Some Thoughts on the Arts and Social Justice

It’s been several years since I have written an entry in Notes from the Field. Events during the past several months have given me a lot to think about. And that includes the connection between the arts and social issues. At their best, the arts can be not just a reflection of their times, but can also provide an emotional call to action. This is certainly true for music, in many ways the most abstract of all the arts. For the truth of this, one need only look at the songs that helped spur many social movements over the past several centuries to realize that they owe as much to the melody as to the words for their broad appeal. This is again such a time, when in the United States in particular, many of us have been stirred to action following the latest in a long line of deaths of unarmed Black and Brown citizens at the hands of police. A great example of powerful art that speaks to its time is the work for male chorus and orchestra, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, an African-American composer based in Atlanta. The work was premiered by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and the Sphinx Ensemble in 2015, five years before the latest murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and others. This is the ensemble featured in the attached video. Sphinx is an organization that promotes the training of African-American and Latinx classical musicians. It is my view as a composer and citizen that we need to promote and support musicians of color in our community. In addition, if we can collaborate with and support organizations like Sphinx we will be working toward the important goal of making concert music and our society more inclusive and equitable.