The Meanings of Music, Part One: Metabolizing Trauma

In part one of three, we turn to Fear No Music's "Hearings" concert to examine the intersection of music and meaning

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

Today, we start with FNM’s “Hearings.”

It was a cold night in September, and the audience was locked inside The Old Church. A uniformed security guard stood watch outside, surveying the frosty intersection of Southwest Eleventh and Clay. We were there for “Hearings,” the first concert of local new music organization Fear No Music’s 2019-20 season, Justice (Just Us). The concert, featuring newly-commissioned music for strings, winds, percussion, and singers, was the final result of a call for scores FNM put out earlier this year, asking composers to create “music which draws on the watershed moment of the 2018 Kavanaugh Senate Confirmation Hearings as inspiration.”

In the run-up to the show, online previews generated hostility and threats–hence the security. Apparently, this evening of contemporary classical music created in response to the tangled mess of the Kavanaugh hearings–still fresh after less than a year–was pissing someone off. It’s pretty unusual for this little niche region of the classical world to generate any attention at all; a small but devoted contingent of us new music nuts attend these religiously, and none of us had ever seen security. “What fresh hell is this?” we asked each other, and locked ourselves in.

Inside, FNM Artistic Director Kenji Bunch welcomed the tense audience to The Old Church and said, “for the last 27 years, we’ve been challenging you to fear no music–it’s a challenge we direct inwards to ourselves as well.” He described the current season (his sixth as AD) as a facet of “work towards equity,” saying that “there are voices, not necessarily the loudest in the room, that deserve to be heard.” He reminded us that the past is “not all nostalgic,” and closed his welcome with a quote from the Aeneid, which recounts the end of the Trojan War: “someday it will be helpful to have recalled even these events.”

Composer and Fear No Music Artistic Director Kenji Bunch.

Bunch turned the mic over to one of the several extramusical collaborators FNM is partnering with this season: therapist and retired Oregon Symphony violinist Anna Schaum. Schaum, who works in post-traumatic counseling, talked about the dangers of “inequities and unresolved trauma” and discussed the connections between empathy and neuroscience, describing recent research into resonant circuits and saying that “our bodies function like instruments.”

Schaum also provided the beginnings of an answer to a question I’ve been grappling with all year, about the value of social justice concerts like this one. “Part of our job as a community,” Schaum told the Old Church audience, “is to metabolize trauma.”

The first question: whom does the music serve?

Leonard Bernstein once said:

Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them, and that’s all there is to it.

That seems like an odd perspective for a composer whose three symphonies all bear programmatic meanings and whose main claim to fame is a hit Broadway musical based on Romeo and Juliet. But he has a point–whatever other purposes we may find for music, it remains an ineffable thing-in-itself, resistant to reduction, eager to serve but unwilling to be consumed by the other art forms it collaborates with. Film and dance (music’s most frequent collaborators) occasionally let their pet composers out to play on their own, but still exert a powerful influence over the music they help create. When’s the last time you listened to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Nutcracker music without watching either the ballet or Fantasia?

It’s been a live issue in classical music for as long as there’s been classical music, and that’s largely because patrons of all kinds usually want more than just music. Religious music, opera, and other theatrical musicks all get a boost from the layers of meaning they dress the music in; even when religion was still a big deal, the rare non-religious sponsors who paid composers to write something for the pure love of music still had expectations. The baryton trios Haydn wrote for Nikolaus Esterházy are a good example of the latter; everything else from Bach to Wagner can stand for the rest.

In one sense, this has all changed. Audiences–and institutions driven by audiences, donors, grant committees, etc.–play a larger role in patronage than ever before, and that is the best possible thing that could have happened to keep classical music alive. But we still crave meaning in our music, and although we often want the timeless tales we get from opera and mythological stuff like Beethoven’s Ninth, we also want meaning which is relevant to our lives today, in this world.

Which brings us to the current flurry of concerts addressing current issues like social justice and climate change. Rising sea levels and the cries of the wronged have flooded our society and become inescapable realities for all of us; music, being made by musical humans, necessarily reflects these realities. We don’t have the luxury of not addressing these things, precisely because they are so ubiquitous and so urgent. It seems our only alternative is listening to Nero playing Bach partitas while the world burns.

But this still leaves a number of questions about how music should be used; to put it differently, if music is going to lend its voice to troubling extramusical concerns, what does it get in exchange? Sure, the music is relevant, but does it sound good?

We’ve discussed that before, but it’s not the only question we have to ask, or even the most important one. The main question is whether using music to address these issues is appropriate and effective. What good do these shows do, in terms of actually stimulating change? Is it all just “consciousness-raising”–always a vague goal, bordering on navel-gazing–or is there a deeper, more productive purpose?

The problem becomes especially acute when the themes are alarming and traumatic and controversial, as in the “Hearings” concert. Does it serve a healing and aesthetic purpose to visibilize and revisit angst and trauma? Does such venting serve as an effective call to action, or merely the dissipation of anger that might be used more productively? Are we screaming ourselves to complacency?

So, returning to Schaum’s words, did this concert help “metabolize trauma?” Honestly there’s no way to know, not absolutely; only time can tell whether concerts like these will have any lasting transformative impact. On the one hand, I know several women who flatly refused to attend this show (or any of the others we’re talking about this weekend, for that matter); they saw no need to revisit the horrors of the hearings and the aggressive counteroffensive to the #metoo revelations that Kavanaugh’s appointment represented. Our time might be better spent in Schaum’s office, or on the streets, or in elevators accosting senators, or running for office ourselves.

