I. Fundamental Questions, The Origin of the Chaconne
Connecting Cultures Through Music is a defining aspect of my master’s degree; it is the project I walked into school knowing I wanted to pursue. Through the Performing Social Justice Seed Grant at Roosevelt University Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) I was able to begin this ongoing project that uses music as a form of discourse to reduce intergroup conflict between refugees living in Sweden and native Swedes. This work opened a number of doors, including an invitation to present at the University of Malta School of Performing Arts Annual Conference in March 2018. It also attracted to attention of various faculty at CCPA, through whom I was awarded the Matthew Freeman Social Justice Award from the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation. Because I began my degree program with seeds already planted for Connecting Cultures, my ideas for this project were influenced early in my master’s coursework.
The first graduate school course was Music Style and Literature, a required seminar for all CCPA graduate students that involves a fairly intense amount of reading and discussion. The students came to class prepared to examine readings and find new ways of appraising their own musicking. Our professor, Dr. David Kjar, was particularly good at finding reading that encouraged intense discussion and highlighted the subjectivity of life, culture, and music. Throughout the course of the semester the readings became more and more reflective of issues beyond music. This fueled the class discussions, and forced me to acknowledge holes in my own thinking. One day, while discussing Suzanne G. Cuscik’s On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight, one classmate asked, “Why is the diversity of who plays in the orchestra important?” This nuclear bomb of a question sent a seemingly endless wave of discussion through the classroom.
Collectively the class tried to answer this question, but it struck me that none of us could really address it fully. It felt similar to times when people discuss issues of global warming, but cannot answer at the most basic level what is causing climate change. There was a sense in the room that the majority of people see some sort of importance in diversity of inclusion within classical music. These motivations were rooted in nebulous ideas of multiculturalism, inclusion, class-mobility, and post-modernist identity politics. My best answer to this question at the time was that classical music institutions could stop complaining about declining ticket sales if diversity and inclusion were truly at the heart of its mission. This discussion had an immense impact on me, and has caused me to reflect deeply on classical music in relation to its surrounding world, and find supported reasons for a multicultural approach to musicking that involves diverse representation.
To begin understanding this issue, I embarked on a case study of the chaconne. This study demonstrated our ancestors’ ability to hijack the inherent hybridity of music and create a musical form that proliferated in unpredictable and tremendously important ways. The chaconne, taken from Incan culture in the Andes of South American and brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the early 17th century, became a prominent western musical form and was a catalyst to western concepts of vertical harmony and harmonic progression. It influenced Monteverdi while he was laying the foundation for the opera canon we have today, was central to early concepts of dance and music performance in the Sun King’s court through Jean Baptiste Lully, and became a source of inspiration for none other than J.S. Bach. Additionally, the chaconne continues to have immense influence on popular and classical music today. This 400-year trajectory is a beautiful example of diversity within a music tradition. What’s more, this case study draws attention to the less-than-equitable ways diversity has historically been incorporated in western musical culture. In the case of the chaconne, half of its branch through history is missing because Spanish conquistadors cut it off at the root by obliterating the Incan culture. What type of musical hybrid could have been created if this had not been the case? And even more profound, what kind of cross-cultural conversation could that have elicited between these cultures through that music? This example calls for not only diversity in terms of musical style, but also the addition of diverse representation within music traditions.
Music is a frustratingly wonderful tool of communication. It falls in an ambiguous liminal space, somewhere between being a nearly unrivaled communicative tool in terms of emotional expression and affect, and yet an extremely poor communicator in terms of precision and consistency. This combination of affective power and ambiguity is a huge reason the appropriative nature of the chaconne, and many other musical styles, is possible. The goal of Connecting Cultures Through Music is to take advantage of music’s unique communicative abilities, and slowly through improvisation and cultural contact build pieces of music with both diversity of style and representation. This music will hopefully be a hybrid that connects disparate groups, and reduces conflict while increasing humanization of perceived out-group members. Music, at its core, is a multicultural endeavor. Western music institutions were not created in a vacuum. If you enjoy the music of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, or any European folk music you should recognize the colonial attitudes that made that music possible. And we should learn from these mistakes of our ancestors, and create music that communicates to a wide range of people while maintaining ethical and diverse representation.