About the last 19 days, and why it's not enough to let music do the talking.
For the past 19 days, I’ve struggled in my choice of where to focus my attention: on the brutality of Putin’s war of aggression, the evidence of his war crimes, the work of teaching with and through all of this, and the work of meetings in which it is required by social code to act as though none of this is going on.
This is the second preamble in a row to an overdue post with the Week 2 lecture to my class on music in the climate emergency. I needed to sort something out. I’ve been turning my last post over in my head; the one about the magical thinking that pervades popular narratives about music’s social power. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why these sweeping statements (“music heals,” “music builds peace,” etc.) trouble me so much.
I think I’ve been able to pin it down, now. It’s not only because music’s power can be used to incite conflict, stimulate unrest, and advance misinformation. It’s because narratives about music’s positive social power can serve to release us from our moral and ethical responsibility to resist authoritarianism and uphold democracy.
It’s not enough to say “music speaks truth to power” and then let music do the talking. We must speak, too. Music cannot replace the actions we might take to defend the institutions—journalism, science, education, democracy itself—that we depend on to defend us.
“We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks,” he writes. “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”
It’s like the New Yorker cartoon by Paul Noth that came out shortly after Donald Trump’s 2016 election. It shows a wolf in suit and tie, his campaign billboard announcing his intention to sheep who have obeyed, in advance, his threat.
In his campaign running up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump repeatedly told us what he was going to do. And, as Maya Angelou told Oprah Winfrey, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
In office, Trump did what he said he was going to do. Among many other life-ending and life-threatening actions (see this report from The Lancet for a full list), he politicized and repudiated medical and climate science: Covid-19, like climate change, was a hoax.2
Here’s Trump on April 22, 2020, promoting his own quack therapies from the podium of the White House briefing room.
Here’s Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey in 1997 talking about life lessons in Maya Angelou’s big brass bed.
Here’s what Timothy Snyder says 20th century history tells us: “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.”
Here is what I take from the trio of Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and Timothy Snyder. When someone shows you who they are, believe them—the first time—then take action.
“Do not obey in advance”
On February 28, four days after Putin invaded Ukraine, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of a major report on the impacts of climate change on societies and ecosystems around the world. The New York Times summarized the content in a tense headline: “Time Is Running Out to Avert a Harrowing Future.”
The IPCC’s Ukrainian delegation was forced to withdraw from negotiations and hide in bomb shelters. Svitlana Krakovska, head of the Ukraine delegation, described a bitter choice between tending to threats to the future of life on the planet, and threats to their own lives, under Russian bombing.
Krakovska said, “it’s very difficult to think about climate change impacts when you have impacts of Russian missiles in our Kyiv, and tanks everywhere.” She added that to her mind, the war and climate change were driven by the same substance: “all the money for this aggression comes from oil, from fossil fuels. The more we use [oil], the more we sponsor this aggression.”3
There are reports that Russia’s delegates repeatedly pushed to include language about global warming’s positive impacts (new agricultural opportunities in the arctic, etc.) but more than 650 Russian scientists signed an open letter condemning the war. And on the final day of the negations, the head of the Russian delegation, Oleg Anisimov, opened his remarks with these words:
First of all, let me thank Ukraine and present an apology on behalf of all Russians who were not able to prevent this conflict. All of those who know what is happening fail to find any justification for this attack against Ukraine.
The IPCC report didn’t generate much attention in my circles. I understand why. Whether it’s climate change or Putin’s war, we struggle to wrap our heads around what we can’t imagine—even when the evidence is before our eyes. It’s too much. We get overwhelmed. We dissociate.
I watch people in my circles microdosing trauma and resilience on social media—a “viral poem”, a piano played passionately in a bombed-out apartment, a child in a bomb shelter self-consciously singing “Let it Go” from Frozen.
I don’t have a problem with that. Those are the moments where music and storytelling are helping us to tell the truth. They open up little tubes through which we whisper essential knowledge: “We are indivisible,” “What befalls you befalls me,” “It is an accident that I am here and you are there,” “There is another way.”
What troubles me is what happens after, when the moment passes, the tubes narrow and our voices curl inward to say, “There’s nothing I can do.”
If we are all connected, then there is never nothing any of us can do.
There is always something to do. I am a citizen of Canada: a first-world petro-state in socially-conscious clothing. I am a resident of the United States: I work in a corroded political system reeling from a plunge into autocratic leadership.
There is always so much work that needs do be done. This is where I hope people would take comfort: in keeping on, and doing what needs to be done.
To think “there is nothing I can do” is to obey in advance; to freely give up our power.
That’s Snyder’s Lesson One: Do not obey in advance.
Is music an institution I wish to defend?
The night that Russia invaded Ukraine I was in Miami, interviewing musicians of New World Symphony about sustainable careers. I spent two sleepless nights watching the invasion unfold on the television in my hotel room, then I made a conscious decision to stop consuming the war.
I focussed on one task at hand: collaborating on the wording for a set of values and principles to guide SCALE/LeSAUT, a new initiative to mobilize the Canadian arts and culture sector to drive political action on climate change. Writing this was exacting work: naming the interconnected crises that emerge from Canada’s colonialism and capitalism; acknowledging how the arts are implicated and invested in replicating structures of injustice; holding a clear vision for how the arts can effect the cultural shifts that drive political change; balancing the tension between urgency and trust. The work didn’t need to be complete—it’s intended as a living document, one we will need to renew continually—but it did need to have the mechanics to carry the organization forward.
