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    group of violin players performing

    Political Harmony

    A Community Orchestra as Metaphor and Model for the Polity

    Asher Gelzer-Govatos

    January 21, 2021
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    • Brian Peterson

      Beautiful! I shed tears of grief and joys in encountering these words today. My grief is as a member of a community orchestra myself that stopped gathering at the beginning of the pandemic and sadly is no more. My joy is in that I find hope in that day to come when I will be able to gather again with dear friends, a hodgepodge of eccentrics, oddballs and genuine characters with whom I share a deep common love for music and for one another, and that together share a vision, albeit perhaps naïve, of a more harmonious future for us all.

    • Brian Peterson

      “What community orchestras speak to is the ability to move beyond strong divisions, however haltingly, in pursuit of a unifying (and, yes, transcendent) shared good.” I can’t believe I’m reading what I have so longed to put the words about my experience as an amateur musician. I grieve not being able to gather together on Sunday nights at the local community college with the hodgepodge cast of characters that I love so dearly in my community orchestra. Thank you

    • Fritz Loewe

      What a brilliant and refreshing metaphor. I really found this helpful in its purity, not to say naivete, which sounds patronizing.

    • David Chase

      I appreciate this...” What if, instead of thinking of politics as a battleground, as a wrestling match, as a contest for power, we thought in more peaceable, cooperative terms: politics as a community orchestra, a collection of amateurs, humble but driven by an inner impulse to come together for a common purpose?” I offer an additional perspective, not in contradiction to the idea of “battleground”, but in support of the orchestra. What if we thought in terms of a potluck meal. All are invited, everyone contributes, all is sampled, the best is devoured, new friendships are built, and recipes are exchanged. Human flourishing at its finest when everyone uses their gifts to serve the other. As a Christ follower, the only battleground I believe we face is a spiritual battleground, the war of good and evil. As a society we have indeed adopted wartime language in spaces never intended to be a war zone. Culture, race, and politics among others have taken an inappropriately aggressive tone. So let us gather, enjoy the potluck, and appreciate the inter workings & sounds of the community orchestra.

    In Virginia Euwer Wolff’s 1991 young adult novel The Mozart Season, protagonist Allegra Shapiro, a talented pre-teen violinist, prepares for a contest where she will perform Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto in competition with other Oregonian youth violinists. When one of her competitors sustains an injury, Allegra’s teacher asks her to substitute during a performance of the concerto with a community orchestra in rural Oregon, as a sort of dry run for the competition. Prepping her for the experience of playing with a community orchestra – one made up of amateur, volunteer musicians – Allegra’s teacher gives her this advice:

    All these people are genuine amateurs. They play because of that thing inside them, that impulse telling them to. . . . They’re very humble, usually. They don’t have to be told they’re not perfect; they know it all too well. . . . The sounds aren’t ever perfect. But the spirit is often quite wonderful. For some of those players the orchestra is the only thing they have.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about community orchestras, spurred less by a pandemic-fed desire to hear live music than by a compulsion to mull over our current political climate. Being not a political scientist but a literary critic by trade, I think less in policy proposal, more in metaphor, and it strikes me more and more that the metaphors we use when thinking about politics could stand to be rethought. What if, instead of thinking of politics as a battleground, as a wrestling match, as a contest for power, we thought in more peaceable, cooperative terms: politics as a community orchestra, a collection of amateurs, humble but driven by an inner impulse to come together for a common purpose?

    Dhananjay Jagannathan has written movingly of the political possibilities of polyphonic singing, with its potential for a dissolution of the space between individuals. My argument for music as politics is slightly different, rooted not in the transcendence of polyphonic singing, but the jumbled, grounded harmonies of the orchestra. While polyphony, as Jagannathan notes, enables a more egalitarian community, harmony meets us where we are, with our hierarchies intact but not unsalvageable. Orchestral politics offers a political way forward that strives for greater cooperation while pragmatically recognizing the limits of any such cooperation.

    For the body politic to think like an orchestra requires each “section” to think not only of its own needs, but of how it contributes to the overall timbre of society. To think like a community orchestra, though, involves going a step beyond this. The musicians and conductor of a professional orchestra (at least a stable one, tragically becoming scarcer as we witness the collapse of more and more professional orchestras) hold together not merely through a love of music, but through the ties of vocation: they must perform or risk being replaced. They are also, to a degree, interchangeable – the only aspect of their lives that matters on stage is their ability to hit the notes. In a community orchestra, crowded with amateurs, no one has to be there, so the group depends for its cohesion on willing cooperation; in the end, the orchestra reflects the peculiar local character of the community it represents.

    group of violin players performing

    Photograph by Larisa Birta (public domain)

    To put food on the table in graduate school, I frequently moonlighted as a freelance cellist, playing for weddings, church services, and other events. By far my favorite recurring gig was as a ringer for a community orchestra in my metropolitan area. Brought in, along with other assorted semi-professional musicians, to provide some extra heft to supplement the volunteer members of the orchestra, I found myself at once welcomed into the group and distant enough from it to observe the workings of the machine.

