The Irrelevance of Music
The American presidential election is in three days. And I’ve never cared less about music.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon over the past six months or so. My natural enthusiasm for music has waned in inverse proportion to the level of vitriol in the campaigns. With each new scandal, revelation, and absurdity, I’ve had less energy to expend on studying or thinking about music. To be sure, I’m still listening to it, playing it, and making it. But more and more, my participation in music has transformed from an engagement with reality to an escape from it.
When the fate of your democracy is at stake, it becomes difficult to believe that the difference between a decrescendo and an accent in Schubert actually matters.
I suppose this could mean that I wasn’t really meant to be a musician. I suspect that many of my colleagues do feel such a strong connection to music that their ability to keep playing it is of greater importance to them than whether their candidate of choice is elected.
I can’t help but wonder, though, whether there is a mode of musical production that is more directly connected to present-day politics. You could argue that Beyoncé and Jay-Z come close, but it’s really their celebrity status, and not their musical content, that lends significance to their actions. There have been pop songs and other gimmicks as well, but none have had the gravitas to seriously address the current political miasma. Broadly, my question is: how can music meaningfully engage with large-scale societal issues?
Three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein gave a speech to the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York at Madison Square Garden. In it, he delivered a statement that has served as a sort of credo for musicians ever since:
The last sentence is cited so frequently that, if you are a musician, you can count on seeing it in your newsfeed after the next national tragedy or political happening. (In fact, I recently saw it in response to the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of the Juilliard School.) The prevailing view seems to be that musicians ought to keep their heads down and delve more deeply into their craft in times of crises.
This is nonsense. Sometimes, your intonation, your articulation, and even your expression are irrelevant. The cultivation of musical technique is an ineffective, tone-deaf response to sociopolitical crisis. Our impulse in times like these should not be to look inward and to "make music more intensely," but rather, to look outward and think:
What else should I be doing?