IV. Music Reflects: Reflecting on Music
Today, while reflecting yet again on the seeming hopelessness and inhumanity of US immigration policy, I experienced a strange craving to listen to Vivaldi concerti. Normally when I listen to these famous and often overdone pieces I train my ear with transcription, try to decipher if the ensemble is using period instruments, or test my relative pitch and guess to which Hz frequency the A is tuned. So it struck me as a strange choice to go from our egregious political climate to music I normally consume as a technical exercise or as an apolitical backdrop. But I started to reflect on this choice and suddenly remembered that Vivaldi composed many of these pieces for children living in an orphanage.
In this context, Vivaldi’s music became a strong advocate for the ability of ALL children, and their role toward the future. It was also a reminder that music, as something beyond the proscenium or your headphones, has a powerful and unstoppable ability to connect. The heart of these concerti at their genesis was arguably a need to look at the future through the virtuosity and creativity of homeless children living in Venice. And Venice, at that time, was a cosmopolitan trade city and the epicenter of hybridity that led to the Baroque. All of these secrets are imbedded in these concerti. And through this, the music can reflect important political tropes today.
I have a strong desire to control the manifestation of these latent messages within the music I create. A little over a year ago I started a music project that explores the foster care system, and had a test run for this research as my graduate recital, safe, stable, loving and permanent home. The impetus for this endeavor started when I saw two of my undergraduate mentors struggle with the foster care system as foster parents. They had been fostering a baby girl for over two years, she was born addicted, the biological mother missed drug tests for several months, she had been legally abandoned by her biological parents, she had been living with my professors since she was maybe a few months old, and they wanted to adopt her. And yet, at the end of this mind-numbing and emotionally grueling case, the court ruled in favor of the biological mother permanently cutting all ties between my professors and their daughter.
As I dug deeper into the foster care system, I quickly realized the expanse and density of the institution. The United States foster care system is extremely complex with a spectrum of triumphs, failures, and overall difficulties. To unravel and solve these problems, we first have to acknowledge that they exist on multiple levels within the system. On a broad level, there are structural issues of racism and class dynamics. Zooming in reveals problems due to the state funding structure of the system. Finally, on a case-by-case level, it seems there are an infinite number of circumstances, making it extremely difficult to ensure individual safety and success for every foster youth. For example, reunification, a federal mandate that courts make every attempt to reunify foster youth with biological family members before allowing adoption, is not successful for many foster youth as in the case of my undergraduate mentors and their daughter, who is now missing. And legislating a sweeping change based on the average would still negatively affect so many people. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are designed to help alleviate these problems. But even with the tireless effort of these volunteers, the system is still too large for CASA to perfectly address these difficulties.
Poet and former foster youth, Lemn Sissay, states, “…you can define how strong a democracy is by how it treats its child, the child of the state.” By this, I think Sissay is pointing out that foster care runs latent within the structure of a democracy, and issues converge on and proliferate from this root. These issues include conversations we have or don’t have regarding abortion, education, welfare, housing, and so much more. Current political discourse does not give room for the right amount of nuance in solving these foundational issues.
My goal for the future of this project to have music provide perspective and inspire activism toward addressing these problems. Currently I am starting to explore these ideas in the context of a multi-media oratorio or concert music documentary. This evening-length work will be inspired by both quantitative research and qualitative interviews with foster youth, foster parents, social workers, CASA volunteers, etc. The recordings of these interviews will be used as source material for electronic pieces, similar to the opening of my graduate recital. This will be a collaboration with Constellation Men’s Ensemble, and possibly other entities in Chicago and Cook County! More on that soon.
For now, I urge you all to think deeply about the music you listen to, and how your choices reflect your surroundings, as was the case for me with Vivaldi. I also encourage you to remember the message children provide, their constant echo that becomes the future of our society. I can think of a lot of “children” who have inspired me lately. Happy weekend.