September 27, 2016

A New Normal: Choral Culture as a Catalyst for Change

by Sarah Graham, Assistant Professor of Music at Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, ID

Mind and heart have always been equally important to me; as both an educator and musician, I have always believed that empathy and education are equal and that inspiration is as important as information. I find these ideals even more relevant as I consider two related cultural trends: empathy and change. They exist separately, and as a package, each informing the other.

Two major historical events in our country have caused me to pause and consider the choral craft more carefully: the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.

The tragedy at Columbine High School was not the first, nor the last, of its kind, but as a young teacher, I took notice. An awareness of the impact it would have on me did not begin to solidify until many years—and many similar tragedies—later, when I began to ponder about the perpetrators of these kinds of crimes. Surrounded by media attention to guns and mental health, one idea kept infiltrating my mind: empathy- or the lack thereof. I wondered: How many of these perpetrators lacked empathy? Where, and how do we learn empathy? Of course, we learn empathy many ways, but I would like to suggest that ensemble arts are one of the key arenas for acquiring empathy. Music, theater, and dance are all ensemble arts that evoke intellectual understanding, encourage interpersonal connection, and emulate inspiring legacies in an environment where engagement with a particular art, as well as other participants, is essential.

September 11, 2001 is a day etched into the collective history of our country. As a graduate student at Michigan State University, I sat with my colleagues in a doctoral choral seminar with Dr. Charles K. Smith as we heard the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York. At first, we ignored it and then continued our discussion- we had no idea was happening at the very same time. The realm of our imaginations grow each time we experience something new. That day, our imaginations expanded exponentially, leading some to fear, others to a call for change, and some to both. In our next seminar meeting, Smith said, “The more you can hear and imagine, the more you can do.” This was a specific reference to the ability to hear and imagine in the sense of making music. I believe that this is true in all facets of life. The more we hear, imagine, and experience, the more we are changed.

In the last fifteen years, we have heard and seen more than we ever thought possible, enlarging our imaginations. And over this time, I have observed a change in choral culture; conductors are more intentional with regard to programming and composers are acknowledging our expanded imaginations by writing about issues, and leading us away from fear, often towards change. Programming around a theme is nothing new to most choral conductors. The difference is that those themes now seem to be making a statement; sometimes the intention of the statement is for the listeners and participants to live into an event in memoriam, as with Rene Clausen’s “Memorial,” about the events of 9/11/01, that was premiered at the ACDA National Convention in New York in 2003. Sometimes that statement teaches about history, as in Gwyneth Walker’s “Right to Vote,” about women getting the right to vote in the United States. And sometimes that statement advocates for a cause, as in the “Sing for the Cure” concerts to raise awareness and funds for the Susan G. Komen foundation. Composer Abbie Betinis’ “Chant for Great Compassion” was written as a response to the earthquake in the Sichuan Province of China in May of 2008, and Andrea Ramsey recently composed a piece as a commission for Chorus America about the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis, titled, “But a Flint Holds Fire,” based on poetry of Christina Rossetti with texts by the people of Flint, Michigan. Many of Many of Minnesota composer, Elizabeth Alexander’s pieces often reflect modern issues, such as “Palette to Paint Us As We Are,” which is based on a poem by Gerald Rich and addresses issues of race and color. Alexander’s “Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery” is another example of a work that is making a statement about an issue- in this case, slavery of all kinds. Composer, Jake Runestad’s “We Can Mend the Sky” gives voice to East African immigrants in our country.

Runestad is also working on commissions involving mental health, depression, and sex trafficking. His “One Flock,” which premiered in May, addresses immigration as a result of natural disasters. When we discussed this ‘new normal,’ Runestad remarked, “Recently, I posed a question to my followers on social media asking them what they would like to see addressed in a new musical work. I received many responses and it was quite telling that music continues to be an important mode of expression in relation to issues such as: depression, domestic violence, inequality. These are big ideas and can be intimidating to address through music, but I feel that it is my duty as a composer to struggle through the endeavor—to tell these stories and raise these questions in ways that are sensitive and meaningful.” He also notes, “The community created around music is one of the strongest in the world. Never have I felt more connected to a large group of strangers than I have when making music together. It is this fact that inspires me to continue creating works that ask tough questions and allow us to foster compassion with our united voices.”

Choral colleagues, Jeremiah Selvey and Wendy Moy are making a statement with Chorosynthesis, a group they co-founded in 2010. According to Selvey, Empowering Silenced Voices, the group’s second program, “came out of several years of projects and sensing that, if choral music was to gain more audiences and have more relevance, we needed to program around ideas that matter to humanity.” Selvey and Moy explain, “We are transparent in connecting with our audiences via conversations and dialogues at conferences and on social media, through our interactive reading sessions, and by way of artful programming.” These are just a few (of many) examples of music creating empathy by inspiring an awareness of events, issues, and history in a manner that is ripe with possibility for musical and non-musical teaching opportunities.

Jonathan Palant, founding conductor of both Credo and the Dallas Street Choir, is living this ‘new normal’ every day and with every rehearsal. The Dallas Street Choir is primarily made up of homeless individuals. When I asked him what motivates him, he talked of how graduate studies focus on history and cultural perspectives of music, but how they do not necessarily spend much time looking at what is influencing the music of today and tomorrow. Palant said, “What fuels me is the desire to use art to better our world.” He says that his energy is not necessarily derived from historically accurate performances of Brahms and Mozart- as wonderful as those things are, they are not what he feels called to do. He claims that he seeks to “stay current with current issues and to use our fortunes to better our community- our fortunes being our voice.” Palant sums up what I think this “new normal” is all about with WFAA’s Daybreak in a July 14, 2016 interview about the “Dallas Sings/Dallas Strong” event he coordinated in response to the officer shootings in Dallas this last July, “I woke up Friday morning thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something- I don’t know what to do.’ And the only thing I know how to do is conduct a choir, and we have voices, and we have something to say, so that was sort of the genesis of how we got started to try to find peace through music.” In what Palant says, we hear the message of “Do what you do.”

In this ‘new normal’ for our art, I am continually inspired and enlightened by my colleagues. At the root of that inspiration is the keen awareness of how we not only teach empathy, but how we are experiencing empathy with our singers through the repertoire and programming that are available to us. For most of us, ‘what we do’ is direct choirs; for some of us it is writing music. I encourage us all to draw upon the energy and inventiveness of our colleagues who are using our art to transform hearts, minds, and communities. In this era of a ‘new normal,’ we can seek insight and encouragement from them as our imaginations grow and we continue to ‘do what we do.’

  Sarah Graham