Do you take politicians at their word? How about songwriters and poets?
As writer David Dark likes to remind me, “Poetry is the real fake news.” If poetry and music build worlds of metaphor, while political words describe some parallel (darker?) version of reality, what would happen if composers used political words as poetry? Buckle up. Words matter in this age of instant reactions, outrage, and #alternativefacts. It’s important that we take time to examine them with respect – and, of course, with new music.
If you’re nodding right now, Politicoro is a concert and a creative concept built just for you. Director Ben Ewert will lead Edmonton’s Borealis choir in performances of politically charged early music and new choral pieces by Canadian composers on February 8, 2017.
Ben Ewert is currently a doctoral student (DMus) in choral conducting at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he and his wife Krista live with their three kids. Ben and his family have also spent a few years in Vancouver, where he directed Oculus Chamber Choir, a group devoted to sacred choral music, based at St. James Anglican Church. In 2014, Ben led that choir in the premiere of my “De Profundis” during a concert of laments reaching back as far back in time as Tomás Luis de Victoria’s 16th-century Spain.
Looking ahead to this month’s concert, the two of us sat down to talk about the Politicoro concept, the concert, the composers, and the unpredictability of commissioning pieces to fit a unique program.
Politicoro: An interactive public forum
“Overall, the evening is about how choral music can interact in the political sphere, with most of the emphasis being on politicians’ words set to music,” Ben said.
This event is more than a concert. Borealis will ditch the standard sing/break/sing format to create a unique, casual event featuring choral performances, speaking, time to gab, drinks and appies, and chats with composers (I’ll be there via Skype from Vancouver).
Why such a different format? It’s all about conversation.
Politicoro will be “an interactive event between choir, composer and audience aimed at examining the lasting effect of words in the public forum.”
To this end, Ben has asked composers to set the words of politicians to music, as I’ve done with my new piece “warehouse of souls” – a cappella music for SATB voices inspired in part by a recent trip to Athens and Lesvos in Greece. I used some Greek text I borrowed from some new friends I met through the University of the Aegean (long story, maybe another time) and also a collection of phrases borrowed from public figures who have commented on the global refugee and migrant crisis.
The choir will begin its performance by singing “other choral works written in the heat of political upheaval,” including music by Thomas Tallis and WIlliam Byrd. These two Catholic composers struggled through the transition to a Protestant government, enduring the strain between their convictions and their court positions. The audience will be reminded that making music amid political strife is nothing new.
“I was searching for early music that had a political connotation or that was written in a politically unstable time with traceable elements that you could actually point to as evidence that it was written with a political thought in mind,” Ben said.
What sparked the Politicoro idea and why is it important?
“Words are powerful,” he says. Political language is often carefully crafted, but its effects aren’t always easily known. Ben mentioned Robert Fisk’s book, Great War for Civilization, as an important influence. Fisk has been a correspondent living in Lebanon for over thirty years, and has written extensively about how the policies in the West affect the Middle East. Ben says that Fisk showed him “how words spoken in the Western countries translate into physical action in the Middle East. It really impressed upon me the value of words. And for myself – as a Christian – I’ve been raised to really be aware of the words I’m saying, and the effect that they have. There’s a theme through scripture that whatever comes out of your mouth can reflect what’s really going on inside of you whether you are honest or not.”
Ben began to ask questions like, “What are our political leaders saying? And when they say it, does it matter? If the words are just part of a campaign, what kind of lasting effect will they have, and are politicians accountable for anything that they’re saying? What do those words do to different people groups and how do different groups receive and understand those words?”
For example, Ben points to a piece he wrote for Politicoro called “The Fact Is”. Ben has set a series of statements Justin Trudeau has made surrounding Canada’s sale of light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. “The fact is, there are jobs in London relying on this,” Trudeau has said. Fair point, but for Ben, the truth seems more fraught with difficulties. Trudeau has also characterized the LAVs as “jeeps”, not war machines, which might be more politically safe in Canada given that many Canadians tend to see themselves as peacekeepers and not warmakers. The piece seems to ask what we are willing to believe, and whether we are complicit in potential human rights violations.
Another Politicoro composer, Chris Friesen, drew inspiration from Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi as he composed a new work called “Freedom From Fear”. Friesen is a composition student at the University of Alberta. Aung San Suu Kyi has become the voice of a democratic movement in Myanmar, and she endured fifteen years of house arrest during her struggle, which continues today in her role as Leader of the National League for Democracy. According to Friesen’s program notes:
“The text for “Freedom from Fear” comes from a book of the same name written by Aung San Suu Kyi during her time under house arrest. The music itself has a lot of weight to it; its journey reflects the journey of Aung San Suu Kyi – one of fear, struggle, despair, but also courage. And courage really is the best part. It’s the moment where the weight is finally lifted, and even for just a second, everyone in the room knows fear is not the end.”
