At this point in time it’s almost impossible to simply turn off the news, not to read the newspapers and to avoid seeing posts and comments on social networks regarding the ever growing problems in the Middle East or even Eastern Europe. Trying to turn our thoughts to other matters, to distract ourselves or to give balm to the woes and worries in all of our hearts, is certainly one way to sweeten the bitter brew. But, it still seems surreal, absurd, almost indecent for the rest of us to sit in our comfortable, safe, quite homes wondering if Mozart was a good father, or if Bach really did intend one of his sonatas for an oboe. What does it all matter, really?
I remember all too well my very first concert playing under a conductor; as a harpsichordist a lot of our work was done without such wondrous things as conductors! My rite of passage was a performance of Bach at the miraculous St Martin in the Fields on Trafalgar Square at London. The conductor was none other than the Conductor Laureate Sir Charles Groves. What a daunting prospect for a young just-out-of-college musician. But more importantly, the orchestra was called MANA, an acronym for Musicians Against Nuclear Arms. We performed to raise awareness and funds to combat the ever growing problems of nuclear weapons. So passionate we were about the cause the concert was supporting, that I am sure our playing was that more intense, alive, meaningful for it. But what did it achieve?
That furious activist musician still lurks somewhere in my very much tamed and stable musical repertoire. I still bring to my music some of the anger, distress, empathy and frailty which reflects three decades of seeing things no one should have to see, of having lived on four continents with all the marvels and horrors of their variously different social problems. And yes, I do still want to pick up my banner and wave it about in the streets, to make my alegences and rages known within my performance, but is that for the best? As ambivalent as it feels to simply “keep calm and carry on”, anything else might just cause more agitation, more aggravation, more distress—at least on a local level.
And yes, I do want to know that there is a band out there, a chamber orchestra much like MANA, which seeks to stand up and be counted, to make a case for world peace, Middle East peace, an end to fighting, to war, to conflict. And although I am sure many of my colleague musicians, feel the same way – to a certain degree they mostly seem far more worried on a personal and professional level. These musicians seem to be far more worried about their short and long term livelihoods. Those in the UK talk of lack of public spending, lack of public awareness, lack of government support for the arts and for music in particular. They talk of changing professions, of Plan B, of training as a barrister or even a barista. Perhaps, they think, they should move to “Europe”, “the continent”, as the Brits call the rest of Europe. Maybe it’s better there! Berlin is high on the wish list: low rent, public artistic awareness, centrally located in Europe, the arts are supported by government spending…
But what of the Berliners? Would they really be so welcoming? Berlin was once a developed capital, but much like Manaus in Brazil, the city that had once had everything a capital city could wish for and was one of the most highly esteemed locations for any cosmopolitan minded person or business venture. Like Manaus, however, it imploded in upon itself. Suddenly Berlin was a place of dropouts (albeit artsy ones!) and the businesses withdrew. Real estate was cheap and online businesses or by the phone – call centres and such – begun to thrive in this low rent/low salary environment. Musicians could live cheaply and charge minimal fees for concerts—even outside Berlin—due to their low costs of living, and thereby enjoy a huge USP, or Unique Selling Point: they were as good as any other musician but could be hired for a fraction of the cost. But things have changed. With time, businesses have been attracted to the low rents and Berlin has become more and more integrated into the rest of Germany, the infrastructure has been brought up to standard and in line with the rest of Europe. However, the fees for musicians have remained more or less the same, and have become pitifully low when put against the rising costs of living. For the working classical musician there are almost not enough daylight hours to earn a livelihood. Add to this the fact that Berlin used to be two cities, with two symphony orchestras, two opera houses, two communities brimming with musicians and artists who are now crammed into only one of each. Berlin can barely support its already teeming music scene. With an influx of musicians from all over the Europe, especially from the ever more problematic UK, Berlin will simply burst at its seems.
With all these kinds of worries why would colleague musicians be concerned about musical political activism? Well, sadly, they aren’t. We were raised hearing the words “charity starts at home”; then let’s quickly fix these problems at home so that we can help much more pressing and life-saving problems elsewhere.
By Dominic Eckersley