William Harvey's thoughts about the ability of the arts to cross cultural barriers, including diary entries from his job teaching at Afghanistan National Institute of Music; news about Cultures in Harmony, the non-profit he founded in 2005; reviews of Bollywood movies; and general thoughts about cultural diplomacy.
- Name: William Harvey
- Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
Friday, December 06, 2013
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
View from Kabul on classical music in the USA
I'm a big believer in outreach concerts, and my exposure (from 2008 to 2009) to a more rigorous and in-depth approach to designing them at The Academy made an indelible impression on me, although I remain ambivalent about the extent to which the elements of such concerts should be pre-determined (The Academy taught me to plan even the exact questions I would ask at each concert, and this approach has rarely seemed relevant in a home for the disabled in Pakistan or a prison in Cameroon).
So, while I generally adopt the "liberal" position that outreach concerts are what the classical music industry needs to retain relevance and attract listeners, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with this "conservative" article stating that outreach concerts are ruining orchestras in the US. Eight years' experience in cultural diplomacy has taught me that it is meaningless to "reach out" when only one side is reaching. In cultural diplomacy, as in any kind of diplomacy, it is difficult to strike a balance between standing for your own principles and standing for a desire to empathetically reach a new rapprochement with those on the other side.
However, the paradigms we utilize to tackle a problem sometimes affect our ability to solve it. We need not see ourselves as sitting inside the ivory tower of classical music, "reaching out" to the unwashed masses outside. A guest speaker at The Academy once advised us to refer to such events as "community engagement" concerts. Together, you can go on a journey with your audience to make what Eric Booth calls "personally relevant connections inside the music."
The article makes an interesting analogy with Vatican II, which has compelled Catholics to choose between a smaller, ideologically pure church, or a larger, more flexible church. Just as the current pope looks past such false dichotomies at a middle ground, we classical musicians also need to look past a choice between a classical environment hopelessly watered down with interminable pops concerts and one promoting only the most intriguing programs to a small audience of serious listeners. There are many other options.
I keep telling fellow young classical musicians to look beyond the United States. Here in Afghanistan, I find that young people applaud Franck's A Minor Sonata as enthusiastically as the unaccompanied violin works of Elliott Carter, but that they prefer a violin version of the Bollywood hit "Chikni Chameli" to both. It is somewhat disconcerting to realize that the future of music in Afghanistan rests on the shoulders of bearded politicians scarcely any more open-minded than the Taliban, but some of those same politicians who love my big orchestral arrangements of Afghan patriotic tunes stuck around at our 2012 gala concert for my Afghan version of Ravel's Bolero.
Western classical music has also found a following in Tunisia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, DRC, Kuwait (where an acquaintance teaches piano), and Paraguay. In some of those countries, such as Tunisia, where Cultures in Harmony has taught young musicians every year since 2005, the culture of music lovers, patrons, students, and teachers seems to be a sustainable practice in which all are devoted to music for many of the same reasons they might love it had they been born in the US. In other places, music has been used successfully as a social or political tool. This has been the case in Venezuela with El Sistema, and certainly is the case, for better and for worse, here in Afghanistan.
But what about the situation within the USA? Is it really so hopeless? Recent times offer little reason to hope, what with the resignation of Osmo Vänskä from the Minnesota Orchestra, a stagehand strike at Carnegie Hall, and the bankruptcy of New York City Opera. I'll admit that the idea of some day returning to the USA and looking for work as a professional musician is daunting. But even with that sentence, I trap myself into an old paradigm of employment versus unemployment, professional versus amateur.
Classical music in the USA can thrive by looking for the third and fourth options. If it is no longer viable for one institution to pay a musician or a stagehand as much as it once was, then it is also incumbent on the managers of those institutions to find new ways to attract funding and new sources for that funding. My boss in Kabul, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, founder of Afghanistan National Institute of Music, found funds from our school from a donor no one typically associates with supporting the arts: the World Bank. Imagining bizarre new solutions to the problems we face is as difficult—and as necessary—as knowing when to compromise the high ideals that drive us and when to stand by them whatever the costs.
If I choose to remain hopeful at a difficult time for classical music in my home country, it is because I choose to believe that a love for music is too magical for its nurture to cease entirely. We may forget the magic from time to time, preoccupied by a world with little time for questions of the spirit. But I recall my teenage string bass student, a young man eager to learn in spite of the fact that I know nothing about the bass (there's no other string teacher in the country) and few Afghans are sitting at home wishing they could go hear someone play "The Elephant" by Saint-Saëns.
And from time to time, something extraordinary from outside my direct experience reminds me of music's magic. This video about the oldest living pianist and Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, should be seen by both those down in the dumps about the state of music in the US, and those whose lackluster imaginations and inability to engage audiences, rather than reach out to them, contributed to this deplorable status quo. If music can help her survive history's worst horror and then help her live to the age of 109, perhaps it is too soon for those of us who are younger than her, and who have lived through less trauma, to allow the fire of great music to flicker out of our hearts, our society, and our world.
Friday, September 20, 2013
Article about Tunisia project
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Afghanistan soccer victory
Sunday, September 08, 2013
How can the right forces align for cultural diplomacy?
A friend recently posted on Facebook this 1995 article about how the CIA funded abstract expressionism as a means of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. This 18-year-old news item is relevant here because it shows that the forces to create cultural diplomacy do not always line up the way we would like. Recently in Kashmir, the right maestro presented great art to the wrong audience; half a century ago and more, the wrong donor presented great art to the right audience. The project in Kashmir could have included more local involvement and fewer VIPs. I applaud the CIA (never thought I'd type those words) for its courage in supporting abstract expressionism, but the State Department or the USIA, our official cultural diplomacy organization from 1953 to 1999, should have done so rather than caving to lowbrow philistinism from the public and some politicians.
What cultural diplomacy needs to work is a donor without a hidden agenda, local partnership in development and implementation from the beginning, and an audience representing all socioeconomic sectors.
Friday, September 06, 2013
A dialogue of...equals?
I have arranged Indo-Afghan music frequently for the Afghan Youth Orchestra; just today I finished an arrangement of "Raga Pillo." I'd be happy to make an arrangement for other orchestras also!
The Philharmonia is undoubtedly a great orchestra, and I applaud them for creating this video. The next step, which I'm hopeful they will take, is to include South Asian classical music on their programs from time to time.
Friday, August 30, 2013
Updates and a video
Check out this video made by CiH participant Steve Solook of Pantaleon playing mvet in Cameroon! The mvet is an extraordinary string instrument and Pantaleon is one of its greatest and most charismatic exponents.
CiH is proud to have brought cellist Theodore Harvey to Afghanistan for a week of teaching at Afghanistan National Institute of Music. He performs a concert there this evening before returning to the US tomorrow.