I am political by way of music. My very first piece in graduate school was about gender: an abstract guitar quartet that played on expectations, with “male” melodies being more angular and harsh and “female” melodies being more fluid and unassuming. You wouldn’t know it by listening, of course—part of the beauty of abstraction is that listeners are free to take away their own personal experience of a work. Eight years later, I was going through old files and stumbled upon this one by accident. I am a different musician now, on a path that I couldn’t have imagined at the time. My politics are no longer an idea but woven into the fabric of my music, striving above and beyond it to create real change.
Eco-Music began as a band name, but it has developed into a philosophy. What if Sun Ra could save the planet from climate change by causing us to change our habits with his music? What if a concert of works on police brutality inspired our communities enough to propose new laws that make us safer? What if we eliminate plastics in our rehearsal and performance spaces and inspire others to do the same? Change begins at the cellular level, and if we can reach our audiences, then we can create a better world.
The Eco-Music Big Band kicked off in February 2014 with the Red Black and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, produced with the political collective Scientific Soul Sessions. Part of the tour’s mission was education around the condition of political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, who was 70 years old at the time and had spent 23 consecutive years in solitary confinement. At the time the tour began, Shoatz had been placed in a cold six-by-ten-foot cell with feces on the walls, standing water on the ground, and no blanket. This touched a nerve in many: the agenda was not just political but in support of the basic human rights of a senior citizen.
The tour was through Vermont, and began and ended in New York City. Along with the introduction of the band to the world with these first public performances, our audiences were introduced to the condition and direness of the situation for Shoatz. They were encouraged to take action, spread the word, and contact the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Here’s the thing about music: it actually moved people to action. On the third day of the tour, Russell Maroon Shoatz was released from solitary confinement and allowed into the general population prison system for the first time in 23 years. In three days, the people of Vermont went from never having heard of Shoatz to calling, writing letters, and posting on social media about his case. In three days’ time, the musical push did what the legal team had been trying to do for 20 years.
So I am not surprised when protest organizers contact me asking for musicians to play at their protests; I am less surprised still when I hear that it was the music that elicited the loudest response and the most action. I am also not surprised that at times the music truly speaks for its own politics, without having to say a word about it: if done right, a work about police brutality should be self-explanatory and not need a soapbox before or after.
This is the power of music. This is why Eco-Music is not just a theory but a practice. This is why I believe that my politics belong in my music: because it is the only way I have ever been able to make real change happen. It’s why I encourage those who write for my band to write controversially and to put their most political thoughts into their music. It’s why I call myself a political composer, and not a composer who writes political music.
I am political by way of music because I am endlessly optimistic in the face of global warming, grand-scale warfare, and the systematic oppression that is the state of the world today. If we can use music to protect the rights of a 70-year-old man, it makes me believe we can use it to end wars, liberate the oppressed, and cool the earth.