Three Composers on the Necessity and Pitfalls of Political Music

David Lang, Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne discuss their works, to be performed by the Crossing at the Institute for Advanced Study on Nov. 10 and 11.

When classical music composers get political, they often do it at the risk of preaching to the proverbial choir.

That is especially a danger in a bubble like the Institute for Advanced Study, a picturesque academic utopia in Princeton, N.J., where on Friday and Saturday the chamber choir the Crossing will perform choral works that tap into issues like sexual consent, homelessness and nationalism.

The concert, with what the institute bills as “politically thoughtful” pieces by David Lang, Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, was organized by Mr. Lang, the institute’s artist in residence, who acknowledged that political music comes with its share of pitfalls.

“One of the problems that I’ve always thought about it is that the people who go see music probably are not the people whose minds need to be changed,” he said.

Mr. Lang pointed to another piece he recently programmed at the institute: Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” an intensely political set of variations based on a Chilean anthem to rally the working class.

“It’s amazing and very powerful, but it galvanizes the opinions of people in the audience who already agree with it,” Mr. Lang said of the piece. “And chances are the people who wouldn’t agree with it are not in the audience.”

But three works the Crossing will perform this weekend are different, Mr. Lang said, in particular because of their subtlety and deeply personal nature.

The text for Mr. Hearne’s piece “Consent,” for example, quotes old love letters he has written, as well as text messages that were used in the Steubenville rape case of 2013. An unsettling suite by Mr. Lang, “the national anthems,” repurposes anthem lyrics to reveal how, he said, “our civilization is very fragile, and we are terrified of losing it.”

And Ms. Shaw’s work “To the Hands” contains a movement of spoken numerical figures — data about displaced people around the world — over a solo instrument’s arpeggios that oscillate between beautiful order and unnerving dissonance.

“It’s just a sort of gentle smearing of something that is otherwise comfortable, and over time the repetition is really insidious and potent,” said Ms. Shaw, who made the piece’s parts available for free online with the note that any performance should come with “rigorous solicitation of donations for those without homes (locally and globally).”

In a round-table interview, the composers discussed how they approach political music, and whether musicians even have the right to engage in hot-button issues of the day. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You write a piece of political music, then it’s performed. What comes next?

DAVID LANG I have my piece “the little match girl passion,” which is about whether people pay attention to homelessness and the suffering of those around us. People frequently use this piece to raise money. One of our jobs is to raise these issues and make these pieces be useful, but the truth is that the amount of money someone can make off a piece of contemporary music is probably pretty tiny compared to the problems of the world. A real point of these pieces is for us to figure out how to be better citizens. An entire community of people may have their minds on this issue, and then go out and change their communities.

TED HEARNE I totally agree. Using that particular piece to raise money is almost beside the point, I think.

What right do composers have to write about things like consent and the refugee crisis?

LANG I think all three of our pieces are about us examining how we feel about these topics. This authenticity question is a really interesting question for me. I think a lot of these issues of people figuring out who has the right to speak are important, and I agree there are some issues where the right to speak is really central to the issue of who actually gets to speak. But the other side of that problem, for me, is that some of these problems are so pervasive in our society that they’re going to need every single person to commit themselves to solving them in order to get addressed.

CAROLINE SHAW I’m not sure I can say that I should or that I can present work that’s meaningful and deeply engages with issues. But I want to try, and I have to keep trying. And I think there’s something about engaging with political issues specifically in choral music because it’s a very community-oriented art. There is, or at least there used to be, a really great tradition of community choirs around the world. You can write something that people sing together and talk about with each other, and that’s where the conversations have to start.

HEARNE I would never try to pretend that I’m not a white man. That’s a part of my identity, so examining that through my work is something that is necessary for me to do to try to get a better understanding of how to live in the world. I think that anybody doing that is valuable. Pretending to speak for somebody who had a completely different experience from you is a different thing.

What makes political music successful?

LANG It’s very hard to have a kind of music that changes someone’s mind without really noticing it. A really incredible piece of art about politics is “The Threepenny Opera.” No one is a good character, and no one tells you what to think. It’s this disturbing situation that’s also really enjoyable with music. The social message is something you have to decode, maybe weeks later as you think about it or sing the songs to yourself.

HEARNE I love “Threepenny Opera.” It’s very inspirational to me. It also has me thinking about ways an artist can use their work to create something that you couldn’t imagine. That’s a metaphor for what you can do in the world. When some formal idea is obliterated or when somebody samples a piece of music that has nothing to do with the genre, it creates this kind of chaos of reference or this juxtaposition that nobody could imagine. That is a political act.

Are there any common mistakes in writing political music?

LANG I never want anyone to think I am ordering them to do or feel something. There’s a lot of music that we listen to in our lives that is very good at making us feel something whether we want to or not, like film music. But when I write a piece of music where I want to cry, I don’t care where anybody else cries, and I don’t want to order anyone to cry at a specific moment. I feel like that’s a problem with political music.

SHAW But there are artists where it is extremely important to be clear exactly what they think and they want you to think that way, like a lot of political hip-hop music. It’s just not how I operate.

HEARNE It shouldn’t be obvious what you think. Or if it is, maybe dig deeper or don’t write that piece.