In 1976, the late composer and Buddhist practitioner Peter Lieberson made the unorthodox choice to move to Boulder, Colorado. He had been attaining the kind of East Coast success that all young composers dream about: major commissions, press attention, a growing public profile. But, he later wrote, “to the despair of my loved ones, I seemed to be throwing all this away … I would become a Buddhist teacher and leave the emotionally conflicting world of music behind.” When Lieberson shared this plan with his meditation teacher, Chogyam Trungpa — one of the foremost Buddhist figures of the 20th century — Trungpa responded: “I think you should do more music.”
When I first read this story, the words practically leaped off the page and slapped me in the face. I, too, am both a musician and a spiritual seeker. I’ve sat several weeks of silent meditation retreat, and am now training to be a yoga teacher. My ill-tended music stand hovers just a few feet away from where I type these words; lately I’ve been unrolling the yoga mat a lot more often than I’ve been rosining my bow. I, too, have had the idea Lieberson had: that in order to make a “real” contribution to this world, I must abandon the insular, difficult, and surely spiritually inferior field of professional music-making.
Even if it’s not the monastery that calls you away, you may have toyed with the idea of quitting. Particularly for those of us who deeply care about the fate of the world, being an artist can feel like a retreat, a cop-out, a failure to “really help.” And now that America is awakening to the depth of its dysfunction, we may feel that pull more strongly than ever. The other night at dinner, an accomplished musician friend of mine said: “I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself: why the hell am I doing this?”
As musicians, we may ask ourselves that question constantly. We’re often forced to defend—whether to others, or to ourselves—the decision to devote our lives to art. Our choice to take up this work places us on the social and economic margins of a culture that “doesn’t get” what we’re doing. In truth, we aren’t so different from monks: we’ve chosen to renounce a certain amount of material security and social participation in order to devote ourselves to an intangible master.
But unlike monks, we rarely frame our musical work in terms of sacrifice or service. We’re more likely to frame it as selfish, escapist, or small. We joke about the obscurity of the music we play and compose: something about bleeps and bloops and navel-gazing millennials and Max MSP. It stings a bit; we half-believe ourselves; and then we keep on making the work because it won’t release us from its grasp.
That’s the thing. Like Lieberson, and perhaps like you, I find myself repeatedly rebuked by an inconvenient truth: participation in music continues to be essential to my humanity. In fact, I have come to feel that abandoning my native environment of musical creation might constitute a cowardly turn away from what is real, and what is true.
My friend, the composer and Zen practitioner Ray Evanoff, recently shared with me an ancient koan:
A monk asked Ungo, “How can I live alone at the top of the mountain?” Ungo answered, “Why do you give up your Zendo in the valley and climb the mountain?”
Imagine here that the Zendo in the valley is our imperfect community of contemporary music. The mountaintop is the fantasy of “more important” work, even “real” work. But since the work of music won’t let us go — since it seems to be our lot in life, our dharma, to do it — how can we be sure that we are serving liberation and light during these days of political darkness?
II: Getting our own house in order
In her book Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley writes: “Nothing is more powerful than a community discovering what it cares about.” In the harrowing weeks after the election of Donald Trump, our society is indeed in the process of discovering what we care about. We are discovering where we draw the line: not only in our political alliances and our economic participation, but also in how we treat one another.
As contemporary music practitioners (and frankly, humans) in the 21st century, we have already been engaging in this process of discovery. We have been working for years—slowly and imperfectly—to acknowledge and untangle the injustices and shortcomings within our own community. I am thinking here of the session at New Music Gathering 2016 about safer spaces in new music (and the awesome accompanying zine); the panel at Darmstadt devoted to the legacy and future of women’s participation; radical writings at VAN magazine on race and the privilege of “choosing” a musical life; grassroots publications like Cacophony Magazine and FOCI Words. Through our writings, discussions, performances and compositions, we are publicly grappling with the fact that we’ve often failed, excluded, and alienated the most vulnerable members of society. These are the very same people, of course, that Trump’s ascent threatens most.
If we ever thought that the work of healing and transformation within our own community was unimportant squabbling, we know better now. In fact, our society’s survival may hinge on our ability to grapple with our collective wounds. If we can remain conscious and sane, we can use our small community as a vital training ground for speaking wisely, listening well, and empowering the vulnerable.
It is also becoming clear that in Trump’s America, it will be important for those of us who possess privilege and security to loudly and clearly defend those who do not. Andrew Norman set a great post-electoral example, by using his Grawemeyer Award to draw attention to the lack of diversity in orchestral commissioning. When an interviewer at NPR suggested that the Grawemeyer might lead to more commissions for Norman, he retorted:
If I get more commissions, great, but maybe I can use this moment to talk about things that are important to me … For instance, this award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission?
Norman turned the light of the Grawemeyer attention away from himself and toward the dark places in our field. This is just one example of a move that could help us get our own house in order.
It won’t be enough, of course, to turn inward and engage each other exclusively. Our current political moment will require unprecedented fierceness and commitment from each of us. But let’s resist the temptation to dismiss ignorance, misogyny, and aggression as problems that are “out there.” They are not. They are within us. The challenges we face in our little musical family often mirror the challenges we face in our society writ large. Rather than despairing that we cannot control what is happening in Capitol Hill, let’s also examine what’s happening in our own backyard. With courage and attention, we can turn our community — our little “Zendo in the valley” — into the kind of place that can serve as a model for a better world.
Ellen McSweeney performs as a violinist and vocalist, composes music collaboratively and alone, and serves as a creative coach to musicians and writers across the country. From the foundation of her own spiritual practice, she writes about the profound challenges that musicians and humans face. She lives in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.