until the scheduled October 1987 premiere, he immediately took up a rigorous work schedule, duly logging the number of pages drafted per day with hash marks. Anyone who has ever attempted to turn the creative process into a 9-to-5 job will likely identify with this quite literally mundane document, in which the 38-year-old composer notes every sick day and then gives himself a Christmas break. But this doggedness takes on larger musicological significance when juxtaposed with circumstantial evidence gleaned from the composer’s journals. Just before Nixon, Adams had wrestled with an eighteen-month impasse, a period of wandering and lack of focus that would ultimately lead to the compositional breakthrough of Harmonielehre (1984-85). Finishing Harmonielehre, he discovered a harmonic technique and new sound that would drive the writing of Nixon; he also learned that nothing but a fixed deadline would urge him to action. “I sat down one day and wrote Nixon in China at the top of a blank page of score,” Adams recalled in 1988 to Andrew Porter in the new-music magazine Tempo. “I figured that if I didn’t I’d never be able to write the opera.”

So what do we gain from looking over a composer’s shoulder in this way? Most obviously, it expands our sense of what a human can create, setbacks and all. Perhaps it confirms what we already know about work ethic: a period of tireless searching, with failed attempts along the way, can lead to clarity. It’s all about the process, and, judging by the hash marks, the process can be messy. For Adams, the process has been ongoing. In 2009, twenty-two years after the premiere of Nixon, he returned once again to the score to fix unplayable parts and update synthesizer patches. Doctor Atomic, in its turn, has undergone numerous changes since its 2005 premiere, and Adams intends to rewrite portions of the opera for future productions. His continuing revisions keep his works a part of an ever-evolving musical chronicle, one that, in a sense, shares the flux of contemporary history, with implications stretching from the present into the future. This provisional ethos is central to understanding Adams’s stage works. It’s also central to the nature of researching a living composer.

As the Bay breeze drifted in and out of Adams’s dining room that first day at his home, the blinds gently ticking against the frame of the open window, I stood over the stacks of material and hurriedly set to work. Moving through page after page, I made a detailed record of the contents and photographed, with Adams’s permission, select items: Goodman’s original Doctor Atomic synopsis, Act I sketches, post-premiere revisions, and pages from a notebook the composer had kept while writing On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). Later, back at Princeton, I spent my days absorbed in transcription, keeping a journal of reflections and my own hash marks recording pages transcribed. Over many months of observing the traces of an artist at work, an important, if humbling, observation gradually came into focus. Just as Adams’s scores and creative processes continue to evolve, so too must the critical modes and goals of this type of scholarship as it attempts to make sense of a musical life that, at least for now, defies closure. Of course, there is an explicit distinction between Adams’s creative pursuits and those of academic work. But what they share, namely the challenge of finding ways to assimilate living subjects into a larger frame, is equally stimulating, inviting us to listen to the music within the space of its possibilities.

Alice Miller Cotter completed her PhD in musicology at Princeton University in 2016. She currently teaches in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley.