Written By Rafael Alvarez
Opening dialogue, provoking outrage, giving a voice, projecting hope … music, it seems, has an unmatched ability to reflect the human condition.
Does art soothe, provoke, give context, outrage, or heal?
It seems to depend on what kind of trouble has come to call. And as the Baltimore-born composer Frank Zappa observed: “There’s no way to delay that trouble coming every day …”
In 1989, when doomed pro-democracy activists in China were staring down Communist tanks in Tiananmen Square, supporters blasted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over makeshift loudspeakers powered by car batteries to drown out government broadcasts.
During the bloody Soviet regime of Josef Stalin, particularly through the purges of the 1930s and the civilians either killed or sent to Siberia by state police during World War II, Dmitri Shostakovich secreted protests in his symphonies barely under the radar of the Communist censors. From concert to concert, the composer could never be sure if he would be the next artist arrested for defiling the ideals of the state.
“I had to write about it — I felt that it was my responsibility, my duty,” he said of his Seventh Symphony, in which many of his protests abound. “I had to write a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered.”
And about a year ago, Frances Pollock, then a Peabody graduate student in voice, walked from her apartment near Lexington Market to the Conservatory in Mount Vernon just about every day. It was a short mile away and a world apart.
“Every day I went from the oldest [public] market in the country to the oldest conservatory in the country, and all I kept hearing was that Lexington Market was dangerous,” says Pollock, 25, a soprano, pianist, and cellist from North Carolina who studied at Peabody with the soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson. “It didn’t take long to realize that the two places didn’t mix, so I wrote an opera I hoped would bring people together.”
Pollock’s opera, Stinney, concerns the youngest person executed in the United States, a 14-year-old black boy sent to the electric chair in 1944 for allegedly murdering two white girls near his mill town home in Alcolu, South Carolina. Last year, a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction of George Stinney Jr.
A few examples of the obvious — that music and all the brethren arts — arise as a response to something.
[It was not for nothing that George Harrison’s guitar gently wept.]
Most recently, the something in the spotlight here — in Baltimore, at Peabody, along the streets stretching from Lexington Market to the Washington Monument — is the violence, protests, finger-pointing, and communal doubt that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old West Baltimore man who died in police custody this past spring. For a brief time, perhaps a half-hour or less, the rioting of April 29 — the day of Gray’s funeral — passed by Peabody as it moved through Mount Vernon. Six Baltimore police officers were indicted by a grand jury in connection with Gray’s death, and the trials will begin in November.
What is a song in the wake of all that?
“I’m not saying that music can’t heal, but to limit it to that is to miss its role in provoking righteous anger, outrage, and change,” says Hollis Robbins, chair of the Humanities Department at Peabody and a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century African-American literature who says she “teaches U.S. history and civil rights to musicians.”
Last month, the film Following the Ninth played Miriam A. Friedberg Hall at Peabody. A documentary about Beethoven’s final symphony in 1824, the film focuses on the power of “the Ninth” across time.
From Tiananmen Square to the voices of 10,000 Japanese braving the devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami to Chileans singing “Ode to Joy,” the Ninth’s exalted choral movement, while protesting the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, “the film asks questions about what art is for, and I tried to ask them from Beethoven’s point of view,” says director Kerry Candaele. “His answer seems to be connected to amour fait — love of one’s fate.”
When Beethoven learned in 1802 that his deafness was profound and inevitably permanent, he very publicly considered suicide. Instead, he trudged into a silent world, in time producing “the Ninth,” widely held to be his masterwork.
“Art is what sustains us when nothing else can, and for me, that art is music,” says Candaele from his home in Venice, California. “Like the best music of any genre, the Ninth has the capacity to put things right. Even if that only lasts for a day, for a moment that’s a great accomplishment.”
Following the Ninth, says Andrea Trisciuzzi, Peabody’s associate dean for external relations, “[helped] expose our students to a broader context for music beyond the concert hall and practice room. To remind them that music is not an isolated museum piece.”
And to emphasize a very old idea much in need today.
“We want our students to return to the idea that musicians are essential to society,” says Trisciuzzi.
Tia Price, a 25-year-old who earned a master’s degree in voice from Peabody in 2014, says she grew up “a poor kid in West Virginia with a mother in prison.”
