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Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, September 25, 2016 11:44:45

Yesterday I had the privilege to take part as a singer in the London premiere of Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s multi-faith oratorio “Karuna”. This was its second performance. The first performance was in 2014 at the Royal Welsh School of Music & Drama in Cardiff, conducted by the composer. This time, the Welsh Camerata, who played at its first performance, was joined by the London-based Choir of the 21st Century, with which I sing, and was conducted by its musical director, Howard Williams, at the church of St John’s Waterloo, a regular “fringe” venue for classical music in London. The composer is a gifted musician and brings a truly individual voice. The performance was of a high standard, with some moments of pure magic.

The work was commissioned by the Welsh Camerata to celebrate their 10th anniversary, which also fell at the time of the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I. Yesterday’s performance was made possible by a private bequest (and the donation of time and effort by the entirely amateur choir).

A useful review of the first performance tells us:

’At around 80 minutes long, the work is an ardent and sometimes fierce call for compassion – the broad meaning of the Sanskrit title – in a world rife with injustice and atrocities of all kinds. Wilson-Dickson explores the nature of compassion as a simple, human response to others’ adversity, but also draws on the word’s Buddhist sense as a rigorous path of non-selfish devotion to the alleviation of suffering in all its forms. He dedicated the world premiere to those working in charities, hospitals, foodbanks and battlefronts everywhere without whom, and without ‘those who are moved to gestures of compassion, there would indeed be no hope. The piece bears an affinity in both sentiment and structure with Britten’s War Requiem and especially Tippett’s oratorios, A Child of our Time and The Mask of Time; landmarks of a British pacifist musical tradition, if you will, to which Wilson-Dickson has now added his own, impassioned voice’”

The texts set include those which describe, sometimes in graphic and brutal terms, the experiences of refugees the world over during the past century. And the call is, in the words of one of the texts:

“To widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, the whole of nature in its beauty” (Albert Einstein, letter of February 1950 to a friend who lost his son to polio)

The topic of the texts could not be of more contemporary social relevance, and the call could not be more pressing and timely.

I was moved by being part of this performance, and the aesthetic and emotional impact of both words and music was strong. But as a social activist, and someone particularly interested in how the arts, including music, can be a resource for social change, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied, and asking questions.

Was the aim of the composer, and the promoters of the work and its performances, to contribute to social change? Or was the social element secondary to the musical? And in either case how is it that the performances of a musical composition can or might be explicitly and strategically designed to maximise the likely contribution to social change?

These questions have been central in my mind for some years, as I have observed a plethora of musical initiatives which have explicitly been portrayed by their progenitors as a direct response to a social problem (such as war) and a contribution to the solution of that problem. Passionate and devoted musicians have gone all over the world, including into some of the most dangerous parts of it, in order to do music for or with affected populations. Musicians are supported by governments and social agencies to go into prisons, hospitals, elderly care homes, areas of social deprivation, and many other contexts, to bring music and musical activities to positively impact on the condition of the people they interact with. They have a strong belief that through music, social ills can be addressed, healing encouraged, and hope engendered.

Worthy aims indeed! But when professing such aims, it makes it very important to be critically observant of the conditions under which such interventions bring measurable benefits, and those in which they don’t. It cannot be assumed that passion and devotion, coupled with a high degree of musical skill, will necessarily bring change, just because the musicians concerned want it to, as Arild Bergh and myself have argued in a review article (see:

In a recent commentary in the Oxford Handbook for Social Justice in Music Education(1), I challenged musicians in this field to be clear about their priorities. If their priority is social change, then I argued that they need to assess whether musical activity is the best means to promote that change - and if it is not (which in many cases it may not be), gracefully withdraw and leave the field to others with better tools.

To put it another way, musicians, like anyone else must avoid the false logic of:

Something must be done

This is something

Therefore we must do this

This is the flawed premise of so much misguided activity on the international stage!

As a response to growing international interest in, and financial investment in music projects as a tool for social change, a new international research initiative has recently been founded centred at the University of Ghent in Belgium. This initiative is the “Centre for Social Impact of Music Making (SIMM), and I am very pleased to be involved with it, both personally, but also through the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where I work. The SIMM Centre is precisely concerned with building up the critical scholarly evidence base for effective musical interventions - and I look forwards to it shedding powerful light on these debates.

At the Guildhall School I also work on issues concerned with classical music and its contemporary audiences. In this context I have had many interesting and impassioned discussions with both composers of contemporary classical music, and people who go to their concerts. Attracting audiences to contemporary music is a very live issue, as well as the larger question of how new compositions gain impact within the broader society.

Last night’s concert highlighted some of these issues. The audience was modest in size, almost entirely white, and middle class, predominantly middle aged (as were the performers). Many (if not most) of the people there were friends and relatives of the composer and the performers, and no doubt already highly in tune with the sentiments expressed in the libretto. Indeed, some performers, including myself, were drawn to take part because of our sympathy with those sentiments. No recording exists of the work. Prospects for its further performance (given its difficulty and the cost of putting it on) are small. Prospects for its ability to reach constituencies whose “hearts and minds” might need changing, are vanishingly small. And, even if, magically, one could find an audience of “the resistent” and persuade them into the concert hall - would the conditions for substantial “change of heart” be met by a spirited performance of this particular work? It’s hard to be certain.

Of course composers and musicians are free to draw inspiration for their work from any source, musical or non-musical. But in doing so, it is very important not to make claims, or allow claims to be made on their behalf, that in drawing on such sources their work thereby becomes an instrument for the change that they hope for. The attendant publicity (including the programme note) was careful not to claim too much for the music. And yet, simply placing the social phenomenon of the refugee crisis at the centre of the discourse makes it hard to avoid drawing the implication that an effect on that crisis was hoped for, even intended.

Have newly commissioned compositions had social impact on a large scale? Yes - sometimes. I am old enough to recall the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 1963. This was commissioned for the re-opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt on the rubble of the former building destroyed by Geman bombs in the 2nd World War. Britten was, at that stage in his career, effectively the “national composer” of the UK, with a stellar international reputation, despite (or perhaps partly because of) his publicly avowed pacifism. The premiere was an act of national reconciliation, which involved senior figures of the UK and German Governments. It had a huge amount of national press and media coverage. The work quickly received performances all over the world, and a landmark recording was quickly made which rapidly became a treasured possession of millions. As a teenager at the height of the Cold War, this piece beamed into my suburban living room a vision quite different to the prevalent political discourse. The work has remained a staple of the performance repertoire to this day, and continues to unite audiences all over the world in the painful contemplation of the horrors of war.

Recordings matter (so that large numbers of those not present in the room can experience a work). High profile cultural and political contexts for new work (such as a major national architectural or reconstruction project) matter, to inject a sense of broader relevance. Today, media, especially social media, matter. And of course, particularly in a contemporary multi-ethnic context, far from the Britain of 1963, location and audience constitution matter intensely. Karuna may well have the musical and textual power to have influence. But without co-ordinated strategic attention to all these features, by people focused not only on the artistic impact, but on the social and political impact, then worthy projects like Karuna remain destined to inhabit the fringes of our national life. That’s a shame, but it is the present reality.

What to do about it? I have no detailed answers. But I am very interested in the conversation continuing.


(1) Sloboda, J. A. (2015) Can music teaching be a powerful tool for social justice? In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, and P. Woodford (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp 539-547.

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