~~ the musician: prophet or entertainer?
A musician who contemplates what it is to be human runs up against pesky questions.
For this essay, a prophet is one who warns of urgent truths no matter the cost, and an entertainer structures leisure time for hire. Because this is a mix, not a simple dichotomy, the questions around the distinction can be pesky.
Notable musicians have put themselves decidedly on one side or the other. Pete Seeger boasted that he had never refused to perform for anyone. I infer that he was answering critics who would push the prophet role on him more radically. Cellist Pablo Casals vowed he would never play nor even reside in his own homeland until Generalissimo Franco was gone from power. A clearly radical stance.
Hey, kids, time out here: radical may not really mean what those calling themselves conservatives would have you understand. A radical considers issues at their roots as well as stems and higher structures.
Is Seeger’s “hammer out danger, hammer out a warning” empty because he is willing to play and sing before those for whom the warning is foredoomed to splash off a dried-up husk of a spirit? Well, the words are there; words that are inseparable from the music, as for no instruments-only performer.
Is a Hungarian emigre pianist living in London silly to refrain from concertizing in Budapest during national celebrations because the government there is growing friendly to an ugly nazi current in the country? Is his quiet gesture vacuous because there is little expectation that it would cause any change?
I say no. The key is little expectation. Not only is he showing deep humanity. From such small differences, and much tinier even, manifesting over the multi-millennial mystery of time, has come all the richness of life now evolving in our planet. He has contributed nobly to the eternal dialog, no matter how few heard the interview, how few in his native land wondered why he didn’t participate.
If you do what is right, the question of hoping that change will come of it doesn’t enter into it. Ghandi doesn’t say, “expect” the change you want to see in the world by embodying it. He simply says “be” that change. To do that thoroughly would leave no juice for expectations.
Frederik Chopin famously burned his entertainer bridges in Poland and fled into exile in France for loudly refusing to entertain visiting “tsarist butchers”. This puts him smack in our prophetic category. Perhaps that snap decision was easy for him, made so by indignant anger, but also by practical consideration of what degree of change were possible to effect in the audience he insulted.
I knew a rugby player who steadfastly urged American teams, in the apartheid era, to invite white South African teams to play and to accept their invitations. An indignant idealist might ask, shouldn’t sportsmen rather protest injustice by a boycott? My rugby diplomatist anticipates prophet Harvey Milk’s legacy advice about the hatred that festers in the dark of fear yielding to the toleration that sprouts in the light of seeing more and knowing more.
Can we fault a world-renowned figure preparing to travel the United States on a speaking tour for knuckling under to the condition that he refrain from commenting on the deeply institutionalized injustices in his home and in the US? How does a State Department apparatchik put this stricture into words and then, hours later, kiss his children and sleep peacefully? Are we (US citizens) lastingly grateful for the level of public service exemplified by that piece of diplomacy? Did it prolong the civil rights struggle and the demand for more blood and torment?
If those are not pesky questions, we are dead.
DZ, Mauston, WI