UCSC Musicians Influenced by Today’s Socio-Political Tensions

How artists bring perspective through musical composition

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As the auditorium hall rumbled from a wall of static noise, international news broadcasts roared from the venue’s speakers, and auto-tuned Malaysian news recording entered to simmer down the arrangement. Guitarist and UC Santa Cruz alumnus James Moore and violinist Andie Springer then accompanied the manipulated news broadcast live.

Photos by Brooklynn White.

This set the scene when Moore and Springer performed “News from Afar,” a composition by UCSC professor of music David Evan Jones, on April 7 at UCSC’s Music Center Recital Hall for the month-long “April in Santa Cruz” event. Moore and Springer also performed compositions by five other UCSC composers, all of whom utilize diverse compositional ideas such as using a mathematical model to show relationships between sounding pitches.

Jones recorded newscasts from around the world to compose “News from Afar,” the title track to his album.

“These pieces make music of some of the dire news of our day and bring it into the contemplative frame of the concert hall,” Jones said in the performance’s program.

In an email, Jones said the arrangement uses carefully time-stretched and edited Malaysian and Russian news excerpts revolving around terrorism, ending with an English recording concerning the anniversary of the WWII battle in Okinawa.

Through this, the newscasts and the music intersect into a unified narrative relating to politics.

Other compositional forms, such as musical improvisation, an immediate “in the moment” activity, can also relate to ideas beyond the music itself.

Improvisation is a creative activity done without prior preparation combining performance, emotions and instrumental technique. Improvised collaboration between composers and performers can foster better relationships and an art-based community, and in this case, establish a link to struggles for social change.  

“Using improvisation can be a way of putting more agency into the role of the performer,” said UCSC doctor of musical arts candidate Andrew C. Smith, whose piece “axis and cloud” was performed on April 7. “Even when it’s not framed as something explicitly political, it still has some political resonance because you are changing the power dynamic between composer and performer.”

In addition to practices promoting musicians in art-based community making, today’s discordant socio-political environment contributes to artists commenting on today’s grievances such as political inequalities.

UC Berkeley associate professor of composition Ken Ueno said the present state of art is defined by how artists may have surpassed the need to define their moment by surface characteristics of music, resulting in artists being more free to do what they want.

With this freedom of expression, and because we live in a non-binding, divisive artistic period, an artist’s outlook toward politics and society may become present in their work.

“[If] viewed as an attitude toward history, rather than a style, maybe there are postmodern tendencies that inhabit part of our current consciousness,” Ueno said in an email. “We have a more whimsical view of history, and we no longer view utopias as a pure singularity.”

Brooklyn-based violinist and performer Andie Springer has also seen some artist’s attitude toward today’s socio-political climate shift, specifically in the New York new-music scene.

“It’s certainly a mix of artists thinking, ‘What am I doing and what does any of it mean when this shit is happening?’ vs ‘How can I use my art to affect change?,’” Springer said.

Although it may not be apparent right now, guitarist James Moore believes there’s going to be an artistic change in music based on the present moment’s social tension.

“I’m very curious how music is going to change now that we have this asshole as a president,” Moore said. “I have more fear now than I used to. It’s going to take some time to see how that actually affects what people’s musical output is, but it definitely will.”