by Tamra Spivey
and Ronnie Pontiac
What does America mean? To much of the world we are the dominant predator on our political planet. We talk about freedom but we are also a ruthless exploitation machine reducing cultures to products as we homogenize the world into an undifferentiated mass of consumers. With our Christian fundamentalist president we talk about morality but our actions speak louder. >From the gleeful sadism of Abu Ghraib to Disney’s profiteering on porn, everywhere we prove daily that insatiable greed rules our universe. Some would argue that we are at our best when we celebrate it without shame. Then we are truly transformative, potent as interplanetary invaders beaming into cultures clinging to their ancient prohibitions.
Like most Americans I can’t help but admire America out of control. We are just so damn powerful, so inventively destructive, and so amazingly devious. I can’t help but smile when Dick Cheney cusses out a senator, even though I abhor his more than superficial resemblance to Dr. Strangelove. I even shed a tear when Nancy kissed that big cowboy’s coffin goodbye even though that actor was the point man in a surprisingly successful scheme to turn back the clock. I can’t help but shake my head in wonder at America the Empire. But that’s not my America.
Here is a glimpse of the America I love. During a bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my drummer at the time happened to have a boyfriend who was first generation Palestinian. I’m first generation Jewish with many Israeli relatives. All my older relatives are Holocaust survivors. Both of us being scrawny musicians with intellectual interests we became friends. Sitting with him on the curb at Jabberjaw or Koo’s back in the day, everything unspoken, though we knew our bothers and sisters were hating and killing each other half way across the world, we were good friends, and that was America. America transformed our otherwise culture locked families, gave us the chance to run away to be ourselves, and both of us still play in what could be called protest bands.
I thought of Joey Karam as I watched a video of a young Palestinian in Alaska describing the plight of three million Arab-Israelis. Someone tried to silence him by dismissing him as a towel head. Soon the crowd was talking over him. He was among about eighty people attending a University of Alaska meeting about a work of art so controversial that many of the participants wanted to censor it before it was even unveiled. What was this torch hurled into the community of Anchorage?
When one thinks of protest music, classical music seldom comes to mind. Of course, it wasn’t always that way, and mighty classics have inspired and been inspired by political action from Wagner to Beethoven’s Eroica. And as any Stravinsky fan knows, classical music has sparked riots.
omposer Philip Munger is no stranger to controversy. In 1992 when famed sculptor Peter Bevis presented Spill Kills, his work on oil spill victims of the Exxon Valdez and Tenyo Maru, at a show in Anchorage, he chose Munger to compose the music. At first Philip collected recordings of the voices of principals of the Exxon Valdez disaster, then he gathered quotes from In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez and commissioned Alaskan poet Ann Fox Chandonnet to weave them into an epic. The piece is called “Shadows.” But this meeting at UAA was not about “Shadows.”
When I look at pictures of Rachel Corrie I’m reminded of some of my favorite people: Cyn from San Luis Obispo Food Not Bombs, Jody of Team Dresch, our former drummer Erin McCarley. It didn’t surprise me to find out Rachel was going to school at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. Where ever in the U.S. I played a Food Not Bombs show there were girls there, and boys, who remind me of Rachel Corrie. Rachel never wore the anarchy patches, but her goodness and sincerity, her absolutely American love of justice and idealism, and her willingness to sacrifice privileges for it, are representative of subcultures the media never talks about.
Rachel had a teacher at Evergreen who knew first hand of the plight of Palestinians in Israel. When Rachel found out America was helping support actions by the Israeli Defense Force that involved using bulldozers to knock down the houses of families too often innocent she felt compelled to do something about it, to prove to the world that there is another America, the true America, not the America of empire. She joined International Solidarity Movement and went to Israel. She and her fellow volunteers pulled on orange jackets and shouted into megaphones, facing down bulldozers, human shields protecting family homes, an echo of that brave soul in front of the tank at Tiananmen.
Of course the bulldozers used every tactic to scare away the human shields. No one can really say whether it was a mistake or a decision when one of these monstrous armored machines crushed Rachel Corrie to death. The Israelis say it was a mistake. Witnesses accustomed to the precision communications of the IDF say it could not have been a mistake. Imperial America did not mourn Rachel Corrie. Rumors of ties to terrorists quickly smeared the International Solidarity Movement, removing the other human shields and leaving Palestinian homes unprotected.
Phillip Munger, moved by the story of Rachel Corrie, composed “The Skies are Weeping,” a cantata in her memory. The cantata contains the setting of a contemporary poem by Thushara Wijeratna and also includes Rachel’s own words gathered from her emails, Psalm 137, and a poem each by contemporary poets Linda McCarriston and Phil Goldvarg. It’s a moody and evocative stream of modern composition, ominous yet shot through with a surprising beauty that meanders here and there unexpectedly through the elegiac progression as beauty does in real life.
