It so happened that the time I had for writing this column was May 1. So what? It’s the 121st day of the year, with 244 days to go before we need another datebook. According to Wikipedia, May 1 was also the date of the first cricket match in America in 1751. Some years later it was the date of the opening night of Mozart’s opera "The Marriage of Figaro." Do I care? Not really. These are distant events for me.
This morning I received an email from a colleague here in Bergen. She started her message by congratulating me with May 1. She was not referring to cricket or to Mozart, I assume, but to May 1 as the International Workers’ Day. Do I care? For some people International Workers’ Day is distant and irrelevant, like a cricket match in a different place in time long gone. Others might live in countries where May 1 is or was an emblem of state propaganda. In the Nordic countries and in many others, the International Workers’ Day is a public holiday. For those who remember, it is a day celebrating values such as justice and equality.
In many towns this day sees street demonstrations supporting the social and economic achievements and ambitions of the labor movement. In these street events, music plays an important part. In Bergen May 1 2010 the celebration of the day starts with a concert. I can hear the sound of the preparations while I’m writing this. When the demonstrations start, marching bands are going to be part of it. Well, this is just music, some people might think, but many realize the importance of music in situations like this. Music brings people together and often energizes them, creating bonds and feelings of solidarity. Music is not "merely music," then. But could music be just? Does it even make sense to ask if and how music is related to values such as fairness and equality? Music might create feelings of solidarity, but is there any lasting effect beyond the feelings of the moment?
Mark Mattern (1998) is a music scholar who has explored such questions. He describes music as a communicative arena and uses the metaphor of acting in concert in order to describe social activism through music. Mattern suggests that there are three distinct forms of acting in concert: confrontational, deliberative, and pragmatic. Confrontational forms take place when one community uses music to resist or oppose another community. In deliberative forms there are also divergent interests, but music becomes a framework for negotiation rather than either-or-struggle. In pragmatic forms, there are (at least some) shared interests among people and the focus is thus upon mutual and practical problem solving. Deliberative and pragmatic forms of acting in concert are often very helpful, but confrontational forms have advantages too. In a democratic society, confrontational acting in concert can publicize a political issue and draw citizens into active participation, for instance. When there is massive repression, confrontational forms could be the only possibility. There is usually little space for deliberation with generals. Mattern still argues that there are limits to the confrontational approach, as it leads to polarization and increase possibilities for use of violence in various forms.
This is perhaps relevant in a reflection upon the role of music in the International Workers’ Day, but is there any connection between "sounds of solidarity" and music therapy? Political action through music is described for instance in the literature of community music therapy. Several recent case studies that I have had the pleasure to track and discuss exemplify this. In an ethnographic investigation of a senior choir, for instance, I found that activism was part of the agenda of the choir members. When they were asked to describe their experiences they talked a lot about musical values and personal health benefits, as well as about the experience of community. This was interesting but not so surprising. But another strand in the narratives they told and the observations I made was less predictable. This string was linked to advocacy. The singers were explicit about their intention of changing public attitudes towards senior citizens. They wanted to be seen as having energy and vitality and therefore wanted to challenge social views of old people as less valued citizens. Consider the following observation from a break in one of the rehearsals, when the choir members discussed a previous performance:
Solgunn tells the singers that after the previous concert she had spoken with a member of the audience; a ... well-known man in town. He had been surprised, he had told her. The choir’s singing had been so vivid and energetic.
- I guess he was disappointed...?, one singer laughs.
- Well, at least we smashed some misled prejudgments, again, another singer responds.
For a moment I find myself placed in a group of community activists. The humorous comments given seem to resonate with some serious issues, namely the feeling that many Norwegian seniors have of being devalued in society (Stige, 2010, p. 247).
Performances and other forms of public musicing can transform social attitudes, through deliberation or confrontation. There is a potential of change in the musical and social ecology linked to this, with effects rippling beyond the specific event.
The political scientist Robert Putnam (2000) has used the bonding metaphor to describe how a community builds social capital such as trust and social support through communication and collaboration. He also reminds us about the fact that the value of bonding within one community is reduced if there is a lack of bridging to other communities. Bridging involves handling of diversity, inequalities, and conflicts. I suggest that bridging requires the types of social action that Mattern (1998) described. The senior singers’ concerns about prejudgments and prejudices and their use of performances to address this illustrate how music could be used for deliberation and confrontation.
Mattern, Mark (1998). Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Putnam, Robert (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Stige, Brynjulf (2010). Practicing Music as Mutual Care. In: Stige, Brynjulf, Gary Ansdell, Cochavit Elefant & Mercédès Pavlicevic. Where Music Helps. Community Music Therapy in Action and Reflection. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Stige, Brynjulf (2010). Just Music?. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colstige170510