That work had an end point, but my class—the one that’s meant to be shared in these newsletters—has been generating more questions than answers. That’s a good outcome, so far as I’m concerned: out of uncertainly comes surprise and the potential for liberation. But it also explains the struggle I’m facing in translating what happens in a real-time conversation to the expository, epistolary form of the newsletter.
Anyway, we started in Week One with two questions: “What happens when we move music from the margins to the center of the climate emergency?” and “If everyone is a musician, could music move the needle on climate action?” Now, I add three more: “When we say ‘music,’ what do we mean?” and “Who counts as a musician?” and “Is music an institution we wish to defend?”
The first two of those questions are the subject matter of the Week Two lecture (coming this week, I swear), in which we discuss writings by Christopher Small, Dylan Robinson, and research by Samuel Mehr and Harvard’s Music Lab.
The third question will take a little more time.
In classrooms, I often quip that music is too important to be left to music schools. I say this to enjoin my students in an active process of defining and defending their own artistic growth and development. Sometimes I swap “musical institutions” for “music schools”. By that I mean to urge my fellow musicians into a fuller responsibility for the places in which we do our work: to refuse to be erased; to refuse to comply; to refuse the idea that there is no alternative; to be courageous; to believe there is a future.
The institutions I seek to defend are the ones that are intimately involved in the production of truth and the defense of the future. As Snyder pointed out in a 2018 talk:
Dealing with climate change is about creating a future in the most basic and essential sense. But interestingly, hydrocarbons and futurelessness are very intimately connected. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, America, or Russia, the people who are closely connected to hydrocarbon wealth are the same people who suppress the future—and who suppress factuality. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia killing a journalist and having his body cut up into little pieces, or whether it’s Putin getting dead journalists delivered to him on his birthday, it’s the same phenomenon. Hydrocarbons are intimately connected to the loss of factuality.4
To tie this down to the level of musicians’ lives: we practice music, because to practice is to declare there is a future. I tell students that every one of us knows what it is to take something that was impossible—an étude, an excerpt, a passage—and make it playable in our own hands. We know how to make change. We break it down, we ask for help, we remember our lessons, we do the work. We keep showing up to do the work.
I tell them: take what you know from the practice room and apply it to the world around you.
Everyone has to do something and we have to do more
On March 7, cellist Yo-Yo Ma stopped by the Russian embassy in Washington, DC to play his cello on the sidewalk. “Everyone has to do something,” he told a passer-by who recognized him.
Ma was in DC for a Kennedy Center performance with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos. That night, he opened the program with a performance of Ukraine’s national anthem. The sold-out house stood for the anthem, burst into applause, then settled back into their seats for the main event; three Beethoven piano trios.
A moment like this is a moment of great power. A song can dissolve our separateness and resolve our indivisibilty. It can turn people into a collective. An anthem is portable sovereignty. We can carry it inside us, and to sing it—even silently—is to define and defend the place we call home. It gives us courage. And then—here’s the thing—we have to get on with doing the work that needs to be done.
The song has a job, which is to inspire us to courageous action. If it isn’t, it can only be, at best, a performative gesture. At worst, this performative gesture becomes a sleight-of-hand that sustains a dangerous illusion.
The illusion: that what happened in Ukraine would not happen in the United States. That the United States would never do what Russia has done. That what happened at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 would not happen again. That autocracy—the suppression of science, the dismantling of free press, the corrosion of democratic institutions—is something happening somewhere else, and not here, in the United States, not now.
In the United States, much is riding on the 2022 midterm elections. A December 2021 survey showed that 35% of likely midterm voters believe Donald Trump’s “Big Lie,” that the 2020 election was stolen from him. This is up from 28% in April 2021. Trump praises Putin’s war crimes as “savvy”. He calls him a “genius”—not just now, but repeatedly since 2013.
51% of voters believe American democracy is at risk of extinction.
We stand for Ukraine’s national anthem, and then we sit down. We should be rising up.
There’s a beautiful updated 2020 edition of On Tyranny animated by Nora Krug, but I’m partial to the pocket book version which I can slip into the interior pocket of my jacket. I guess I’m still marked in some way by the man who visited my second grade classroom in Edmonton in 1977 to show the copy of the New Testament that stoped a bullet to a man’s heart on a World War II battlefield. I didn't know then that this was a Christian missionary trope, but I cling to my belief that certain books have protective qualities.
At the end of his term, the The Lancet Commission on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era assessed the public health repercussions of Trump’s policies. They included a litany of life-threatening and life-ending actions:
Politicised and repudiated science, leaving the USA unprepared and exposed to the
Eviscerated environmental regulation, hastening global warming
Incited racial, nativist, and religious hatred, provoking vigilante and police violence
Denied refuge to migrants fleeing violence and oppression, and abused immigrant
Undermined health coverage
Weakened food assistance programmes
Curtailed reproductive rights
Undermined global cooperation for health, and triggered trade wars
Shifted resources from social programmes to military spending and tax windfalls for
corporations and the wealthy
Subverted democracy both nationally and internationally
Oil is a leading cause of war. Russia is a petro-state. The Kremlin and the business elites who are facilitators of the Putin regime have a vested interest in slowing action to cut carbon emissions. Russia has a stake in decelerating clean energy solutions.