May 8, 2007
There can be no denying that music plays a powerful role in inspiring political activism. But the marriage between social consciousness and music is more commonly associated these days with the protest songs of high-profile pop and folk artists like Joan Baez and the Dixie Chicks than the symphonies and improvisations of their counterparts from the classical and jazz worlds. In attempting to connect a performance of contemporary, Renaissance, and medieval vocal music with the suffering caused by the ongoing armed conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, AVE's latest concert series raised questions about whether classical music can be a catalyst for change.
AVE, or Artists' Vocal Ensemble, titled its program "Life and Death: A Requiem for the Victims of Darfur." The vocal ensemble explicitly demonstrated its interest in raising awareness about the situation in Sudan by including short midconcert talks by guest speakers Mario Bol and Mamer, Sudanese refugees who came to the U.S. through the "Lost Boys of Sudan" rescue movement. It also had invited representatives from several interest groups to provide information about the conflict to concertgoers before and after the performance.
"If this music moves you towards action, the world will be a better place for you," writes AVE Director Jonathan Dimmock in the program notes. Yet despite the political activist leanings of the event, Dimmock is no Bono, and "Life and Death" was a far cry from "Live Aid."
This is no bad thing. While AVE's profoundly moving program, which combined music, dance, and poetry, won't necessarily provoke audience members into marching on the U.N. building or becoming aid workers in Darfur, it fulfilled an equally significant purpose — mobilizing us to think deeply and broadly about suffering and conflict and their implications for our planet. As Dimmock states, "If this music moves you towards a form of meditation or communion, we have achieved our goal."
Turning Thoughts of Suffering Inward
AVE certainly achieved its goal, for its program was an act of spiritual unity in musical form. As intense and emotionally engulfing as it was simple and sparse, the ensemble's performance on Friday at San Francisco's St. Ignatius Church put listeners into a contemplative state from the start. With its hushed dynamics, the 16-voice chorale magnified the already potent effect of the heart-stopping dissonances in the 20th-century French composer Pierre Villette's Attende Domine, the opening work.
Chants by Hildegard von Bingen, a German mystic from the 12th century, were led by the women of the group, standing in circle or semicircle formation and creating a womblike intimacy. The homophonic line of the austerely sublime music demanded an invisible thread of pure sound from the performers. While their vocal blend didn't always achieve this rapturous state, still my mind couldn't help but turn inward.
Sections from the Missa Pro Defunctis (a 8) by the Portuguese Renaissance composer Duarte Lôbo, which were interspersed throughout the concert, transformed pain and suffering into caresses and lullabies. The ensemble brought a contrasting quality to every movement of this Requiem. The penetrating suspensions and long, undulating phrases of the Introit and Kyrie sections gave way to bell-like tones in the Graduale, which achieved maximum intensity in a chillingly beautiful section for male trio.
This mood changed again in the Offertory, in which soaring scales in the top voices drew the listener's attention skyward, and once more in the full, lush Sanctus and a sweetly plaintive motet, also by Lôbo, titled Versa Est in Luctum, whose stereophonic sound was created by mixing up the vocal parts in the ensemble's placement onstage. The final section, Agnus Dei, washed over the audience with waves of sound.
Echoes of History
More than inspiring us to think about the conflict in Darfur, this "Life and Death" program made me reflect on suffering through the ages. It wasn't just the sonorous, Maya Angelou-like gravitas that Stephen McDermott Myers brought to his readings of poems by the Italian-Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi that broadened the scope of contemplation beyond Sudan. The program's very shape also drew attention to parallels between suffering in our own time and that in the past. It boomeranged through history, from Villette through Lôbo and the English Tudor composer John Sheppard, before returning, in a final cri de coeur, to the 20th century.
Our own time was represented by AVE's heartfelt performance of Herbert Howells' Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, a meditation written to honor President Kennedy at his 1963 memorial service.
"Classical music and jazz seem to have a more long-term, measured, even sublimated approach to political protest," composer and musicologist Kyle Gann observed in a 2003 article for New Music Box, "[being] slower to react and more deeply embedded in the structure of the music itself." When it comes to galvanizing people into action in response to a particular world event, classical music may not deliver an explicit political message or possess the wide appeal of other more-visible genres like pop music. But as AVE's "Life and Death" program proved, classical music has the power to help us understand the anatomy of suffering, and even to suggest a cure.