“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
That was all-just a single word. Why?
It was the afternoon of Monday, April 15th, and I had casually logged onto Facebook to see a blizzard of status updates all bearing the same horrific news: there had been a bombing at the Boston marathon. I numbly switched on CNN, filled with shock and disbelief. Boston….how could something like this happen in Boston? Boston was my home for the past four years while I completed my undergraduate work at the New England Conservatory; the explosions took place on Boylston Street, which is within walking distance from my old apartment, and a few streets over from NEC and Symphony Hall. How could it be that this spot, which I associated with lazy afternoon walks and frigid nighttime wanderings, had become so suddenly transformed into the scene of a deadly terror attack, shrouded in plumes of ghastly smoke, rent with the stench of death? It’s one thing when you hear about these events happening in a place with which you have no connection, but it’s another when it happens somewhere you know intimately-somewhere that, had the horror taken place but a year previously, you might have been standing yourself.
It is events like these that cause us put our lives in perspective, prompted by the realization that the trivialities which we so often allow to consume our lives pale in comparison to the greater struggles which might befall us. It’s as if we suddenly find ourselves speeding backwards, our problems growing smaller and smaller as we recognize how lucky we really are. Sure, we might not be able to play some octaves in tune right now, but we still have our health and our happiness. We still have our lives. Yet, we inevitably forget about our blessings, and without even realizing it, return our attention to our daily concerns, allowing ourselves to become preoccupied once more with worries of the mundane. For us musicians, however, we cannot afford to lose such a perspective, because it is our responsibility, it is our prerogative, to see the world as it really is-broken, helpless, and infinitely beautiful, asking us, the embodiers of humanity, to bring hope where there is naught but despair, to shine light in an impenetrable darkness. What, then, shall be our reply?
Over the past few months, there has been a heated discourse concerning the issue of violence in American culture. While we may disagree on the best course of action to put an end to such violence, surely we all recognize that it is a problem that needs to be solved. As musicians, we may not be directly involved in stopping violence, but in a sense our role is just as important as that of our congressmen and women and the policemen who serve on our streets, because we constitute the epitome of non-violence. Our profession is all about communication, interacting with our fellow musicians and the audience on a level beyond words. Through our performing, we touch the lives of our listeners, and through our teaching, we touch the lives of our students. The founder of Venezuela’s famous El Sistema program, Jose Antonio Abreu, once famously stated that “if you put a violin in a child’s hands, that child will never pick up a gun.” I believe he is right.
Now, realistically speaking, music is not a practical solution to violence; no law will be passed requiring everyone to take violin lessons, nor should there be. What is true, however, is that we have the potential to influence people in a positive way, and ultimately foster a non-violent culture. Yet, we become so consumed with the trivialities within our profession that we often fail to heed our calling. We become so obsessed with having success, cultivating a formidable resume, and landing a top-tier job that we allow ourselves to forget about why we’re pursuing music in the first place. We must look beyond these constraining trappings of our profession-for how can we reply if we cannot hear the plea?
The most moving performance I ever attended in Boston took place a little over three years ago, on April 4th, 2010. It was a memorial concert dedicated to a member of the violin faculty who had recently passed away, and the program included performances given by many of her former colleagues as well as reflections shared by students and faculty whose lives she had touched. At the end of the concert, the lights were dimmed in the hall and a recording was played of this violinist performing the final movement of Messiaen’s famous “Quartet for the End of Time”-a painfully slow, otherworldly melody that ultimately fades into an eternity of silence. Sitting there in the upper balcony of the hall, surrounded by a dazzling blackness, I realized for the first time that this was what music was really about- bringing people together with emotions inexpressible in any other medium, even after its performer has passed from this earth. This was, unquestionably, the antithesis to violence.
I left NEC in a wonderful daze that warm, New England spring evening, the ethereal sounds I’d just experienced still echoing in the back of my mind. As I crossed the street to the dorms, I caught a glimpse of the glimmering lights that emanated from the buildings of Boylston Street. It was a picture of tranquility, silent and peaceful in the stillness of the hour.