Watching Munger on video hurrying through the written statement in which he took responsibility for canceling the performance of the cantata because he did not want to expose the musicians, most of them students, to harm, I could not help but recall earlier historical censorships. Threatening emails are a new kind of censorship, but not so different from the bully in Berkeley, California who punched the face of the female owner of a gallery featuring a work including an image from Abu Ghraib.
NEWTOPIA: Classical music is an esoteric art, and new classical music in particular seems to exist outside the mainstream of media coverage. Yet your work attracted the predictable reactionary responses. Rabbi Greenburg of the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska labeled your work and your defense of it “a scathing attack on Israel.” An angry conservative as he left shouted “piece of shit” at you. A republican official said he’d like to see your work performed but not at the expense of the city, state, or federal government. Were you surprised to find such a violent reaction?
PHILIP MUNGER: In the context of feeling compelled to defend the premise of my own art, I was surprised at the vehemence at that meeting, and at the lack of curiosity about the music itself – the layer of strong belief that seemed to be there that to play the music, even in an empty room, might be an act of evil. But I’ve been to hundreds of public meetings in Alaska over the past thirty years, and people don’t hesitate to state their beliefs strongly when they show up at these affairs.
NEWTOPIA: Because “The Skies Are Weeping” includes a quote from an Israeli bulldozer driver who says if allowed to he would bulldoze every Palestinian home all the way to the horizon, it has been accused of being one sided, and therefore propaganda. How do you feel about that accusation? If you had it to do all over again would you try to present the Israeli viewpoint as well?
PHILIP MUNGER: As I started putting “The Skies….” together, and scanned recent poetic material which took the Israeli point of view on Israeli-Palestinian violence, I realized that a eulogy to what Rachel Corrie died for in the Gaza Strip would be nothing more than a wounded effigy of her if it attempted to be “fair and balanced.”
NEWTOPIA: The attempt to censor art in the name of war, with the claim that dissent undermines the military, is a classic ploy of fascism, but it is also a typical reaction motivated by fear. You received threatening emails and virus attacks that convinced you your students might be in danger. How did it feel to be victimized by such anonymous attackers? Did it affect your life profoundly?
PHILIP MUNGER: It did. I worked in the public safety field over a thirteen year period. I’ve saved lives, seen or discovered dead people, and, while working at or running Alaska’s largest halfway house, sent hundreds of people back to prison. A few whom I sent back to prison threatened to kill me when they got out. But nothing I’ve ever experienced hit me like the ancient hatred seeping through those emails last spring. I can deal with threats from somebody and somewhere I understand far better than from places and personalities I can’t fathom. Then there’s the friend who called me a wimp for not pressing forward.
NEWTOPIA: Wimp? I have two quotes for you. The first is from Bob Marley: “run away and live to fight another day.” The second is from my martial arts teacher: “the best fight is the one you avoid.” You apologized to Rabbi Greenburg in an email where you stated you would give up your own life to protect him or anyone in his congregation. Has the Rabbi’s attitude changed toward your work?
PHILIP MUNGER: My experience in Alaska has been that apologies are sometimes hard to give, but sometimes even harder to accept. If an apology is unacknowledged, it is generally considered that it hasn’t been accepted for one reason or another. Yossi Greenburg has never acknowledged my apology. Statements he has made to the Hebrew language press in Israel subsequent to my apology indicate his attitudes toward me and my work
NEWTOPIA: It’s deeply ironic that the Jewish people, who suffered military oppression in ghettos, are now on the other end of the stick in places like Gaza. It is typical of the way human beings who have been abused act out abuse on others as a reflex. Art can polarize but it can also unite, do you think it is possible to create art that can humanize both sides of such a combustible issue, or does simply addressing these contradictions unleash the worst in people?
PHILIP MUNGER: Perhapsit could be called trans-generational post-traumatic stress. That question came up shortly after the April 8 meeting. Thushara Wijeratna, author of the poem “The Skies are Weeping,” wrote me:
“The thing that happened was that on Monday I watched “Pianist” on DVD. And I started thinking about how we may be able to make the cantata resonate more with Jews who may have strong views on the Israel-Palestine issue. Can we come up with a composition that truly melts hearts without arousing anger? Can we muster the energy required to empathize with even the violent? (I thought Jocelyn’s poem was remarkable in that extent) Our ultimate goal is to start asking questions that go a level deeper than one conflict, right? We want people to feel that we have no ill-will towards anyone caught in the middle of it, right? In this case, as in all other cases, perception is reality. We may do all the right things in our circle and it will be judged harshly by some people outside. What we could do is try to limit the animosity created towards our work. If we really make people cry, it will be very difficult for them to come back at us with this much force.”
I wrote back to Thushara that “The Skies….” had already taken on a life of its own, and that we might address universal issues in another work. In my own lifetime, the classical work which best universalized violence issues was Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” Shostakovich approached these issues too in his 13th Symphony, which uses Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” as a lyrical centerpiece.
NEWTOPIA: The Skies are Weeping struck me as a eulogy of sorts, a funereal work, the political content doesn’t seem to be the point. I found it to be a very touching memorial to a good soul. Was protesting your original intent or was the role thrust on you?
