Can New Music Actually Do Social Activism

We need to do better. I know this is going to be hard to hear, and it should be hard to hear. New Music is so very white. We need to make New Music more inclusive—more revolutionary—if we want to claim that our art does political work. We need to more deeply consider our audiences and performance spaces. If we want to be political, we must be more accessible.

On July 21st, I attended the opening celebration for Now Hear This! An Exercise in Listening, a tribute to the life and work of Pauline Oliveros at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California. In this event, which was specifically programmed to use the act of listening as a form of public engagement, I do not see that we made any progress. How can we claim public engagement when we have VIP and member lists? How can we begin to talk about politics that are now “more pressing than ever” without the presence of marginalized voices? Tell me: what would it signify for a white body to amplify their own voice through a Hands Up Don’t Shoot Horn—through a symbol of police brutality on black and brown bodies? Did we as an audience stop to think about the history of racial terror in the United States? Our relationships with Black Lives Matter activism? Have we put our bodies in those spaces before?

At the core of Pauline Oliveros’ work is the concept of Listening and how that is inherently and fundamentally different than hearing. Listening differentiates itself from hearing in that “[t]he practice includes bodywork, sonic meditations, interactive performance, listening to the sounds of daily life, nature, one’s own thoughts, imagination and dreams, and listening to listening itself. It cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal, and promotes experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, playfulness and other creative skills vital to personal and community growth.”

In her career in Experimental Music, Oliveros was an outsider. Women have historically been expected to be listeners, and men are the ones who produce sound. It was groundbreaking for Oliveros to shatter that binary—to ask us all to do both—and to completely radicalize what it meant to produce experimental music in a specific community. In doing this, she brought the outside in. She opened the proverbial doors for not only women, but also “non-musicians” to be welcomed in these white male-dominated spaces.

So I ask: Did we make New Music a more welcoming, egalitarian space through this event? Did we reach out to our Bay Area community? Did we reach across boundaries? Or did we build our walls even higher? Would Pauline be proud?

One of the many pieces performed at this event was entitled In the Ripples of Her Wake (Dedicated to Pauline Oliveros), by Elana Mann in collaboration with Allison Adah Johnson. It began with some simple directions:

  1. Select a sculptural instrument (hands-up-don’t-shoot horn, histophone, me-and-you kazoo).
  2. Listen to the sounds around you.
  3. Using the sculptural instrument perform a score by Pauline Oliveros listed on the opposite page.
  4. Perform one or all of the scores.
  5. Performances can vary in duration, from short to long.
  6. Anything goes, as long as you are listening.

This type of performance holds an incredible amount of potential, and I praise the work and the artists for their efforts to break down the barriers that prevent many people in our society from making their voices audible and their bodies present in a public space. For some reason, most of us grow up thinking that public speaking and performing should be left to the experts—that our voices are not worthy. And in this year in particular, we have witnessed how possible, yet also how challenging it is to even get privileged bodies into public spaces. This work attempts both.

Unfortunately, most of the audience spent their time trying to figure out how to amplify their voice through the instruments, and consequently did very little of instruction #2: Listen to the sounds around you. And if they did, they were probably responding to the grind of the engines from the nearby taco trucks.

The instruments themselves posed a curious sight, but I was unaware of their cultural significance going into the performance. When one of the attendants informed me that these were called Hands-Up-Don’t-Shoot Horns, it felt like a slap to the face. Suddenly, this circle of arms resembled a barrage of amputated, mutilated appendages. It would seem that hands-up-don’t-shoot arms must be black arms, and yet they were painted in white and purple. Inherently, a hands-up-don’t-shoot arm cannot be white. This felt similar to when white people wore ‘I can’t breathe’ t-shirts at protests following the death of Eric Garner. That action missed the point: we as white people can breathe. Police aren’t strangling white people for selling cigarettes. Just as it is understood that if a white person has their hands up, police most likely will not shoot. But they did shoot and kill Michael Brown—with his hands in the air. And walked free. These arms hung like ghosts around us, but did we notice? Did we hear them? Or did we drown them out with our own voices?

