Charleston: I am aware

I was not aware of what had just happened, but sometimes, it’s better not to know.

Today my colleagues (Matthew Sharp, David LePage, Suzanne Casey and Catherine Leech) and I played a noontime recital as part of the English Symphony Orchestra’s Magna Carta 800 celebrations at Worcester Cathedral .

The entire festival has been a musical exploration of the on-going struggle for freedom, liberty and human dignity. Our program was called America’s March Toward Freedom, and focused particularly on America’s troubled history of slavery, race relations and the fight for equality.

magna carta

Blissfully unaware- rehearsing music for Magna Carta in the unseen shadow of an emerging atrocity.

Yesterday was a busy work day and this morning was a taken up with travel and rehearsal before the concert at noon. The upshot of which is that none of us on stage had any idea we were playing this program in the shadow of one of the most shocking acts of violence motivated by racial hatred in my lifetime. I only found out about the horrific events in South Carolina when I got back to my hotel room after the concert. Part of me wishes we’d known. Maybe we could have said something meaningful, or brought something special to the performance, but on reflection, maybe it’s best we didn’t.

To be honest, I’m not sure I could have managed the right balance of emotion and focus in this repertoire if I was going on stage trying to process this news. Music, and the human body, can actually only take so much emotion and sometimes the music suffers when we’re beside ourselves with anger, grief and outrage. Part of you needs to count the rests and put your fingers in the right places, as well as open your soul. Yes, perhaps, for the music’s sake, it is better we didn’t know. Perhaps it’s also better because we shouldn’t wait for an international outrage to play these kinds of programs with all the commitment and care we can summon.

“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
–Antonin Dvorak

I chose Dvorak’s great F major String Quartet for the Magna Carta festival because of what its reception says about the unfinished nature of racial reconciliation in America. Dvorak was inspired during its composition by the melodic riches of African American spirituals and the blues, so much so that in the years after he wrote it in 1893, the piece took on a nickname now considered a hateful racial epitaph. It’s later re-naming as the American Quartet did away with an ugly word, but also effectively, literally whitewashed the piece. Its black inspiration has been largely forgotten- most people in my generation assume that the Americans in the piece are of the decidedly Caucasian variety. I’ve always said that the piece should really be called the “African American Quartet” but today tells me that’s not quite right. Re-naming the piece “African American” would be too facile a shortcut for the real work of education and contextualization that needs to be attached to performances of the piece for us to really understand its musical roots and its modern relevance. As long as we rely on the use of the hyphen to call attention to the involvement of anyone not white in something “American” we’re perpetuating the legacy of exclusion and appropriation we actually mean to fight.

Today’s crime is just one particularly grotesque symptom of a sickening rise in racial hatred among a large segment of the US population, including a disturbing cross section of American law enforcement and political leaders. For these people, the word “American” must always continue to evoke white America. In a horrific cultural moment like this, as we all absorb the shock of an event that seemed calculated to be as evil as possible, we should remember that this is no lone gunman unleashed on society, no aberration. He is and was, a foot soldier- one of the millions in the USA committed to reserving the full promise of the nation for its fair-skinned residents.


No lone gunman here, but a foot soldier in a pretty vast army.

The last 20 years have seen miraculous progress towards equality for LGBT people in the USA, but civil rights, economic opportunities and social perceptions of people of color in the US have not, that I can see, moved forward in millimeter in my lifetime. Rather the opposite- even the Supreme Court has take the step of gutting much of the Voting Rights Act. The Charleston shooter’s manifesto is one shared with millions and millions of people: “you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

So, no- I don’t think I could have done justice to Dvorak’s elegant and gently sorrowful masterpiece today. The anguish of thinking just how little progress we’ve made in the last 100+ years might have been too much. What the horrible synchronicity of this concert and the Charleston crime does point out is that these concerts do, or should, matter. We shouldn’t be waiting for a tragedy to ask art to speak through our art to the need for social justice. Celebrations like Magna Carta 800 can too easily feel like self-congratulatory commemorations of a battle won. They should be a call to action, a reminder of unfinished business. A commemoration of a struggle, not a celebration of victory. Perhaps, it’s a time to remember that our Beethoven needs to be fiercer, our Mozart more subversive, our Dvorak, more tragic because in the last 800 years, we still haven’t finished the project.

At the heart of the concert was the first public UK performance of Kile Smith’s wonderful song cycle, Plain Truths, which begins and ends with the writings of the abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, taken from his newspaper The Liberator. Kile writes that “I quote from the very first and last issues: his 1831 shot across the bow proclaiming his rejection of moderation in the fight against our national tragedy, to his 1865 valedictory, which followed the Thirteenth Amendment’s official eradication of slavery. “I am aware” is an angry recitative; “Spirit of Freedom,” a marching hymn.” Thirty-four years is a long time to fight for any cause, and I can appreciate Garrison’s wish to see his life’s work validated, to declare victory and move on to happier things, but in 2015, it’s his words from 1831 that seem like they could have been written today. History tells us he should have kept the paper running.

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I do not wish to think, or to speak, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her baby from the fire—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am aware, and I will be heard.
—Wm. Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), from The Liberator (1831) 

As artists, we don’t need some racist monster with a gun to motivate us to play music that speaks to fundamental issues of right and wrong. Quite the opposite: we all ought to heed Garrison’s rallying cry. I am aware that each time we take the stage, we should do so without too much undue moderation lest we are still fighting the same sad, pointless battles in another 800 years.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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