Monday, April 11, 2016

Social Justice Orchestras

I was going to put this into my next Friday Miscellanea as:

The orchestra as an ensemble of social justice warriors: "Phila. Orchestra expands programs that employ music for social impact" I doubt this is going to end well:
"How do we use music to increase quality of life for people in challenging situations?"
Daniel Berkowitz, the Philadelphia Orchestra's director of collaborative learning, asks the question, and says the orchestra is increasing the number of ways music can answer the call.
The initiatives are part of a changing institutional direction, [orchestra president Allison B. Vulgamore] said, taking the orchestra more heavily into social-mission work. "I want to be off stage as much as we are on stage," she said.

Of course, what an orchestra should be doing off stage is practicing, learning their parts, maintaining technique, changing strings, refurbishing instruments, not to mention relaxing and listening to music, maybe going to someone else's concert occasionally. NOT trying to be social workers. Oh dear me, no.

And that was how I was going to end the item. But it really deserves more of a comment. I'm sure that many people reading the original article (linked above) in the Philadelphia Inquirer blog would just think to themselves, "how nice, the orchestra is doing some good works." Or, perhaps, "well, it's about time those snobby elitists got out there and did something for the regular people." Probably the ones who react, as I do, by thinking, "oh, God, is there nothing in life that can remain unpoliticized?" are a tiny minority. But politicization of yet another corner of life is what this is. Just another in the long, long list of aspects of life that were previously private or personal or in their own separate realm but that now must be brought under the yoke of the Politicization of Everything. The Personal is the Political.

One of the most debated issues here at the Music Salon has been politics. Some have argued convincingly that this blog should be entirely free of all political issues. For the most part that is what I do try to do. But every now and then I am tempted to wander into one of the contested issues of our day: Global Warming!!

But in this case, I am only protesting the intrusion of politics into music. I am concerned with defending music from being politicized. You see, while we might speculate occasionally about the social context or effect of music, that really should be peripheral at best. I suggest what I think are worthwhile pieces to listen to, but apart from suggesting ways to listen to them, I don't tell you how to listen to them. Or contemplate how they might improve your life. If Mozart doesn't grab you, that might seem odd to me, but hey, it's all up to you.

But the kind of project and mindset revealed by the above article is one that leads, inexorably, to totalitarianism of one sort or another. You can put it as innocuously as you like: "How do we use music to increase quality of life for people in challenging situations?" but it still adds up to someone thinking they have a social mission to go out there and tell people how to live. What is the question mentioned? "How should you change your life?" And what is "the call?" It's the siren call to action of the social justice warrior. Oh, and we can't debate this. Debate is closed off because it is racist or elitist or sexist or somethingist. You either answer the call or you are the Enemy.

I don't know anything about what challenging situations there are in Philadelphia and I don't want to get into analyzing them here. And I certainly don't want to be suggesting solutions. But what I do know is that there are a lot of possible ones. Perhaps it is the case that the policies that have been tried for the last several decades are simply wrong. Another thing I am pretty sure of is that the ideal solution to social problems is not trying to enlist orchestral players as social workers. It is almost certainly something they will be very bad at.

What projects like these are really all about is not, emphatically not, about addressing the problem of challenging situations in society. Not at all. What they are about is "virtue signalling", a delightful recent coining that refers to the situation where a lot of what the privileged say and do is intended to illustrate how deeply they care about solving the Social Problems of Today. The actual results are surprisingly unimportant as we can see from looking at cities like Detroit after decades of deeply caring social policies that have driven away over half of the population.

But, as I said, I don't want to get into any of that. I just want to say, leave the orchestra alone to play music. That is what they are good at and if you want to improve your state of mind, just attend a concert or two.

This is Mariss Jansons conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich:


Jeph said...

well....the tiresome language this is couched in would certainly ping on your radar, Bryan, I get that. But it mostly seems like youth outreach and education initiatives? They're talking about coaching and surveying the music education environment to make improvements. Recruiting young listeners/players and helping them and others to see the value in classical music. The music therapy aspect is interesting too, and I assume musicians would volunteer if they were interested. All seems like good stuff to me :)

Bryan Townsend said...

And you know, it could be great. But doesn't it seem problematic to you to take fully-employed orchestral musicians, who already should be working pretty hard, and push them to do additional work as music therapists? And then there is that mentoring, coaching and side-by-side rehearsing. I both taught and performed for many years and believe me, music therapy, mentoring, coaching and so on can be hard work if you are doing it properly. But these are people who already have a full time job in a a front rank orchestra for which they won an audition beating out many other players. Loading other responsibilities onto them seems to me either asking too much, or "virtue-signalling" by the orchestra administation.

Jeph said...

those are valid points, and I don't get any sense from the article of how it would impact the players' time. I hope they don't have to put up with too much nonsense.

But the more I think about it, this is really boilerplate style outreach/engagement, mostly specific to youth, of the kind that high caliber musical organizations should do and already do. So they're talking about doing more of what they already do, but they've (the management, I guess) chosen the virtue-signalling headline that emphasizes the "social impact" of their efforts. I'm from the Northeast, and I'm thinking Philadelphia is probably still a very rich and poor, black-and-white self-segregated city, so they are negotiating a class/race subtext here, which may explain the weird angle they're coming from which doesn't really play out in the article. It is another example of how art music institutions feel compelled to justify their existence in other extra-musical ways, particularly to attract funding.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jeph, I think that your analysis is right on. The thing that really bothers me is that what should be the overwhelming priority of any musical ensemble, i.e. aesthetic quality, is being given a lower priority, seemingly, than social justice. But perhaps it is the case that projects like these are related to attracting funding. This funding would come, I assume, from government bodies. It is their responsibility, of course, to attend to questions of social justice, but one can see how they would project their priorities onto other organizations.

This gives us another argument for why arts organizations should not receive significant support from government bodies as it tends to skew the purpose and priorities of the arts groups.