In a particularly dramatic moment in the frenetic pastiche 3rd movement of his masterwork “Sinfonia” (for orchestra and 8 voices), Luciano Berio laments that “all this can't stop the wars, can't make the old younger, or lower the price of bread.” It’s a good distillation of this truth: we cannot, via music, impact society on the scale needed to create real societal change. I hesitate to write it, but there are moments when I conclude that we are powerless. In what I consider better moments, I conclude that it is our responsibility to contribute what little energy we have to the right things, to examine our actions and do our best to align them with our philosophies. That’s just a shift of focus. Instead of asking how I can change some society-level problem, I can ask: How does my work express my love for humanity? How do my actions contribute to more connection, more understanding? Am I contributing more to cycles of violence, or to cycles of peace? This kind of self-examination has been helpful to me as a way to push back against pessimism. The scale we have access to is the one we should work on. That’s really the most effective thing.
Music contributes to peace by connecting people, some of whom otherwise might not connect. Though music can be enriched by language and culture, it is bound by neither, and so it flows between all manner of people easily – as easily as they want it to. Connecting people does not rid them of cultural biases, nor change their philosophies. Maybe the connection they share will develop into a lasting friendship, maybe it won’t. But at least in that moment of connection, ideologies can feel quite distant. Even if that moment is brief, it creates a little bond that can complicate the simplistic ideologies that keep people apart. It is much simpler to think you dislike a certain country if you don’t have a friend in that country; once you do, you’re dealing with an individual, a face comes to mind, and then you’re really feeling the thing that you intellectually know about countries being made up of individuals, and now for better or worse (it’s better), your thoughts on said country are more nuanced.
There are countless tools that can help to create such connections – any kind of shared work can be a bonding experience – but music happens to be a powerful one. PMF is highly international, and this project of bringing people together from all over the world and giving them a way to connect is not only remarkable, it’s urgent. You might imagine that getting all of them to work together as one, after coming from so many language backgrounds and cultures, is difficult. But the truth is that once you get them into one hall (that’s the hard part!), you can just stand back and let them do the work. Mutual understanding just flows. It is something to behold. Musicians who can barely speak to each other often go on to become lifelong friends. More to the point, musicians from countries that don’t get along, or who have clashing beliefs, experience connection. They carry this with them wherever they go.
I offer you a more potent example. For 25 years the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and their Barenboim-Said Academy have been based on a core of Palestinian and Israeli musicians playing together, and almost all of their musicians have been directly impacted by the current situation in Gaza and Israel. This is from their statement published less than a week after the October 7 attack:
“In the current situation, we naturally ask ourselves about the significance of our joint work in both the orchestra and the academy. It may seem little – but the mere fact that Arab and Israeli musicians share a podium at every concert and make music together, that is of immense value to us. Over the years, through this commonality of music-making, but also through our countless, sometimes heated discussions, we have learned to better understand the supposed other, to approach them and to find common ground in our humanity and in music.”
“...the willingness to empathise with the situation of others is essential. Of course, and especially now, one must also allow for emotions like fear, despair and anger – but the moment this leads us to deny each other humanity, we are lost. Every single person can make a difference and pass something on. This is how we change things on a small scale. On a large scale, it is up to politics.”
(Definitely read the full statement by the orchestra’s co-founder Maestro Daniel Barenboim)
Sitting down to write this, that line from Berio’s Sinfonia was among the first things that came to mind. It’s a pessimistic admission, a painful truth, written in a time of upheaval and war, in the year Martin Luther King Jr. was killed (the 2nd movement uses King’s name as its sung text). Berio dedicated Sinfonia to Leonard Bernstein, and I’ve just read Bernstein’s mention of the piece in his Harvard lectures (page 423 here). The optimism of his appraisal surprised me. He lists the piece as representative of “a new period of fresh air and fun.” Broadly, it’s pointed at Sinfonia’s use of tonality as opposed to atonality, but Bernstein knew very well the dread and struggle represented in this piece (he had conducted it by then). Why such optimism?
Here’s another way music contributes to peace: the act of setting anything to music, even hopelessness itself, is a hopeful one. Music provides a way for all involved – composer, performer, listener – to explore emotions, sometimes emotions that are inaccessible without music. It can give us direction on working through those emotions. A piece of music is like a beacon, a performance lights a path. Is that path helpful for me to explore in this moment? Will I know until I try it? Maybe, maybe not, but above all that, the existence of the beacon itself has an intrinsically hopeful quality. The pessimism of our era can lead us to think that we can’t contribute to peace in a meaningful way, that peace isn’t possible. I have come to see this hopelessness as a major barrier to peacemaking in our era. Music can serve as a counter to it.