Monday, June 29, 2020

The New Yorker: Musicians and Composers Respond to a Chaotic Moment: The pandemic and the protests inspire works of lamentation and rage.

The clarinettist Anthony McGill, playing “America the Beautiful” in a minor key.
 Illustration by Paul Rogers

Musical Events
by Alex Ross
June 29, 2020

On May 27th, two days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Anthony McGill, the principal clarinettist of the New York Philharmonic, posted a recording of himself playing “America the Beautiful.” It is a rendition with a difference. McGill begins by swelling slowly into an initial G, from silence. When he reaches the portion of the melody matching the words “America, America,” he changes a high E-natural to an E-flat, thereby wrenching the key from C major to C minor. He remains in the minor mode to the end. Then he goes down on both knees, his clarinet behind his back, as if shackled, and bends his head. The video, titled “TakeTwoKnees,” lasts about ninety seconds, but it has the weight of a symphonic statement.

McGill later recounted that he had been searching for some way to respond to Floyd’s killing. His wife, Abby, suggested “America the Beautiful,” and as he was trying out the song on his clarinet he played a wrong note and slipped into the minor, at which point he found his message. “We shouldn’t pretend like life and the world is always major because we want it to be,” he told NPR. “Sometimes life is minor. It goes off its true melody. It goes off of that simple, beautiful melody that we all expect it to be.” Jimi Hendrix’s dissonant fantasia on “The Star-Spangled Banner” set a precedent for this kind of politically charged musical commentary, but McGill’s gesture has an eerie stillness, almost like a meditation. It has inspired a torrent of responses from other musicians. Billy Hunter, the principal trumpeter of the Metropolitan Opera, has offered a rendition of the national anthem that goes silent at the words “free” and “brave.”

African-Americans are severely underrepresented in classical music, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the frequency with which people of color are now featured in promotional brochures. Online discussions in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests have made clear how uncomfortable the role of a black classical musician can be. One day, with the collaboration of the Los Angeles Opera, the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges led a Zoom panel on racial inequality with a distinguished group of colleagues: Julia Bullock, Karen Slack, Lawrence Brownlee, Russell Thomas, and Morris Robinson. After the singers described their reactions to Floyd’s killing and their own fraught encounters with the police, they addressed subtler but pervasive tensions in the opera world. Robinson spoke of the “perpetual paranoia” that he felt as a six-foot-three, three-hundred-pound black man: “I walk around every opera rehearsal I’ve ever been to guarded, cognizant of the fact that my interaction needs to be very public, in front of everyone and very innocuous. . . . This practicing safe distance has always been a practice of mine.” He revealed that he has never been hired by a black administrator, has never shared the stage with a black director, and has never taken a cue from a black conductor.

The conversation became even more piercing when Bullock queried the very gesture of gathering black singers to deliberate age-old racial disparities. To her, it seemed a possible cover for inaction. “What are we even doing here?” she asked. “We’ve had that conversation.” Thomas—who, like the others, lost his principal work in March—declared that one issue on his mind was whether he was going to have enough food to feed his family. I watched the video twice, noting how my own nagging unease affirmed the truth of what was being said. Brownlee made the point with maximum directness: “Just like Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to state and realize that you have a problem.” Classical music, which is to say white classical music, has a problem.

The prevalent sensation of the world cracking in two—Willa Cather said this of the year 1922, and it might be said of 2020 as well—is palpable enough that I’ve been wondering how soon the rupture will leave traces in the work of composers. The lack of any immediate opportunity for performance has made it unlikely that composers will sit down to write the hour-long symphony they’ve been meaning to tackle, yet the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant isolation have already yielded some notable experimental scores. The turn toward protest may inspire a wave of work in a much different register. The strangeness of this moment lies in how it has pulled people both toward an extreme inwardness and toward an outward explosion of feeling. The radically expanded vocabulary of music since 1900 is equipped to span that divide.

No comments: