"Truth is a knife..."
So begins a short essay from 1975 by Richard Herbert Howe--an artist, photographer, and creator of New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners--written, I think, when he was a student of the iconic composer Herbert Brün at the University of Illinois.
This essay was given out as part of an introduction to a course in percussion literature and history with Allen Otte at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which some may think an unlikely place to encounter such a profound concept. The statements here about the nature of truth are as relevant today as they were when I first got this faded photocopy in 2006 and, I have to assume, as relevant as when he first started handing it to students in 1979.
We have arrived at a puzzling and troubling post-truth moment in our society. When the truth is inconvenient, it is tossed aside in favor of "alternative facts." In the parlance of an earlier age, these would simply have been called lies.
On the auspicious occasion of Allen's retirement this year, I've been reflecting on his teachings, in particular about the lessons learned in that class, but also on all the things I gleaned from all our interactions. Most of the revelatory learning moments for me--like the time he laughed at my first attempt at composition; not because it was bad, but because he said it made him happy--were deep lessons in being present. Al provided us a window into how to be in the world: how to be open with and contributive to each other, to our communities and society.
November 9, 2016: I was traveling and preparing to give a clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention and reeling from election results and what seemed to be an upending of the direction I thought America was headed. As I boarded for the flight to Indianapolis, Clinton was giving her concession speech. It felt like I had been punched in the gut. I realized that there was no way that I could give a presentation and not say something to at least acknowledge the deep feeling in my heart and the proverbial elephant in the room.
Then, there was Al, who suggested the best way to comment would be to make a creative response. I stayed up almost all night trying to come up with something. I couldn't quite get a new composition out of it, but I did draft the following statement, which I read at the end of my presentation:
"In the context of recent dramatic social events, which have provoked powerful and emotional responses, I am proud to be here celebrating art, education, and our community. Over the last eleven years of teaching, I have seen the transformative power of education. I choose to believe in an enlightened future.
I agree with Christopher White, who wrote to his students: "I teach because I believe communication and expression through art is a crucial tool for understanding ourselves and each other and (hopefully) improving the world around us." [You can read Christopher White's letter to his students at University of Massachusets-Amherst here.]
The composer Frederic Rzewski once said that, "music probably can't change the world, but it is a good idea to act as if it could. At the very least you stand a chance of making some good music. And music is always better than no music."
January, 2017: I'm still responding. Every day there seems to be something new to protest or fight. I have a feeling this will continue for some time. I'm curious to know how other artists are responding. So, I'm going to be doing a series of posts and/or podcasts dedicated to responses from artists who want to talk about their role as an artist in our culture/society (or perhaps the role of art in society in a more general sense) and how their work may or may not change as a result of these troubling and uncertain times. I'm also interested in the intersections of art and activism.