“Freedom From Fear”, the choral piece, uses this text:
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. […] Yet… courage rises again and again.”
Why was it important to commission new music and work with (obviously) living composers?
After all, plenty of concerts rely on existing choral repertoire.
“I think there’s real value in speaking openly and candidly about why people in power say what they say. I don’t know of any choral repertoire out there that’s been specifically written like this, to match this particular theme,” Ben says.
“The other reason is that I thought it would be interesting and attractive for composers to have the chance to examine a really important part of society with no restrictions. It was important for composers in this event to have the freedom to choose what they wanted to do. And then focus on that as a form of awareness – almost political activism in some way.”
Ben sees Politicoro as a concept that can live on in the future, and he wants people to have a great experience along the way.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to examine words or speak about what politicians are saying in any way. So hopefully composers can say what they want to say. But there are dangers in this.”
Music, politics and freedom of speech – what could go wrong?
“Any composer could totally manipulate the audience. As I was writing my piece, I thought, ‘This is how propaganda works.’ I could shape it this way so that people would think a certain way about this word. And to some extent, that’s what we are doing. So in some ways, the composer also has a responsibility to think really carefully about what they’re saying.”
Ben mentions an example from “warehouse of souls”, where I’ve written the set the word “deadly” numerous times in a light-hearted, humorous way. In 2015, U.S. Republican politician Mike Huckabee said:
“If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts and you knew that in the five pound bag of peanuts there were about 10 peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids? The answer is no.”
We see so much violence in modern media that sometimes only parody can catch our attention. “warehouse of souls” uses a mashup of styles, texts, and emotions to convey a sense of chaos and uncertainty.
Given the strange way I’ve set some of the text, I wondered if the pieces Ben had received matched his vision for Politicoro.
Commissioning new music to match a creative concept
“I tried to lay out guidelines for the composers in a way that gave them an awareness of the area that we were working on, but that also gave them a lot of freedom to work within that idea.
“I didn’t want to lead anybody anywhere, but I wanted them to know the end goal, which was to examine the words of politicians in the realm of conflict and why they matter. Overall, this is also about the composers’ response to those words. What they think about the words, and their reflections on them. So I wanted that to be the end goal.”
Ben also set down practical requirements: scoring for SATB voices, a cappella, divisi allowed, duration, and a deadline. “Other than that, I wanted the composers to have a fair amount of freedom.”
Creative freedom comes with risks and rewards.
“You really don’t know what you’re going to get back. But I think that you can either tighten your grip too much and stifle some creativity, or you can give some guidelines and just see where it goes. You need to be open to what you get back, especially because it’s coming from a personal place.”
Composers and conductors might wonder if they’ve said too much or not enough during collaboration, and that’s part of the gig. In my own experience, we just have to try and read each other, listen, and build on one another’s ideas.
Postscript: What if we get it all wrong?
I think words are important, and I’d like to use them to ask better questions instead of having better answers. Hosting a political forum is liable to stir up trouble, emotions, and controversy, but the ideas we don’t talk about are often the ones we wish we were brave enough to.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are conservative or liberal, what you say matters – it should matter,” Ben says.
Politicoro tries to move us beyond yes/no, either/or thinking and into a place where we can hold tension together. As I write this, I recognize the tiny vantage point I have, and that there is so much I cannot know about what words mean to others. I’d like to be able to look at the world from as many angles as possible.
But sometimes words seem meaningless. I’m not about to be bombed, sent to a war zone, or banished from a nation. I am not writing my questions from the perspective of survival, yet. Perhaps the true luxury is to even be able to build that grey space for ourselves individually, and as families, friends, churches, communities, and cultures.
We can barely understand the suffering of other people, and few people will understand our own. But we can build habits to hear one another. And then act with compassion. That’s why this project is important to me. I think listening leads to compassion.
I wrote “warehouse of souls” because composing music is a part of me, and I needed to do something constructive after learning a little bit about the refugee and migrant crisis first-hand in Greece. I didn’t know what else to do but write music. And we need to talk about it.
Go to Edmonton’s Studio 96 to experience Politicoro in person. Bring someone you care about. Let the music and the words speak with power. Learn to listen, speak back, and take action.
PPS – If you have a choir, you can also find protest music for your concerts without commissioning anyone (though that would also be great). Check out the very timely Choirs Against Racism page, where composer Chris Hutchings has listed some free choral scores.