Here is Yet Another unpublished article -- I seem to be good at these lately! I thought this might be an interesting text to get published in a fairly well-known newspaper (several of my former students had written articles in a particular series), but it was rejected. Oh the missing fame! Oh the missing fortune!

Oh well -- perhaps it's really awful and I was spared the public humiliation. Such is life.

Change the World

Brad Garton
June, 2011

Shortly after taking my job in the Columbia University Music Department, I was back visiting my family in Indiana. At dinner with family friends one night, I was asked about my recent musical activities: "Are you still doing your music?" After answering in the affirmative, there was a follow-up question: "What do you plan to do with your music?" I think I mumbled something about assisting in scientific research, developing new technologies or some other 'legitimate' activity. My honest answer - "I plan to listen to it" - didn't seem like it would pass muster in the practical, utilitarian Midwestern-American world of my youth.

Even today, with many of my friends actively discussing retirement plans, there is a lingering Midwestern guilt (which can certainly hold its own with Jewish or Catholic guilt) located in a feeling of fraudulence about my profession as composer. It is a suspicion of deceit that suggests to me late at night that I have managed to game the system, that I am 'getting away' with a life that isn't quite proper. How can making odd noises with a computer be a primary component of a Real Job? What do I do with my music?

My pragmatic background, where the measure of human endeavor is correlated directly with functional value, dismisses out-of-hand many of the standard aesthetic answers to this question. And the obvious retort - "why should music have to do anything?" - has no currency whatsoever by virtue of its denial of utility. A life well-lived should be a life of honest work.

With this as my cultural baggage, I felt compelled to find a justifiable reason for my musical existence. Over the years I have managed to construct a personal manifesto, a way of being a composer that allows me to address the down-to-earth Hoosier sensibilities that inform my life/value yardstick. It is rooted in the unique power of music to shape our society.

It is common for academics and artists to claim that their particular area of work has great social relevance. As perhaps the most social of all the arts, music really does have strong sociocultural effects. I can draw upon a large body of circumstantial evidence to confirm this. From antiquity, I can cite Plato's famous banishment of certain modes of music in his Republic, or I can fast-forward and name a number of recent repressive regimes (Franco/Spain, Papadopoulos/Greece, Khamenei/Iran, and of course Hitler and Stalin) who have exercised bans on general and specific musics. These social designers all recognized that in music lay the power to undermine their cultural control. Music truly is powerful stuff.

To be sure, dictators through the ages have also banned much art and literature because the content was inimical to the objectives of the State. Despite the occasional song with overtly political lyrics, music is generally not suppressed because of its content (what is the content of a major chord?). Music is banned because of what it represents. It becomes the emblem of a social group, often an indigenous body, opposing the dominant political hierarchy.

Although directly "political" music has played a role in human history, the true power to shift society resides in the way music operates as our social glue. This is a more subtle but more profound action than lyrics exhorting us to 'rally around the flag'. The abstract music itself becomes the mechanism through which we identify ourselves as social beings. We adopt the values of a music-culture, a social group instantiated by participation in the group's music. Punk rockers? Grateful Dead-heads? Downtown New York Improvisers? These represent who we really are. These are the ways we choose to be human. We become the music.

This is not news to contemporary ethnomusicologists who study this social phenomenon in a wide range of cultures and subcultures. As a composer, however, I would like to invert the anthropology and instead work constructively. Might it not be possible to include consideration of the kind of society we hope to build as part of our compositional plan?

Think about the Romantic "great man" model that seems the default for music-making these days: a Real Rock Star, or Rock Star Conductor, Star Performer, Composer, exists as the Superman (and I include female artists in this blanket description). This superior being acts to deliver us from our workaday lives. They are so great! So much better than we are! Or think about the pious, quasi-religious trappings surrounding other musical performances; the hushed silences, the devotional, self-abnegation aspect. Or relive the latest academic 'new music' festival; the snide intermission put-downs, the competitive careerism, the music largely forgotten the next day. Do any of these truly represent the kind of world we want to inhabit?

Different musical models do exist. We don't have to accept the status-quo ego/careerist mode for musical presentation. The egalitarian approach to leadership employed by the Orpheus Chamber ensemble, the communal excitement and shared-work-ethic I have witnessed in several new music cooperatives, the insertion of music into unexpected social spaces through innovative installations, these are all examples that point to alternative ways of constructing our social relationships. I believe we can do more, however, especially as composers. When I teach composition I hope to show, mainly by example, that there is much more to music than crafting a new sound or choosing the 'correct' collection of notes. As composers I think we can be as aware of how we compose and present our music as what we compose. This is where the social action is.

All this idealism ultimately leads to my personal answer to the question: "What do you do with your music?" My unspoken, but musical, reply: I try to change the world.