As my students filed into my 10 a.m. class this past Monday morning, the somber looks on their faces and their murmurings about the horrific, unthinkable tragedy in Las Vegas just 12 hours prior made it clear we needed to talk about this before entering into the day’s lesson.
The students, like most of us who recoiled in horror at seeing footage of the worst mass shooting in our country’s history, were subdued and stunned — if not surprised, given the increasing frequency with which these terrible things keep happening. For these students, however, there is an added layer of grief beyond the obvious toll of witnessing such inhuman suffering. Our class is studying jazz composition at California State University, Northridge, and the students are all aspiring musicians hoping to have careers in music. They, like me, are particularly saddened by the fact that this murderous act of terror happened at a music festival, and that it’s only the latest in a recent string of attacks at places where people were listening and dancing to music.
The shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Vegas. The bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, U.K.. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. The Bataclan massacre in Paris. In all these places, music was the reason for people to come together, but men with ill intent turned these gathering places into traps. For musicians, it’s an insult beyond injury to have the one thing we love more than anything be used for such sinister purpose.
The people who planned and executed these attacks aren’t necessarily music haters; more likely, they simply see concerts, festivals and dance clubs as easy “soft targets,” not unlike the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or the boardwalk in Nice, France, or the finish line at the Boston Marathon. But regardless of intent, the consequences of these attacks can be devastating far beyond the immediate carnage they wreak.
One of the things that makes terrorism especially nefarious and cynical is that it tries to turn something people love into something they're afraid of. One of my students that morning shared a story about how he took his father to another outdoor country music festival recently, only to see how his dad couldn’t fully enjoy himself — because he was worried about a terrorist attack. If that’s how some people were feeling about going to see shows before Sunday evening, what could possibly be going through their minds now? Will people think twice about going to the Hollywood Bowl, when there might be a gunman hiding in the hills above the stage? Will would-be music patrons at the Satellite, Bluewhale or Disney Hall be scared off by the specter of bombs or bullets?
Musicians, and artists in general, are by the nature of our work interested in the act of creation — making things that bring joy to us and to others. Contrast that with a very real and competing human impulse to destroy. Both those impulses exist in all of us, pushing against each other and sometimes even working together. Throughout history, the creative spirit has been enlisted in the service of destruction with devastating results, be it catapults, guillotines, electric chairs, AR-15s, drones or nuclear warheads. We are exceptionally good at imagining new and clever ways to annihilate one another.
This is why I told my students on Monday morning that they have a moral imperative to continue on their path as creative artists. I hope they push even the tiniest figments of their imaginations out of their bodies and into existence for the world to see and hear. I hope they believe their musical gifts will one day help and heal others. I hope they realize life is fleeting and fragile, and they understand the urgency enough to act on their creative impulses.
I also will be encouraging our students to continue to see live music, despite the now-apparent risks. Having felt it many times myself, I am a true believer in the communion and healing that can happen through the shared experience of listening to and watching the drama of live music unfold.
In a recent interview I did with pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, he spoke about how live music creates a unified experience that gathers people together. “The ritual significance of that is as old as humanity, literally!” he exclaimed. “That’s probably one of the first things we ever did together as a species. It brings us back to some kind of core of being present together that, in a way, precedes everything else we know.” Iyer talked about how people from diverse and even antagonistic viewpoints could, for a moment, become unified though a shared musical experience. “People come for a lot of different reasons, but once they’re there in that space with everybody else, that’s when the music can do its work, to remind us of what it is to be in the present with others.”
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The powers of division go hand and hand with the powers of terror. The political fracturing of our society has weakened us, and there are fewer and fewer examples of common ground upon which to become whole again. That's true even in music; people who like country or bluegrass may not appreciate hip-hop or metal. Yet the power of music to heal en masse is undeniable. We saw Ariana Grande go back to Manchester with a cadre of pop stars, and recently Dave Matthews hosted a similar concert of stars in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, where tiki torch–bearing Nazis had sought to promote their ideology of hatred. Both shows, streamed online to the world, were emotional, cathartic and (for the most part) musically great, especially Justin Timberlake and his incredible band at Charlottesville. (That was amazing.)
Were those concertgoers at risk? Of course they were. But thousands upon thousands came out anyway, in defiance of fear and hate and in support of a more unified community of music lovers, cheering on those who would rather create things than destroy them.
Let’s keep going to concerts. Let’s continue to write and perform music, to make and experience things that bring us joy and bring us together.
My students and I will see you at the next show.