It’s been hard to know what to write. What could possibly be said that isn’t already being cried, screamed, demanded or shouted on our newsfeeds and in our media? The cacophony of frustration and despair seems tempered only by the sharing of stories about the late hours of election night and the funereal calm that beset our respective cities the morning after. What a frightening state of affairs we are in if expressions of grief are the means of maintaining any semblance of hope. It’s sick in a way. In sharing our memories of that morning, we affirm our own bewilderment as we reestablish the truth that we don’t “know” any Trump supporters, really, and that this can’t possibly be the reality.
At 9am on November 9, students in Dr. Kendall Briggs’ class convened in room 523 at the Juilliard School, sitting in deafening silence for 15 minutes while awaiting our professor’s arrival. Several of us wore black, but the expressions of hopelessness on my classmates’ faces were the real sackcloths of mourning. After Dr. Briggs’ arrival, the class was spent dotting in and out of discussions of politics, poetry and the music of Arnold Schoenberg, seemingly inseparable as our emotional candor seemed to color anything we tried to talk about.
The work set for the day was eerily appropriate, an exploration into the final movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10. Scored for string quartet and soprano, Schoenberg’s setting of the poetry of Stefan George embodied the feeling of the room. While many had difficulty concentrating that morning and throughout the day, my 9am class seemed oddly focused, as Op. 10 seemingly reoriented our thoughts.
I feel air from another planet.
I faintly through the darkness see faces
Friendly even now, turning toward me.
And trees and paths that I loved fade
So I can scarcely know them and you bright
Beloved shadow—summoner of my anguish–
Are only extinguished completely in a deep glowing
In the frenzy of the fight
With a pious show of reason.
I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving,
With unfathomable thanks and unnamed praise,
Bereft of desire, I surrender myself to the great breath.
A violent wind passes over me
In the thrill of consecration where ardent cries
In dust flung by women on the ground:
Then I see a filmy mist rising
In a sun-filled, open expanse
That includes only the farthest mountain hatches.
The land looks white and smooth like whey,
I climb over enormous canyons.
I feel as if above the last cloud
Swimming in a sea of crystal radiance–
I am only a spark of the holy fire
I am only a whisper of the holy voice.
While I was assured that the appropriate choice for the day’s syllabus was coincidental, it hardly matters in retrospect. What matters is that a group of musicians all turned up to class and worked started to work through difficulties with music – a sign (depressive as it is) that life goes on. It sucks, yes, but it goes on.
I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I suppose an even more important aspect of the morning was that a room full of instrumentalists and composers began their morning not with writing or playing, but with listening. From CNN to the New York Times, we’ve had our biases confirmed that hearing the noise isn’t optional, but that listening is. While ultimately an exercise in empathy for ourselves, Dr. Briggs’ 9am embodied the spirit of what is most lacking in our political climate: the ability to hear something outside ourselves. How many times did we cover our ears, contradict our own sensibilities, and reiterate over and over “this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening?”
And yet it happened. The reality is setting in and gradually we’ve started to seek outside our comfort zones for answers. Last Tuesday, exactly four weeks after election, I had the honor of attending the Robert F. Kennedy Gala in Manhattan and hearing VP Joe Biden speak. I expected to hear an elegy of sorts. But in receiving the Ripple of Hope Award for his work in advancing human rights, the Vice President offered perhaps the most challenging speech I have ever heard. The message was not one of hope or perseverance, but a reminder to do one thing: listen. In hearkening back to life and political leadership of RFK, he reminded the room that Bobby sat and ate with pro-Apartheid leaders in South Africa; reminded us that Bobby met with segregationists in the American South; reminded us that Bobby’s legacy was not just in fighting and standing up, but in engaging even the most unspeakable of ideas and personalities to advance the cause of human rights.
“We have to take a hard look at the hard truths about our country now, and our economy, and why so many people feel left out. We have to stop being blinded by anger, we have to start to listen to each other, see each other again.”
In May 2015, the graduating class at Oberlin College and Conservatory was given the instruction to “run towards the noise” by commencement speaker and First Lady Michelle Obama. The mood was ecstatic, as hundreds of students high on their belief in social justice were emboldened to stand up and take things head on. But I feel in myself that something’s happened since then. There’s no doubt that we’ve run towards the noise, and made more noise ourselves, trying to drown out the opposition. The progressives of this nation have screamed ‘til they’re blue in the face that a platform built on fear and control is not acceptable. But we’ve screamed ourselves hoarse, it would seem. In running towards the noise, I know I’ve been as guilty as any of trying simply to drown it out. At Oberlin and Juilliard both, one of the most important exercises we go through as students is learning to listen to each other and to our teachers. In our chamber music rehearsals, simply playing louder to try and drown out another idea or interpretation is anathema to collective musicianship. In orchestra, ignoring the conductor or section leader is unhelpful, rude, arrogant. In our private lessons, arguing with our professors who fundamentally care about our playing and our happiness is ignorant of the trust we ought to place in ability for music to mediate and heal. And yet, we musicians have been as guilty as any of our fellow citizens of shutting our ears and simply playing louder, simply adding to the noise.
It’s easier said than done, obviously. I’m sat in a bourgeois coffee shop on Diamond Street in San Francisco, a neighborhood of wealthy intellectuals and idealists, comfortable and self-righteous in my ability to write and talk about something so vague as “listening.” But we musicians have a unique platform: we have the ability to foster environments where others can hear the same piece of music, and experience it fundamentally differently without kicking and screaming. We have the ability to take music to different places and listen to the rooms and instruments we play, and cater our messages to maximum impact. In rehearsing for a recital over the last few days, a 1971 Flentrop organ in Berkeley has taught me more about listening and responding than I could ever have imagined. I arrived with my pre-conceived notions of the program, the pace of the works, the sounds I wanted out of the instrument, and within 15 minutes it was clear that something had to give: my ears. I wasn’t allowing the instrument to speak, insisting on tempi that were too fast and registrations that were simply too loud. I had to converse with the instrument, then with the room, then back with the program’s content, over and over to foster something that wouldn’t hit the listeners in the face, but invite them to listen.
More than ever, the education offered at Juilliard is vital to American society. But our training will only be as effective as our willingness to take it out of the practice room and into our lives.