On the other hand, though, there’s value in hearing the voices Bunch described as “not necessarily the loudest in the room.” The composers and performers involved in the post-concert Q&A expressed a sense of therapeutic relief at being able to express their grief, rage, and fear artistically. That’s the primary way artists process the big stuff, after all–through expression. So if we the audience were there at The Old Church mainly, or even solely, for the purpose of bearing witness to their trauma and supporting artists who have spent their careers dedicating themselves to distilling reality and sharing it back with us in the form of music–that alone makes the concert worthwhile. And if it gets us to spend some time in Schaum’s office–or on the streets, or in elevators, or running for office–so much the better.

The second question: music itself

So what did these musicians have to say? What was the music actually like, and what did it express? Well, it expressed grief, rage, fear, sorrow–but the primary feeling was of music straining to convey these things. It wouldn’t quite be right to say they didn’t succeed, because I’m not speaking of artistic failure; the eight compositions were all well-written and well-performed, and I even discovered a new favorite local composer (Linfield College composition professor Andrea Reinkemeyer, whose Opening Up opened up the concert).

No, what I mean is that the music all had a sense of hopeless, helpless anguish, a complex shriek of pain and terror that seemed to say, above all, “and that doesn’t even begin to cover it.” A lot of the music had that “horror movie” sound we so easily associate with modern classical music: thickets of Bartóky post-tonal conterpoint in Opening Up, tinkly atonal chords in Stacy Fahrion’s The Summer of 1982: A Rape Culture Tango, creepy Mazzolian harmony in Daniel Felsenfeld’s Indelible in the Hippocampus is the Laughter, buzzy fluttertongue flute and sul ponticello bowing in Megan DiGeorgio’s I’m Terrified, close chromatic vocal harmonies on Ruby Fulton’s flowing more freely, brutally aggressive cello with overdriven electronics on Jack Gabel’s Summer of ‘82, Exhibit XXX, thundering bass drum and bowed crotales on Carolyn Quick’s Stop the Clock, agitated vibraphone on Matthew Packwood’s confrontation.

The vocal scoring and performances fit right in with the horror movie mood, Sarah Maines and Vakarė Petroliūnaitė veering adroitly from dramatic spoken words to grand operatic bel canto to outright sprechstimme. Many of the composers chose the same words from the hearings, which gave the show that familiar sense of tedious anxiety we all got from watching the drama shatter our feeds and break our hearts last year.

A few moments of text-setting were particularly effective. In Opening Up, Maines gave a dramatic reading of key lines from Dr. Ford’s testimony, reciting lines like “I thought he was going to rape me” over Reinkemeyer’s spooky, cinematic string quartet music. In Stop the Clock, poetry and further lines from Dr. Ford’s testimony (“I am terrified,” “I believe you,” “you are not alone”) were sung to perfection by Petroliunaite and echoed in whispers throughout the ensemble. On confrontation, Maines and Petroliūnaitė sang the words of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, a pair of sexual assault survivors who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator ahead of his vote at the hearing. This for me was one of the highlights of the entire controversy, and of the concert  itself: while others sat and watched helpless, these two went out and did something about it.

There were several moments of theatricality throughout the concert. In Fahrion’s Rape Culture Tango, baritone Erik Hundtoft made a terrifically loathsome comedic villain as Kavanaugh, with his boastful demeanor and pathetic attempts to get the audience to sing along with him in praise of beer. But this isn’t some far-removed opera about the evil count of wherever–this is a real, living, evil bastard, and wicked thugs have installed him in one of the most powerful positions in the world. But who knows, maybe this will be hilarious in a hundred years, after we’re all dead.

For Gabel’s take on Summer of ‘82, a big angry caterwaul mashing up twisted Vivaldi quotes and unrecognizable pop hits from 1982, cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick and percussionist Michael Roberts got dressed up in preppy costumes to riff on Kavanaugh’s days at Georgetown Prep: Fitzpatrick in white snap-brim cap over shitty tie and blazer, Roberts in a cheesy “Go Fight Win” Georgetown sweater. Gabel’s music seemed to reflect the way many men felt when #metoo happened: choked with rage, inarticulate in the face of the horrifying revelation that every woman we know has suffered such trauma, outraged and dumbfounded by the complicity and outright abuse which powerful men delight in directing toward women.

Fulton’s flowing more freely made a memorable ending. String quartet and both singers layered dramatic glissandi and shifting chords over electronic accompaniment, cascading harp-like figures circling audio samples of Kavanaugh’s testimony. Fulton sliced and remixed the audio samples, gradually reducing it all to the one word that really mattered: “MINE.” And in the end, the singers came together on dense harmonies and an almost medieval melody, with the line we all remember best from this debacle: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Creative tension

At the Q&A, Schaum returned to discuss what she called “post-traumatic growth,” saying that “emotional energy is creative tension.” Although this wasn’t the most musically exciting FNM concert I’ve been to, the creative tension in its conception and performance resulted in a powerful experience–one that suggests music truly can serve a social purpose and bring meaning to our lives.

We’ll return soon to discuss Resonance Ensemble and Third Angle in parts two and three. I leave you now with the words of Senator Cory Booker, whose grateful comments to Dr. Ford during her testimony gave Reinkemeyer’s piece its title:

I stepped out during the break and there are literally hundreds of thousands of people watching your testimony right now, and note after note that I got, people in tears, feeling pain and anguish. Not just feeling your pain but feeling their own, who have not come forward.

You are opening up to open air hurt and pain that goes on across this country. And for that, the word I would use, it’s nothing short of heroic. Because what you’re doing for our nation right now, besides giving testimony germane to our office, is you are speaking truth that this country needs to understand.

How we deal with survivors who come forward right now is unacceptable. And the way we deal with this, unfortunately, allows for the continued darkness of this culture to exist. And your brilliance, shining light on this, is nothing short of heroic.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.