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Making Music/Making Democracy

The issues of diverse cultures living close to each other lies at the heart of this project.  The NYS/Quebec Artist Residency project is designed to build creative bridges between artists on both sides of the border. The Missa Kreyol adds to this cultural “mash-up” by focusing upon the creative meeting point between French Canadian musicians and Haitian Canadian musicians.  In conversations throughout this residency, my Canadian colleagues and friends have forged new connections that cross these cultural borders.  It is humbling to be the composer at the center of these exciting conversations with the job of molding and shaping these newly found connections into a singular musical expression.

No artworks are born in a vacuum.  While the creative struggles between diverse ethnic/cultural groups is a staple of any democratic society, my work here in Quebec is situated within the current chapter of a 40 year political struggle between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. Quebec is asking the question of its sovereignty, whether or not it should be nation, separate and independent from Canada. This modern political movement is built upon grievances that date back to conflicts between the French and British during the colonial period. There is a big election on Monday that will decide the premier and many of the ministers of the province.  This election is critical in deciding whether the secession movement will move forward or backward.  Today, the newspapers and broadcast media are buzzing with coverage of the candidates, the polls, recent voter ID proposals and unstoppable analysis of every political angle.

In the spirit of full discloser, prior to this residency, I shared a disinterest and ignorance in politics across the border with most Americans.  Being here, chatting with a wide range of people, mixing their diverse artistic ideas into a new musical work and sharing good food has changed that for me forever.

From across the border, the notion that a French-speaking province would want to secede from the rest of the English-speaking nation is understandable, but this is an oversimplification. Quebec is not a monolithic province. It has a complex society of diverse ethnic, cultural and political groups.  Anglophones, indigenous communities and a mosaic of immigrant cultures don’t always fit into the notion of a separation based primarily on one’s language.   Regardless of where any individual stands on these complex issues, Quebec is wrestling with some of the most difficult questions any nation can face.  As an American, the staggering cost of our secession movement in the 1860’s is forever etched into our national imagination.  While there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the Quebec sovereignty debate will ever erupt in violence, our historical precedent stands as an ominous reminder of the worst possible consequences.

How do we go about the business of assembling diverse people into a vibrant, shared sense of identity and purpose?  How do we make the big ideas of equality, dignity and liberty real in our laws, our words and our actions?

How can we go about the business of assembling diverse artistic traditions into a vibrant, singular expression?  How do we make the big, artistic concepts real in the musical notes written on the paper?

The Missa Kreyol is an experiment in artistic collaboration. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I prefer to write music in the midst of a busy mix of ideas, generated by a wide range of partners, friends, colleagues and critics.  Like the ongoing experiment of democracy in any nation, this creative process is messy and often frustrating.  Long, passionate, hard fought debates can lead down a political dead end, requiring everyone to return to the big ideas we all profess. Similarly, hours of work on a particular musical idea often leads to an artistic dead end, requiring a return to the fundamental, guiding principles of the project. Molding and shaping opposing viewpoints into a functioning law or policy is not entirely unlike an attempt at molding and shaping an ancient Latin text and a throbbing Haitian Kompa dance rhythm into a joyful concert piece.  When we collaborate in politics, we move some ideas forward and leave others behind. When we decide on the direction of a musical work, we develop some ideas and leave others on the “cutting room floor.”  Democracy and artmaking are forever entwined in that both require loss (often gut-wrenching, painful loss) to move forward into new, often uncharted and uncertain possibilities.

It is the struggle to constantly reinvent itself in light of its first principles that drives a functioning democracy.  The ongoing work of collaborative artistic creation mirrors and informs this struggle for reinvention.  Civic leaders and artists both have big ideas. It is the act of putting those ideas into concrete actions that brings us back over and over again… to keep trying.