Arts Leaders Draw Connections Between Music and Society

We sat down with Brian Kaufman and Michael Reichman, recipients of From the Top’s Margaret Stewart Lindsay Arts Leadership Award, to talk about their upcoming Concert and Discussion on Race and Culture in the Age of Obama, which will be held at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center on Friday, May 14 at 7:30 pm. Admission is free. The concert includes performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the premiere of Symphony for the Dance Floor by Emmy-nominated composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, and new works by NEC student composers Caroline Park and Jason Belcher. A panel following the performances will discuss: how the election of President Obama relates to the perception of race and culture in America; how perceptions of race and culture have changed over the last generation; and how the perceptions of race and culture in America influence music and musicians. This is the second in a series of updates about their project: Musical Diplomacy.

What first inspired you to use music as a way to reflect on social and political issues?

Brian: I ran a brass ensemble as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, and I asked a friend of mine to compose a piece for the ensemble. He wrote a really powerful, politically focused piece about Guantanamo Bay, which takes clips from the NPR show “This American Life” and infuses them with music. We weren’t able to perform it at Maryland, but when I got the music, I brought it to NEC. I shared it with Michael, and we decided to form an entire concert around this piece. We both had an interest in the idea of connecting social issues with music, and this piece was merely a jumping point for us to do that.

Michael: As graduate students in conducting, we have a limited number of performance opportunities allotted to complete our degrees. Brian and I were looking for another way to put together a performance as conductors. We were throwing around programming ideas, and during that process Brian mentioned this brass ensemble piece that uses clips from “This American Life.” Honestly, before that I had always admired and appreciated how music could be used as a catalyst for social dialogue or social change, but I never thought about it as something I could do to engage the community. It wasn’t until we started developing Musical Diplomacy that I realized the power music has to change a community.

Did either of you have an interest in politics or community service earlier on?

Brian: It’s not about being political; it’s about being relevant. This is something that has been important to me as a musician trying to find my path as an artist: making the music that I’m part of relevant. Very often classical music concerts are a wonderful display of art, but don’t answer the question, “How does this matter to my life?” Great art is something important that we all need, but we’re interested in how music can contribute to our everyday lives.

Michael: I was never a political activist per se, but I grew up reading the newspaper and was part of after school clubs in high school. I always wanted to be a well-read individual who could connect my own endeavors to the world around me. What’s important to me is that audience members connect the issue of race with the music performed, and that the music affects the way they perceive this issue. We try not to have an agenda because we don’t want to be thought of as lobbyists. We want to avoid saying whether Obama’s election was a good thing or not. We’re just trying to say, “We now have a non-white president in office. What does that say about our country culturally since the time of post-Civil War Reconstruction to 2010?” There has been a continuum of racial integration in this country. We want to approach that from a musical and sociological perspective. We want to illuminate all sides of an issue, regardless of our personal views.

Did you have any defining moments or role models that inspired this approach?

Brian: I went to the University of Maryland before NEC, and one of the guest artists that visited when I was there was Daniel Bernard Roumain, who is our featured composer. He was a big role model for me. At that point, I had discovered that I wanted to make music relevant in some way and do something different than what’s typically expected of musicians. Hearing Daniel talk was really inspiring. Up to that point, I hadn’t connected with anyone who made me feel like, “this guy is doing something like what I want to do.” I feel personally like I have come full circle since that point, since we’re getting to work with him.

For those who aren’t familiar with DBR, who is he? What makes him special? Why is he a particularly fitting guest for this event?

Brian: We talk about Daniel as a “21st century musician.” He is a composer, first and foremost, and he is also an outstanding virtuoso violinist and a bandleader. You name it, he’s done it. He’s had a very diverse career, from writing music that’s been performed at Carnegie Hall and other major venues throughout the world, to performing on “American Idol” with Lady Gaga. His diversity of ability and talent is really exciting to us. He’s also very interested in being relevant with what he does. He infuses a lot of popular music styles (hip-hop, funk, pop, etc.) into his music – I think that’s one way that he connects what he’s doing and helps make it relevant. The guy also has a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Michigan, and he is very knowledgeable about straight-up classical music as well.

How did you decide on the theme of the concert (“Race and Culture in the Age of Obama”)?

Brian: It was something that seemed current and really relevant. Last year during our concert, Barack Obama had just been elected. Shortly after that, in April 2009, we were thinking about what topic we might like to do in 2010, and it was kind of obvious. It wasn’t a long, drawn-out decision process. It was what we needed to do.

Michael: We picked the overall topic of race and Obama almost immediately, but race is a very broad topic, and Obama is a very broad topic too. We had to focus our idea. That was actually somewhat difficult, and it took us a few months. We asked ourselves many questions: “If we’re going to have an hour-long concert and an hour-long discussion on race and Obama, how are we going to do that? What pieces are we going to do? What types of questions should a panel address?” That was challenging, but we were able to develop a program that is very solid musically and flows organically into a focused discussion.

What was the process of organizing the concert like? How did you go about selecting the composers, panelists, etc.?

Brian: We started organizing this concert over a year ago. I had participated in a workshop with Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR) as an undergraduate, and I thought he would be the perfect composer for the project. We told one of our advisors that we were planning to approach him, and she said, “I know Daniel! He’s moving to Boston!” We realized then that we might actually be able to get DBR to participate. We were also working with Professor Bill Lowe, who was teaching a jazz history class at NEC. He was a mentor for us in those early stages of defining our topic. Every week we would bring him an outline of what we’d come up with, and he’d respond with 20-30 questions. He would offer ideas, but he really put it on us to figure everything out. That was a powerful thing. We got a lot of advice. Obviously, we’re not experts on any of these topics. Even though we’ve set up the questions we want to address, there will be a fair amount of input from the moderator and the panelists about how we might get at these questions more specifically.

Michael: That’s a very important point. We don’t want to be framed as experts, and we’re not framing anybody else involved in the program as an expert. We’re trying to be relevant, but we’re not trying to be condescending. At the end of the day, Brian and I are artists. Our job is to present something and get the audience member to say, “Hm.” Despite the fact that this is our passion, Brian and I are not two young bucks on a crusade against art for art’s sake. We very much believe in music being relevant, but that’s not to say that we think that the concept of the symphony orchestra is outdated. We’re merely looking at ourselves as young entrepreneurs and artists and saying, “What can we do in this society to take music of serious artistic merit and get the world thinking about it differently?” As people that are forging a career in the arts, we are trying to think about how we can take our musical training and give something special to the community. The important thing is to not sacrifice artistic merit. That’s why last year we had Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man on the program, an amazing, classic piece. The same thing goes for this year’s concert with Bernstein’s West Side Story. We’re not trying to take the world of new music and separate it from the music that the public recognizes and loves. We’re not trying to take music and prescriptively morph it to something that fits the topic. We’re trying to reach a good synthesis of the two.

What do you hope audience members will take away?

Michael: I hope that afterwards they say, “I never thought about fill-in-the-blank in that way.” That “fill-in-the-blank” could be West Side Story, a piece they’ve known and loved for many years. Or it could be, “I never thought about hip-hop and funk music in a classical setting.” The next time an audience member reads an article about Obama in the New Yorker, Time, or Newsweek, maybe he or she will think about the article differently based on the way they experienced the art and discussion at our event. That would be a monumental success.