Her father is white, her mother African-American, and there was all manner of alcoholic and addiction dysfunction at home and altogether, she says, it made her feel like “the other” — a person outside of the mainstream, a marginalized voice either ignored or silenced. All of this helped Price prepare to play George Stinney’s mother, Alma, in the Pollock opera. At the same time, her elite musical education has catapulted her beyond those childhood hardships. And that comes with responsibility.
“The pain I ignore from my own past is the pain that people who haven’t had the privileges I’ve had face every day,” says Price, who now lives near the Johns Hopkins Hospital. “It has made me very interested in how ‘the other’ uses music to make its presence known.”
In spring 2014, Price’s musings along these lines took the form of a musical composition and performance. This Is My Voice, a song cycle she created with Peabody composition doctoral student Natalie Draper, was built upon the writings of scholarship students from Peabody’s Tuned-In program, who live in some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities. The students shared their hopes, concerns, and struggles in four areas — Baltimore, Love, Expectations, and Music — and Price and Draper wove their words into a powerful, 20-minute composition that debuted at Peabody and was then performed at venues across the city. Listeners, such as Peabody Preparatory Dean Gavin Farrell, have praised This Is My Voice for providing “a message of empowerment.”
“You might not be able to express those feelings in just speaking with someone, but you can use [the arts] to express them, and that’s what I wanted to give to the kids,” says Price. “That’s what music has been to me.”
Back in 1968, an extraordinarily tragic year for the United States, Vivian Adelberg Rudow was a young mother with a bachelor’s degree from Peabody in piano, a woman who wrote children’s songs, all the while dreaming of becoming a composer.
A few days after the April assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the five-months-pregnant Adelberg Rudow was being fitted for a maternity dress at a store on Howard Street near Park Avenue, downtown’s old shopping district. The dress, Adelberg Rudow recalled, was “green, with pretty flowers,” and on her drive home to the suburbs, mayhem erupted in response to King’s murder.
“Driving up Park Heights Avenue, I saw armored vehicles coming toward me and row after row of soldiers,” says Adelberg Rudow, now 79. “It was horrifying — the city was greatly damaged.”
She’ll never forgot the experience and, as her career gained momentum — earning a master’s from Peabody in composition, winning awards, creating aural “paintings” with sound, spoken word, and echoes of pop music — she applied her skills to what ails this country.
In 1999, she composed Urbo Turbo — for “urban turbulence,” later recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra — which evolved from the agitation that “most people in the country seemed to be enjoying themselves, having a nice time while revolution was brewing.” The piece — renamed Spirit of America, when some musical directors chafed at the abrasiveness of the original title — “paints pictures of lonely lives and a public education system that isn’t good enough,” Adelberg Rudow says.
At the same time, she threaded hope through the piece, a “confidence in our country that things could be turned around.”
“We’re artists; we do what we can,” muses Adelberg Rudow. “Maybe one day we’ll find a way to work together and survive as one country.”
About two weeks after the Freddie Gray uprising, Pollock’s Stinney was staged at 2640, an event space jointly run by Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse and St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore. The timing of the performances, says Peabody Institute Dean Fred Bronstein, “viscerally placed the tragedy of Stinney in a contemporary context in the most immediate way imaginable. It was startling.”
Pollock didn’t have to change a thing about the story — of an adolescent black male executed under highly questionable circumstances — for it to be relevant in the 21st century.
“I was thinking of George [Stinney] after Freddie Gray died,” she says. “Here we are 70 years later and African-American men are still being killed in the name of justice. How on earth is this still happening?”
David Smooke, Pollock’s faculty advisor on the project and a co-producer of Stinney, noted that Gray died while the opera was in rehearsals. “The uprising was a constant source of thought on the production,” says Smooke, adding that two Peabody panel discussions about the opera — and the broader role of art in communities — took place as peaceful protests against police brutality marched down St. Paul Street toward City Hall.
“I think artists are often afraid of dealing too specifically with contemporary events because it can lead to propaganda,” says Smooke. “But by eliciting the parallels between events from 70 years ago and today’s world, Frances allowed for a thoughtful dialogue.”
Opening dialogue, bringing people together, remembering the fallen, provoking outrage, attempting to put things right, giving a voice, projecting hope; in times of change, the roles of music and art seem to defy categorization.
When we look at these episodes across history, though, one thing seems clear. “Music has an almost singular ability to reflect the human condition, from its worst moments to its most inspired peaks,” says Bronstein.