PHILIP MUNGER: Thanks for the positive comment. From the beginning, I wanted to make a strong anti-violence statement and acknowledge Rachel Corrie’s personal sacrifice, which, together, find a level of protest. As the work evolved, the implicit level of protest came out even more through the musical settings I created.
NEWTOPIA: You received a letter purporting to be from some of your composer peers accusing you of anti-Semitism and blacklisting you. Please tell us how you dealt with that and what the outcome was?
PHILIP MUNGER: I took the advice of Israeli peace activists who have become my friends, and refused to take “Dr. Pezatti’s” bait. I never wrote back to him. Others did and discovered he was a mere internet character, as well as a neo-Nazi punk rocker in the L.A. area. You might even know him. But I probably have been silently blacklisted to an unknowable degree, or so I’ve been told by friends who are performing musicians. My piano
concerto premiered in early March in Anchorage. It was a big hit locally, and I’ll be finding out soon whether any of the eight orchestras which have expressed interest in that work might back down out of concern over the misperception that I am anti-Semitic or a supporter of terrorism.
NEWTOPIA: Protest has always been a theme in classical music, though usually ignored by scholars. Today the media gives very little attention to classical composers exploring protest with their music. Please tell us who and what is out there happening right now?
PHILIP MUNGER: It is more than faintly ironic to havefine writers and musicians from L.A. ask somebody sequestered away in rural Alaska to give a survey on what’s out there right now. The guy who knows the most about this is Kyle Gann, who writes for “The Village Voice.” There are a few arenas, each different: orchestral/symphonic band, opera, chamber music, choral, song, solo instrumental work, electronic and electroacoustic – I probably missed something. I’ve written or am writing (in the case of opera) protest music in each of those categories. The most conservative of the ensemble types is orchestral/symphonic band repertoire. Worldwide, orchestras are funded by corporations and governments. The audiences who attend orchestral concerts, by and large, seek validation of the universe those corporations and governments represent.
Symphonic band literature is dominated by the need for fresh material to be played in secondary schools and universities. In the USA, most of the published band music since September 11, 2001 has been patriotic pastiche and jingoistic pap, with titles like “Portrait of Freedom,” “Alliance of the Free,” “The Ultimate Patriotic Sing Along,” and “Seapower Fanfare” – these from one page of a recent catalog.
Opera has often been used as a medium of protest – Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” several of Verdi’s operas, Berg’s “Wozzeck.” John Adams wrote “The Death of Klinghoffer” as a sort of protest, and his newest opera about Robert Oppenheimer is about a man who protested against thermonuclear violence. Chamber and solo acoustic classical music have examples of protest music. Songs and choral works do too. The types of composers drawn to electronic and electroacoustic music, and the venues at which this music is played tend to bring out a higher percentage of protest works than any of the other genres. I suppose this is partially because electronic composers tend to be more like rockers.
NEWTOPIA: In the wake of this censorship, “The Skies Are Weeping” has received international attention and support from the Center of Economic and Social Rights to Israeli citizens. Please tell us about the performances and collaborations made possible by the controversy. Who rallied to the cause of free speech?
PHILIP MUNGER: The Center for Economic and Social Responsibility was the first entity to come forward after the April 8 cancellation with a firm offer of support for a performance. As that is going to be in New York City, I have put a lot of energy into helping that to happen. Currently, it is being proposed for the weekend after Thanksgiving. We’re hoping that Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will carry the premiere live, as they had hoped to do back in April. There are two individuals in London working on scaring up a premiere there, several interested parties in the Seattle-Puget Sound area, and several other possibilities. I’ve been avoiding getting too involved in anything other than the NYC premiere, because we’ll undoubtedly make some changes during rehearsal, and learn a lot from the process. Also, here in Alaska, Alaskans for Peace and Justice intend to produce “The Skies are Weeping” this season, probably at a Presbyterian Church. One surprising thing I learned between April 8 and now is that even though I had hoped colleges and universities might be interested in hosting or performing “The Skies…” because it is about a college student who believed in something, that has not been the case. If anything, it may be very risky for any college to perform the work. Under legislation now before the U.S. House, a college performing “The Skies…” could lose ALL federal funding for hosting an event critical of Israel.
NEWTOPIA: Recognizing the power of art by censoring it is one of history’s great ironies. What is in the works for Philip Munger? Are you more deeply committed to protest in music? What are you planning next?
PHILIP MUNGER: I’m currently finishing revisions to my piano concerto, which will go out to several orchestras in late August for consideration for their 2005-06 seasons. I’m finishing up a set of eight small pieces for violin, clarinet and piano for the Alaska Pro Musica, and beginning work on music for collaborative settings with other artists of various chapters from Alan Lightman’s wonderful book, Einstein’s Dreams. I’m also dabbling with my 5th Symphony. I guess none of these projects are protest music. Usually, when protest ideas have formed in my musical brain, they’ve been the result of my growing awareness about a particular issue. When that impetus happens, I won’t shy away from my responsibility as a composer.