On this evening in Saratoga, it was largely a white audience who was engaging with these instruments, myself included. It was white people who were taking these hands-up-don’t-shoot horns that were originally made as histophones (devices to aid in hearing) and using them to experiment with producing their own voices in this sonic space. In this, they largely lost their purpose of listening and responding to the sonic space that surrounded the group. It was white people who seemed to be playing around with such a heavy topic and loaded signifiers. They could easily set down the instruments without having to contend at all with the cultural significance of the object. They were not forced to live the reality of fearing for their lives at a routine traffic stop. They were not forced to live the reality of fearing that every time their child leaves the house in a hoodie, he might never return home. It was a game—an experiment—a costume to be left behind.

I’ve seen other works by Elana Mann – they are often strong, politically and communally engaged works that ask the viewer to really contend with the narratives she is presenting. She has done extensive work with various forms of socially engaged art. She has facilitated the education of non-artist, non-academic, and non-musician groups. This speaks directly to the amateur/professional divide that Oliveros worked so hard to blur. Mann has facilitated public conversations throughout Los Angeles in projects such as Myths of Rape (2012-ongoing), Chats About Change: Conversations About Art and Politics in Los Angeles (2015), and Grand Rounds (2013).

image courtesy
In 2016, Mann introduced the Talk Through the Hand mural featuring artist Derrick Maddox. This work, using the same concept as the public interactive performance at Montalvo, speaks so much louder to me. This is in fact a white arm attempting to silence a black body. And yet due to the construction of Mann’s horns, the speaker can actually speak through the horn, through the hand that would have him silenced. This reminds me so succinctly of Audre Lorde’s famous quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Often, this phrase gets used to reinforce the idea that we must function totally outside of “the system” in order to create a world where we can all make livable lives. It might be easy to think of the instruments of classical music as being a master’s tool, and therefore simply incapable of dismantling the incestuous system of Art Music.

I do believe this quote is misunderstood out of context, however. I do believe that these horns can function as a tool to dismantle the high art world from which they came. Just before this famous line, Lorde wrote: “[S]urvival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.” It is about conceptualizing the tools we have in new, revolutionary ways in order to strengthen our communities. The entire history of protest music in the United States relies on either instruments or vocal amplification in order to reach a crowd and envelop them in a shared sonic space. Instruments can help us use sound to occupy sonic space, thereby confounding the voice of the oppressor. Whomever is heard holds the floor, so to speak. And this tool of the hands-up-don’t-shoot horn can do this for us—as long as the voices that are being amplified know and contend with the context and the struggle in which they are participating—as long as the voices that are being amplified do not drown out or stand in for the voices of the oppressed.

While Mann’s horns were making people more comfortable producing their own voices and being present in public space, I think the performance largely fell short of its goals. I know there have been pressing conversations in many New Music scenes in the wake of last year’s presidential election. What can we do as musicians to help? Don’t we feel that New Music in particular holds the ability to break down hegemonic structures—if John Cage and Pauline Oliveros implemented so much change, why can’t we?

So what can we do? Are we doomed to a world of only abstract revolution in contemporary music spaces? These are questions most of us so desperately want to answer in a world full of Brexit and Trump and the Syrian Civil War and bombs in Manchester. If we in the arts want to claim to be political, privileged white voices cannot be the only voices we hear.

[1] Mission statement of Oliveros’s Deep Listening Institute.
[2] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister outsider: essays and speeches. 1984.

Kira Dralle, PhD Student, Cross-Cultural Musicology, UC Santa Cruz, received an MA in History and Theory of Contemporary Art and an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, producing performative, interactive sound works. Her master’s thesis explored the solo percussion work of Vinko Globokar, dealing with reception politics, gendered notation and language used in visual scoring, and the political repercussions of interpretation. Her current work focuses on issues within collaborative and interdisciplinary performance theory, as well as affect, feminist, and queer theory. Dralle is currently a co-founder and writer for the Subversive Intellectuals Collective.

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