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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

116. Music and Society in a Time of Crisis – The Coronavirus Response and Moving Forward

Lonely bench from which to ponder the world

As coronavirus continues to rage across our nation, I wanted to share some thoughts I have had recently about the state of music and the humanities during this crisis. Specifically, I wish to discuss how creative people and intellectuals alike have responded in these confusing and often despairing times. I am someone who believes in the social responsibility of the artist and the intellectual. I am quite opposed to self-isolating academicism and the artist who refuses to engage with the larger community, even under normal circumstances, but especially now when the world needs our participation the most. This post is not to obligate anybody to do anything though—simply to praise those organizations who have stepped forward to make their services more widely available and to congratulate the individuals who have continued to share their creative endeavors with us.

On Thursday, March 19, when our country was shutting down, I was supposed to be on my way to Georgia for the annual meeting of the South-Central Chapter of the American Musicological Society. Instead I was making the arduous twelve-hour drive home to central Louisiana. Our meeting was to be about “public musicology,” in other words, how music scholars can engage with the larger community. It’s a problematic term, I think: “musicology” itself confuses people, and add “public” and I want to ask, “well, shouldn’t all ‘musicology’ be public?.” Regardless we were set to meet at a public library—several chapter members had been afraid to meet at the conservative Christian school where we had originally planned to meet. The main stipulation was that our conference presentations had to be open to the public (for once), so we had decided to also theme several of our presentations and a workshop toward how music scholars might engage with a broader, non-specialist audience. I had hoped to present my work with the Sugarmill Music Festival—how I repeatedly engage with the public through program notes and, more generally, how our festival connects audiences with classical chamber music. I did not however have the chance to submit an abstract for consideration: in short, I was too busy doing public musicology to take time to speak on its merits.

Time seems not to move during this crisis.

This experience though points to the larger issue… Often academics spend so much time thinking about things and talking about things with each other, they leave little time to actually do these things. We were going to get together in Georgia to discuss public musicology, but probably not attract much of a public audience to actually hear our discussions. Then we’d all head home to our separate universities and resume our self-isolating research. The organizers of our meeting are friends—I believe in their intentions as well as the sincerity of those intentions. I doubt however the effectiveness of their actions. I doubt the society which has let us come to this point. Without much federal or state funding, arts organizations and academic institutions rarely have the financial resources needed to communicate their messages to wider audiences. That lack of governmental support also undermines their messages—tells society our country does not value their work and neither should you. “Go watch The Voice.” Artists and academics make things worse when they then ignore the needs of the lager community. Composers write music geared only to their own kind of people—the specialists. Academics do the same with the overly technical language of their journal articles and conference presentations. Their indifference is compounded when these creative and intellectual products are locked-up in poorly-attended concerts and pay-to-read journal databases. As Tristan Murail has written, “If composers no longer communicate, it is no surprise that the concert halls are empty.” This remark can be extended to much of what academics write as well, but of course that’s not the whole problem either. And, don’t misunderstand me: we do need specialists to advance the discipline, but specialists must also be willing and able to communicate their broader message to a broad public.

There are friendly faces here nevertheless...

Isolationism is not the answer—it never has been. We are stronger when we collaborate yet, so many people fear competition, they fear access to the limited resources, that we attack each other, battle each other for those limited resources rather than demand additional resources from those who can provide them. I’ve seen this happen in central Louisiana where arts organizations bicker with each other when they happen to schedule their events for the same night; I’ve seen this in Louisville when the new music group attacks the strictly-canon group and vice versa. If these same organizations would only collaborate, they could foster a larger, more receptive audience which could then buy into all of their offerings. Anyway I’ve only described normal circumstances so far. We have been living in a changed society for at least two months now. I still hope this crisis will bring out the best in people, that from it we can reimagine our society to better provide for our needs. When John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” he was suggesting that government is not something apart from the people, but something which belongs to the people—something which requires the active participation of the people. If our best people—our creative types and our intellectuals—do not participate, are actively discouraged from participation, then we have lost a major force for change, for humanity.