    We rehearsed in a middle-school orchestra room decorated with motivational posters, and most often performed in the sanctuary of a local Catholic church, which would host a reception with baked goods and punch in the fellowship hall afterwards. Our conductor, energetic and upbeat, held us together in between juggling multiple other positions, as most conductors do. The volunteer orchestra members split evenly between student musicians and old hands who had been with the orchestra for decades.

    Despite these modest circumstances, we performed excellent repertoire competently. The orchestra conceived of itself as adventurous by community orchestra standards, so alongside Beethoven’s Seventh and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, I found myself playing works by local contemporary composers as well as obscure pieces by forgotten composers of the past, including many works by Latin American and African American composers of the nineteenth century. This was not accidental: the orchestra reflected the largely African American community in which it was based.

    I do not want to overly romanticize the workings of local, amateur organizations. A community orchestra like the one I played in presents many challenges. Trying to put on quality concerts with limited rehearsal time, and players frequently absent due to work conflicts or family situations, takes patience, good humor, and an ability to roll with many unexpected punches – once I was asked at the last minute to sub in as principal cellist for a rehearsal, which required me to sight read a long solo passage on the fly, only to return to a completely different part for the concert.

    Often these challenges get heightened by the task of corralling a group of particular, quirky individuals unafraid to make their opinions known quite loudly. (What’s the orchestra going to do – fire them?) Seemingly every logistical decision made by someone in charge, from how to move the percussion to when to arrive before a concert, gets loudly contradicted, discussed, and thrown out for debate among the orchestra veterans. Above all, a sort of territoriality dominates the proceedings, with every assay toward a practical compromise met with suspicion.

    Playing music with others offers us this vision of cooperation – a subsuming of the self to something greater.

    Anyone who has read the letters to the editor section of a local newspaper will recognize these dynamics that emerge in the context of small communities. Minor but longstanding irritations bubble to the surface; factions arise and discuss policy positions sub rosa, in this case behind the cover of the bass section or by the water fountains in the hallway during rehearsal break. Here, perhaps more so than in the quality of the music, the real difference between professional and amateur orchestras emerges.

    In a professional orchestra the successful conductor imprints his or her image on the orchestra, from the running of rehearsals down to the sound on stage; this is why music nerds hoard LPs of particular recordings by their favorite conductors like rookie baseball cards. While a successful community orchestra conductor does lend his or her spirit to the orchestra, this happens in the gaps between doing the hundred other necessary tasks, most of which would, in a professional orchestra, be delegated to other parties. Logistics must be managed, funds raised, disgruntled players pacified.

    Despite – or perhaps because – of the chaotic nature of community orchestra organizing, it offers hope for our political moment. We are not strangers to faction and rivalry, to disagreements that seem in the moment insurmountable. Whether you view our current divisions as some new rent in our national fabric, or merely the clarification of longer-steeping rifts, we find ourselves in a time of very vocal division. What community orchestras speak to is the ability to move beyond strong divisions, however haltingly, in pursuit of a unifying (and, yes, transcendent) shared good.

    By the end of my youth orchestra days, I acted as assistant principal cellist for my orchestra, while a girl I had played alongside for a half dozen years, and had become good friends with, sat in the principal’s chair. In one of our final concerts together we played Lizst’s Les Préludes, a piece about the assembled joys and sorrows of life. At one point Liszt includes a brief duet for two cellos that riffs on the main melody. I will never forget looking over at my stand partner, our eyes locking in mutual trust, as we launched into the duet: the culmination and perfection of a musical relationship. At its finest, playing music with others offers us this vision of cooperation – a subsuming of the self to something greater.

    Trying to apply this method of living to politics raises some strong objections, of course. Working toward a common good requires some conception of that good – a tenuous ideal even in the best of times. This is where the model of the community orchestra proves especially useful, though, because the organization of a community orchestra is a necessarily pragmatic arrangement. Compromises must be made, concessions granted. What checks the members of a community orchestra is, on the one hand, that sense of humility, the acknowledgement of how much struggle remains before perfection is achieved. On the other, the knowledge that the striving remains worthwhile, that the harmony of political cooperation, however wavering, might still sound clear and beautiful.

    Contributed By

    Asher Gelzer-Govatos is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, where he lives with his family. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, The Hedgehog Review, and University Bookman. He co-hosts The Readers Karamazov, a podcast on philosophy and literature.

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