Revolution #248, October 23, 2011

"Music with a Conscience" – Chicago Benefit for April 11 Film

We received the following from a reader:

A warm orange-red light bathed the stage, notes from the piano, and then a voice–beautiful yet haunting...

So began the premiere performance of Lament for Cindy, composed for Cindy Sheehan, by the internationally acclaimed New Music composer and pianist George Flynn and sung by mezzo soprano Joanna Wernette. This was an extraordinary performance of Flynn's music on October 10 at Chopin Theatre in Chicago. "Music with a Conscience, the Protest Music of George Flynn" was a benefit to raise funds for the production of the film Occasioned by BAsics, A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World–a documentary of the April 11, 2011 event on Harlem Stage. The Chicago concert and talk-back was also a chance for the audience to hear from and talk to George Flynn about his music and the political context of its creation.

The New Music refers to avant-garde classical music; its composers have challenged fundamental notions about music itself. George Flynn's music is also some of the most passionately intense music you'll hear. It's meant to be felt. George treated the audience to exceptional feats of virtuosity–at times playing clusters of notes with fingers, hands and forearms. George quipped that a critic termed one of his solo piano compositions "one of the most violent piano performances he had ever heard." But at the same time, much of his music is also very beautiful...a music of hope. Throughout the program George explained what he was doing musically so that those unfamiliar would come away with a deepened understanding of its meaning and complexity. An audience member from Berlin, Germany who was interviewed after the performance said, "I liked the way he talked about his art. It's very interesting to know the concepts of creating."

George Flynn taught at Columbia University during the 1960s; he supported the student revolts that closed the university. This was also a time of a great deal of experimentation in music and he, and others like John Cage, filled countless hours composing and playing music in New York City. George was one of the "Angry Artists" who used their art to oppose the war in Vietnam.

George explains, "When I think about certain things, like the Vietnam war, for example, or the student revolts, sound images will come to me. Whether I want to or not, I'll hear a very frenetic band of white noise, say, or a cloud, or a certain musical gesture. Then I work out how to write it. I'd like to think that these pieces can stand on their own–that people who aren't politically aware can listen to the music as music–but this is my way of saying something about political events. It's a way of releasing my own outrage, my own feelings."

A woman who had come to the program directly from the downtown protest of thousands at Occupy Chicago expressed her impressions of George's music this way: "He's kind of timeless. I mean he's unique and creative in his own right but he's timeless in his message." She went on, "A lot of artists don't want to steer people to the political message...and that's part of their art...‘we want you to figure it out.' That's why it's kind of difficult as an artist and activist to intertwine those messages."

George Flynn and Joanna Wernette performed a couple of pieces, Land of Blood and Death Has Won the Soul, from his Songs of Destruction. These are songs that he wrote in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. George had put them aside in a box but said "recent events have caused me to 'find them' again." Joanna is not of the '60s generation but rather a new young voice in classical music and she brought these songs to life. Her beautiful voice seared as she captured every nuance of the lyrics of Land of Blood:

"So drink your coffee, sip your tea,
and reflect upon the legacy
of words that inspired the butchery
in the hidden graves of Song My,
the destruction of a society;
words in the name of a world called free,
words in the name of democracy."

George Flynn, Joanna Wernette, Chopin Theater, Chicago, October 10.
Special to Revolution

A jazz musician in the audience was deeply impressed with the fact that George Flynn hasn't "given up" all these years since the 1960s. He was wondering aloud "what happened with all those musicians...did they just go out and try to make money?" He was drawn by George's optimism and wants to see a new culture that speaks to the possibility of a new world.

A highlight of the evening was the showing of the trailer for the film that's being made of the April 11 event, On the Publication of BAsics, A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World. Audience members were moved by the comments of those participating on Harlem Stage and spoke of being drawn to Maggie Brown's words, "we should use our art and our cultural expression to uplift, to solve problems, to make it better..." A young woman who had BAsics but hadn't read it yet decided on the spot that she had to read it after hearing Carl Dix's reading from BAsics 2:8, "Imagine if we had a society where there was culture–yes it was lively and full of creativity and energy and yes rhythm and excitement, but at the same time, instead of degrading people, lifted us up. Imagine if it gave us a vision and a reality of what it means to make a whole different society and a whole different kind of world."

At the end of the trailer scroll the words, "This was a night where people felt a door open to a future possibility out of this madness... a different way to think, feel and be. Watch the upcoming full length film...walk through that door." It was very significant that an artist of the stature of George Flynn dedicated his night of "Music with a Conscience" to raising funds to make this film a reality.

Many among the audience expressed that they knew nothing of the New Music before hearing George, but went away transformed. It was an example of what could be accomplished in a new society where people would be unleashed to create and experience works of art that challenged society to see and do things a different way.

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