There's Room For Us All
I’m in paradise. The sun is glistening off seashells as I walk along the frothy surf on the Gulf of Mexico. The air is perfect, breezy, the just-right combination of warm and cool, and I’m walking along, clutching my chest and crying.
I’m so fortunate to be here at an artist colony, where I’ve been given time to rest and work on any projects I please, surrounded by disciplined and inspired people who are carving away at their memoirs, operas, and poems. Last night we sat outside at dinner together, a first group-meeting with the background music of crashing waves and a gathering storm, and talked of the day’s news. Two of the women were powerhouse creators in their fields, both Asian. The day before this dinner, a man, holding all the vicious presumption of white supremacy in his twenty-one year old body, bought a gun and murdered six Asian women, one white man and one white woman in Georgia.
It was baffling, and yet not surprising, that the policeman who gave the first press briefing after catching the killer seemed very concerned that the public understand that this young white man was not a racist, and that we actually ought to feel sorry for him. He was “kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him.” After a year of the former U.S. President scapegoating China for his own inept handling of a world pandemic, violence against Asian people had already been steadily on the rise.
At dinner, the sky went from pink to indigo to black, and lightning started crackling through the sky as my dinner companions reflected on this new violence, and on their own experiences of racism and sexism in America. Their sturdiness amid the emotional upheaval around us was a lesson to me. They already knew these truths about the ugly side of our culture, and though the news might be crashing around them like the pounding waves out in the black night, they knew who they were. They held firm to their identities and their truths. They talked of risk-taking in their art, of collaboration instead of competition, of caring for family members and students, of connecting with the world around them.
A few days earlier I’d been part of an entirely different conversation. I was at a meeting about the future of Classical music, and how orchestras could integrate anti-racist work. I was slightly shocked when the first musician entering the discussion touted the supremacy of Classical music over all other forms of music, asserting that Mahler’s symphonies were the apex of human creativity, and that Hip Hop and other popular music forms were simply inferior. But I was truly appalled when about ten other people got in line to agree with this premise, each one bringing up Hip Hop as an example of less worthy music.
Nearly all of the musicians taking this class were white. I sincerely doubt that those espousing this knowledge of the failings of Hip Hop could claim they had spent time inside this music, listening to its complexity and getting to know the range of techniques and expression of the vast array of artists who create music in this genre. Yet they were certain that their expertise in white European Classical music meant they and only they were the purveyors of art with a capital A.
It sickened me. The arrogance of this sentiment, this assumed dominance, and the self-righteous sense that it was therefore fair and just that Classical music should receive a majority of resources and honor from our culture, was shocking to me. Somehow I had expected more of my community. Not a lot more, but some little bit of self-awareness, perhaps. I spoke up to say this value judgment was not acceptable to me.
As people spoke in defense (and they truly were defensive) of Classical music, I heard them holding tight to a tradition of hierarchy and judgment. We orchestra musicians had all been through the ringer to get to this point in our lives. We’d taken countless auditions, paid thousands of dollars to teachers, banked thousands of miles on the road to said auditions, been rejected, and learned how to do better the next time. The skills required for taking auditions do not entirely overlap with those needed to be a great orchestra player, however; it’s brutal to open oneself to constant loss and rejection, but it’s an accepted part of the process if you want an orchestra job. Those who make it through that gallery of knives feel rightly proud of the accomplishment, and many orchestras create an environment where after the audition, you still feel under constant pressure to reassert your dominance, your right to the job you now occupy. But I’ve been thinking lately about how it might all be done differently.
What if an orchestra was truly a community of music makers, above all else? And instead of finding the most accurate, steely audition takers, we looked for team members to add to our community? What if we valued curiosity, imagination and love as highly as we do discipline?
After a lifetime working in orchestras around the world, and talking to colleagues everywhere, I have witnessed the fact that orchestra players are not the happiest bunch of musicians. If you build a system based around hierarchy, rather than love, it will serve its purpose. Sometimes doors may open to love, despite all that. But the design of the system leads to a zero-sum mindset; there’s only so much money, so much acclaim and social capitol, to go around. To cash in, you have to fit in, leave any parts of yourself that aren’t deemed valuable by the orchestra outside the concert hall. In a group of people where the goal is to blend into one sound rather than stand out as soloists, you can wind up with a lot of unfulfilled, impoverished souls, each one scrambling to be at the top of the pyramid of importance. The resulting unhappiness breeds the typical dysfunctions of unhealthy workplaces; epidemics of complaining, insecurity, authoritarian leadership grabs, etc.
If you survived the audition circuit and won a job with an orchestra, and then proved yourself year in and year out as a worthy player in that orchestra, your ego is tightly wound into the hierarchy. In order to be at the top, someone else has to be at the bottom. In order for you to be a winner, lots of other people have to be losers. Why should the culture get opened up, why should others get to breathe fresh air, when you’ve suffocated yourself into this “success” by all these years of battling to get in?
Classical music is irrelevant to most people in the world now. It makes up less than one percent of sales in music recordings. The conversation about how to keep it alive is constant in the field. Yet here were these musicians in this meeting, stating baldly that this lofty art was certainly more admirable and commendable than other types of music.
It makes sense to me that I’d get pissed at hearing people say things like this. But I wasn’t expecting this heartsickness that I’ve carried with me every day since that conversation. This deep, pulsing wound in the center of my chest, weighing down my steps, making me feel like tears were always very close to falling. I couldn’t figure out what that was about.
Then I went to dinner in the dark with these brave artists, the lightning flashing all around them as they bore witness to the racism in their lives. So many ways the world was saying “there is not room for you here, you do not belong, you do not look like us”. Yet they stayed where they were, and carved out room, and did not beg pardon or plead for permission. And at the end of all that, the successful poet could still take her five-year-old child to a public park in Brooklyn and hear some white adult hurl a racial slur at her beautiful boy.
After our dinner with the expressive background of nature that night, I slept fitfully. I woke often, still sick and aching. I rose the next morning and poured myself into a couple of hours of practicing the violin, searching for healing by finding my voice in its rich dark sound. The ache persisted, and I gave up practicing and started wandering the beach. I looked at the millions of shells scattered along my path, each one an incomprehensible perfection in its brokenness and array of colors. A trail of gemstones, like walking through the treasure in a dragon’s lair. So much brokenness, polished and worn smooth and gleaming. The beauty made the ache in my chest even more unbearable. I could not understand it. But I let the tears fall and the ocean breeze sweep them out with all the rest of the salt water.
I barely pulled myself up the stairs to my cottage and collapsed on the bed, weak with the ache and unrelenting sadness, still not understanding what it was all about.
Then I opened a video on my phone that a friend had sent me. I saw a beautiful, sweet golden retriever walk to a low-hanging set of wind chimes in his garden. He sat under them, then used his muzzle to knock them and make them ring; and then he sang. He sang his little puppy heart out with the chimes accompanying him. When they lulled, he rang them again and sang some more. Utter exuberance, utter love.
This is what music is to me. This is what is meant to be. It’s for everyone. There’s room for us all. We can weep, wail, sing, celebrate, dance, shout our truths. We can share.
Music is not for hoarding the privileges and power of the hierarchy we’ve inherited. Music is freedom.
I’m not interested in living in a museum, where only the few go who can afford the ticket and know all the expected social niceties. Where there’s no air or natural light. Where the layers of dust are thick because nothing and no one is disturbed here.
Let the lightning flash. Let the disturbance roil. Let the joy in. It’s free. It’s for everyone.