In the last few months, I have been thrilled to see The Met, for example, make opera recordings free and open to the public through nightly streams. JSTOR, a valuable resource for academics, has also given free access to many of the articles in its database. Libraries and archives are busily digitizing their resources. Museums, like Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, are producing virtual tours and online educational programming. Many of my musician friends have been sharing videos of them playing and singing. Others including non-musicians are streaming themselves reading stories and book chapters. I have also been thrilled to see the friends who have been taking this extra time to engage in largescale creative projects. Drew Sarette, for instance, has launched a Vimeo channel where he can post Suzuki violin lessons for kids; another friend, Sarah Cole, has taken this time to build her new website. Numerous artist relief funds have been setup including those by New Music USA and I Care If You Listen while labels like the Chicago-based nonprofit, Cedille Records, have also advocated for the relief efforts. North Louisiana’s annual music festival, New Music on the Bayou, plans to offer streamed “veiller” concerts of several of their accepted works from this year’s composition call later in September with Kari Besharse and James May among the friends whose music will be featured. All of these are good things. They are the selfless acts which artists and intellectuals should be making all the time; this country has grown so heartless, corporate, and impersonal over the last four decades. Yet I hate to think that the organizations and individuals who are making such noble efforts now are doing so without compensation. These are things we should be supporting as a society, through taxes and whatever other measures ensure their financial stability.

...And time does pass. Though I left Louisville in barren winter, we are now well into bright green spring.

As for myself I have devoted my extended free time to my ongoing creative projects. I have either written or heavily-revised and completed some thirty MusicCentral posts since March 23. (I’m slowly publishing these and have about ten up so far.) These not only document my own musical activities, but portray the larger musical and intellectual community which surrounds me. In particular, through my Listening Recommendations and Musical Travels posts, I show music lovers what is out there—what I have discovered and what I hope they will discover too. When I am satisfied that the blog is up-to-date, my next projects include a graphics overhaul of the larger website; improving its search engine optimization so that Google finds my site more easily; and hopefully a return to composition too. It has been nearly three years (summer 2017) since I have composed a single note; something called the thesis but also my own self-confidence as a composer got in the way. Then this August I plan to begin a second master’s program, this time in library science at Indiana University in Bloomington. I am concerned that this crisis will interfere with these plans, but I am convinced of my need to take this next step in my education. As a librarian, preferably a music librarian at an academic institution, I will have the opportunity to meaningfully connect people with knowledge. This will happen in the formal environs of a library, but also in the other endeavors I have been finding my way back to over the last few months—the blog, the website, the festival, the program notes. Being right there in a library, I will also have ready access to the materials which allow me to continue learning and sharing the knowledge I gain with others.

I am not a political person. I strive to keep divisive politics out of my life and out of this blog. I am however someone with deep social convictions. I cannot keep quiet when our elected leaders send people to their deaths; when they put the economy before lives; the “trial-and-error reopening” I’ve been reading about in the news. If you have made it this far into this essay, then you likely agree with me. The economy can be rebuilt. What strikes me about this disaster is that, unlike any other disaster in recent history I’ve witnessed or read about, the infrastructure is all still here. Hospitals, schools, retail stores, the roads too are all still here. They are waiting for their people to return, but to return now is too soon. I praise those in government who have resisted reopening. The economy can be rebuilt—the lives lost can never be restored. When the time comes to rebuild, let us rebuild this world in our image. To quote another former president, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the earth belongs to the living.” He meant that we should not be so laden with the past that we cannot move forward in our own lives. For artists and intellectuals, this will entail putting aside the old jealousies which have separated us, and together pursuing a new world which is more open to communication and which fosters collaboration.

JSH 20.05.08

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a freelance concert annotator based in Louisville, KY. He serves as Director of Scholarship to the Sugarmill Music Festival held each May in Alexandria, LA. A project he is developing for the 2020 festival, “A Scholarly Presentation in Lecture and Music: Solomon Northup in the Central Louisiana Sugarhouse,” has been awarded a prestigious Rebirth Grant by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jackson earned an M.M. in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville with a thesis entitled, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” There he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. He has shared his research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN; the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN; the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, MS; and the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in Thibodeaux, LA. Aside from his studies, Jackson is a composer, choral singer, music blogger, avid reader, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more at


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