Sunday, June 7, 2009

Turning Music Into Silence: Why I Hated High School Choir

Art is a dangerous thing to everyone. Art can tear societies down, and raise them high. Art has power, ability, and can express whatever the artist wants. As Mao Tse-Tung wrote, there is no such thing a “non-political art” or “art for art's sake”, all art has a class nature.

Art is also something that the human being needs. Human societies require art, almost as fish require water. A world without any form of art is simply impossible, if not merely extremely undesirable.

The capitalist class cannot destroy art, and they do not desire. However, they can, and very much do, control it.

Among art, the most expressive, emotionally potent, and powerful mediums has within its ranks, music. I have never met anyone who did not find an emotional connection with music. Whether it's Beethoven or Snoop Dogg, there is music for everyone.

Music, like every art form, is expressive, powerful, and beautiful.

However, the feelings and sentiments being expressed are not set by the performers, but rather by the composers.

When I was in High School, classes where one could paint a picture of one’s choice, or sculpt a sculpture of one’s choosing were rare. It was not the “respectable” class to be taking. It was not recommended for those who wanted to get into college. The so-called “respectable” students, from the town’s elite, were members of the marching and symphonic bands, and the chorus.

I played the trombone in the high school marching band. To this day, I have always enjoyed marching music. Despite the fact that I often walked down the football field, or through the town square blasting away patriotic anthems hailing bloody U.S. Imperialism, there was always some small emotional connection. Patriotic tunes such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had elements of anti-slavery rhetoric in their original intention. The American Revolution was a revolution against feudalism.

However, it was High School choir, this “art” class which I took, where I felt that everyday my creativity was not encouraged to blossom, but rather smothered like a flame during a puritan ceremony of excommunication.

In Choir, we sang religious songs, many of them from the middle ages. Being an atheist at that time, this disgusted me a little bit.

The choir director would beckon us to: “Think about God, and his love for us!!!” In order to feel the emotions within the piece and “express.” I didn’t think about God and his love, because I did not believe. I was not expressing how I felt. I was expressing how a medieval lord in the 1200s felt, and how my choir director, a Christian fundamentalist, interpreted it.

One particular day, I became greatly enraged. We were not singing a religious piece, but rather some old poetry, put to a choral arrangement.

The piece was:

Every night, and every morn
Some to misery are born
Every morn, and every night
Some are born to sweet delight

But this is not the section that offended me. The lyrics went on:

It is right, it should be so
We were made for joy and woe (1)

This infuriated me. I was a miserable, suicidal, angry teen. I was very upset about my situation and the situation of the people of the world, but here I was singing about the fact that some people live lives of misery, and others of privilege and exploitation was correct.

This message disgusted me.

“Think about how it's all Gods plan.” The choir director told us between songs. “Think of how the world, including the poverty and misery, as well as the richness and happiness is part of God’s great plan; it’s the way things should be. We should be at peace with the world.”

I burned red with rage.

Though I was taking an “art” class, for the mandatory “arts” credit I needed to graduate, I was not an artist. I was not expressing how I felt. If anything, I was being silenced. I was no more an artist than a puppet is.

We can count on the capitalists to destroy art. It’s part of their nature. They can turn even the most beautiful things, such as children learning to be artistic and creative, into their opposites.

I am not opposed to music in schools. But, why are students not invited to select the pieces they play? Why did my high school choir not get to vote on the songs? Why are students not encouraged to compose songs or musical pieces for their ensembles to perform?

And why is it that “creative writing” classes are often under funded, and highly subject to criticism. I took creative writing, but I dared not bring in any of the writing I was serious about. It seemed every other day I turned on the local TV news to hear about another student being suspended because somebody interpreted a story s/he wrote to be a “threat” or a sign of “being a troubled kid.”

It took me a long time to even reconsider being musical after that. For the longest time, I refused to even give classical music a chance. Why would I? I associated classical music with sentiments like the ones I described above.

It wasn’t until my second year of college that I began to listen to any classical music. And then I fell in love with it. Now I can hardly pull myself away from the stuff.

Wagner, Copeland, Gershwin, Mahler, Chopin, how could I have missed these folks? Where were they when I was introduced to music? No one ever so much as played me a recording of them as child.

Richard Wagner is by far my favorite composer. But until I entered college, the only piece of his I had ever heard was “Flight of the Valkyries”, which I heard in a music class as a child. It was introduced to me as the “piece in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ that they play while they napalm the g--ks.”

Music is amazingly beautiful sounds arranged poetically. Yet the bosses can turn it into a deafening, stifling, silence. This is the nature of capitalism.


(1)The poem was “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake. The selected lines for the song, greatly distorted Blake’s meaning, in my opinion. Much of Blake’s poetry, such as “Jerusalem” has much the opposite meaning, advocating tearing down oppression and building “Jerusalem.”

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