Ensemble Pi on the intersection of music and politics
Ensemble Pi is one of these rare new music chamber groups, which thrives to bring together music and political activism. On Wednesday, December 17, the ensemble presented its Ninth Annual Peace Project at SubCulture, New York City. For this occasion, Idith Meshulam, pianist and Ensemble Pi’s director, Kristin Norderval, composer/vocalist and longtime member of the ensemble, and Jason Eckardt, whose work Rendition is featured in the upcoming concert, answer questions about music and politics.
The connection between music and politics has always existed, but when it is mentioned, people think more of popular songs than classical or contemporary music. Does classical music have a strong political history?
Idith Meshulam: Yes, classical music has a long history of works composed in response to political events. Composing is an expression of a wide range of feelings, and in my perspective, it is a personal response to the time and context one lives in. Throughout the history we have pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Liszt’s Funeral March (In memory of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico), and Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, to name only a few – all examples of the connection existing between music and politics.
What made you start a chamber ensemble mostly devoted to works composed in response to social injustice or acts of violence or greed? Do you believe music can change society?
IM: As an artist I am always searching for the meaning of life and art, trying to define and find truth, and it led me to found a socially conscious new music group. Sadly I do not believe that music can change society, but maybe it can bring awareness, resonate with an emotional impact, and leave a trace in history that there were people and artists who did not comply with the majority at times of atrocities.
Kristin Norderval: I do believe music can change society. First of all just to gather people in the same space to listen together for a short while is a profound act. We are a visually oriented society, and hyper-stimulated, and we have fewer and fewer common gathering places, so to sit together and listen and allow ourselves to feel and think and maybe talk afterwards, is a spiritual act. I always hope audience members will be affected in some way by the music in heart, mind and body.
When did both of you meet?
IM: Kristin and I met over ten years ago at a music festival of American Composers Alliance, where we performed the powerful piece of Elias Tanenbaum, Keep Going, by George, which led us to our first CD. We had a meaningful conversation about the invasion to Iraq at the time, and we started our long fruitful collaboration. In Ensemble Pi, Kristin’s talent is expressed as a singer and as a composer, but she has also contributed to the ethical and philosophical mission and ideas of the ensemble, directing our concerts towards a more explicit activism.
What themes has Ensemble Pi focused on since its inception and how do you select the program?
IM: I look for concert titles that would respond to our mission. Since instrumental music is an abstract medium, it can be curated either through the titles (if the title applies to the concert’s theme), or through our subjective interpretation of the piece. When I program John Harbison’s Abu Ghraib, the theme is clear, but when the title of the work is Sextet, it is more complicated. For example Gubaidulina’s piece Dancer on a Tight Rope was part of our concert about activism, based on our free interpretation of the piece. After we get to know the composers, we can commission them according to the specific themes of the concerts, which have been: Environmentalism, Anti war, Injustices, Oppression, and Feminism, among others. I also like to include other art fields and thinkers, since it is easier to articulate the idea or theme of the concert with words and visual presentation.
For some people, music is a pure art form, upon which no meaning should be imposed. Can music and politics co-exist without music taking a backseat to message?
KN: For me as a singer, the element of text of course automatically adds meaning to vocal music, but even the idea that instrumental music (or vocal music without text) is completely abstract I think is a false construct. There are always associations with particular instruments, timbres, rhythms, melodic motives, etc that give historic and social context that as a composer I try to be aware of and utilize whether or not the pieces have text. Music is my language. It’s how I express my responses to the world around me in all its complexity and all its aspects. To avoid expression around certain topics would itself be a political statement. I am deeply disturbed and morally outraged when the state conducts drone killings, mass surveillance, torture, and killing of unarmed people of color in the name of ‘security’. I feel compelled to express my emotional response to these things in the best way I can as an artist, otherwise I feel I would be tacitly supporting the status quo. If we were living in a stable and just society, I would be happy to write pleasant love songs, but at this time I need to respond to these things that disturb me. Music can of course create different kinds of energy and emotional responses, soothing, mourning, or agitating without needing to highlight a particular concrete message or theme. That for me is still political.
IM: Out of all the composers that we have presented, Rzewski has the strongest and most direct political message, and interestingly enough, he is talking about the difficulty of matching music and politics. He writes: “The politics of the art world tends to be fairly irrelevant to politics in general. Whereas the kind of art that satisfies the political world is often pretty feeble as art. An effective combination of the two is nonetheless theoretically possible, perhaps because it is practically necessary; a condition that may exist only in certain moments of history.”
Jason Eckardt’s piece Rendition is particularly relevant today with the release of the Senate Torture Report. What was the motivation to compose a work on “extraordinary rendition” (a practice that allows foreign nationals to be detained and transported to countries where regulations for interrogation are less stringent than those imposed by the United States, or completely absent)?
Jason Eckardt: I composed “Rendition” to reflect on my feelings about this abhorrent practice, to express those feelings in the deepest way I know, and to provoke the work’s listeners. “Rendition” is not programmatic nor does it reference any specific events. Rather, I wanted to musically project a chilling sense of foreboding that suddenly explodes into brutality, and finally falls into a damaged state of numbness: three states I imagine prisoners experience after researching “enhanced interrogation” techniques that are facilitated by removing detainees from U.S. soil. I want the audience to not just be aware of extraordinary rendition but also to reflect on a government that would condone such barbaric practices of torture. When I composed “Rendition” in 2006, I had hoped that the revelations at the time would force policy changes, though it seems that little has changed. It is my hope that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture will inspire the reforms urgently needed before the United States loses more credibility.
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Isabelle Deconinck is a writer and works as a press agent for the performing arts. Her fiction has been published in Five Points and Epiphany