Music + social justice: YSM alumni building community through art

Street Symphony founder Vijay Gupta
Yale School of Music alumnus Vijay Gupta ’07 M.M. is the founder of Street Symphony, a nonprofit organization that engages the people of Los Angeles’ Skid Row through music-making and dialogue. (Photo credit: Mathieu Young)

This article originally appeared in Music at Yale magazine.

Vijay Gupta ’07 M.M. spends a lot of time on Skid Row, the neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles where thousands of homeless people sleep on the streets every night. It is not far from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Gupta, a violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has an office. While Skid Row and Disney Hall are worlds apart in many ways, both are home to the creative spirit.

Gupta is the founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, a nonprofit organization that engages the people of Skid Row through music-making and dialogue. In addition to offering regular live performances at Skid Row’s Midnight Mission shelter and area prisons, Street Symphony involves residents in the creation and performance of music through multiple initiatives including private coaching, composition workshops, and the Urban Voices Project, a community choir comprised of people who are or were homeless.

Street Symphony has been an intensely personal journey for Gupta. It was born from his outrage at the conditions of Skid Row, his reckoning with his own chaotic childhood, and his desire to stretch the traditional boundaries of music-making. One of six Citizen Artist Fellows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this year, Gupta recognizes that music is limited in its capacity to solve complex social problems, yet he believes in music’s transformative power. He is among a growing number of musicians who are sharing their music with others in pursuit of a better world.

What was that composer feeling when he wrote that?” asked an inmate in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles following a recent Street Symphony performance of Schumann’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1. For Gupta, that question is an example of how the people of Skid Row continually challenge his understanding of the mission he is on.

I think our audiences in Skid Row have fewer preconceptions about classical music than our concert hall audiences do,” he said. “They aren’t interested in the quality of our performances. They want to hear the stories of the music.”

When professional musicians work with members of their communities, they bring with them certain ideas and assumptions that need to be scrutinized in order for that work to take hold.

Yale School of Music (YSM) visiting professor Sebastian Ruth explores the theory and practice behind such work in his “Music, Service, and Society” seminar. He suggests there are “four variables” a musician could consider when linking musical practice with a social-justice agenda: content (What music are we playing? Are we thinking critically about the canon?), context (Where is the work happening? Who is doing it? How is race a factor?), process (How are we teaching? What are our performance expectations?), and intention (What are we trying to do, and why?).

Through multiple readings, including John Dewey on the philosophy of aesthetics and Maxine Greene on arts, education, and social justice, Ruth’s students delve into big questions about the artist in society. They analyze case studies of famous citizen artists — Nina Simone, Pablo Casals, Daniel Barenboim — who worked with different communities for different purposes. “My hope,” Ruth said, “is that people leave the class with a lot of perspectives with which to engage in their own artistic careers and pursuits.”

A violinist, violist, and the founder and artistic director of Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, Ruth says that for him, one of the biggest challenges is “how to teach in a way that doesn’t repeat the patterns of oppression you’re trying to disrupt.”

Members of Community Musicworks in Providence, Rhode Island posing with instruments.
Community Musicworks resident musicians, from left to right: Minna Choi, Ashley Frith, Chloe Kline, Zan Berry, Jesse Holstein, Adreinne Taylor, Sebastian Ruth, Lisa Barksdale, Luke Fatora, Laura Cetilia. (Photo credt: Stephanie Alvarez Ewans)

This idea is one that resonates with Yaira Matyakubova ’06 A.D., a violinist and senior resident musician at Music Haven, a New Haven nonprofit founded by Tina Lee Hadari ’04 M.M. that was originally modeled on Community MusicWorks. Both organizations offer lessons and performance opportunities for young people, using a holistic approach that emphasizes human and community development.

Matyakubova, a member of the Haven String Quartet, whose members are resident musicians at Music Haven, said the tension between imparting knowledge to her students and creating the conditions for their personal and artistic freedoms is alive for her every day.

I have a metaphor for this,” she said. “I’m given a bundle of keys. If knowledge is the set of keys, I have to find the right key for each student. It is different for every child. If a child wants to play something and he’s very excited about it, I have to hear that, and not just embrace Suzuki. We have to be very flexible in different dimensions, in how we see and hear, and in thinking about every student’s background, heritage, and future. How can we put those experiences together in the best way possible and let something new be born out of them?”

David Lang ’83 M.M.A., ’89 D.M.A. sees his work in much the same way. Lang teaches composition at YSM and is a co-founder of the contemporary-music organization Bang on a Can. As a composer, he aims “to bring something necessary into the world” — something new that draws people together and “shines a light” on a community’s concerns. “Writing music,” Lang said, “is a utopian act.”

David Lang’s symphony for broken instruments being performed at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia
Faculty composer David Lang’s “symphony for broken instruments” was premiered at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia in December 2017. (Photo credit: Ryan Collerd for the New York Times)

Lang grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s and received a “strong dose of social justice” from his parents. The Vietnam War inspired his first political composition, “illumination rounds,” written in 1981 when he was a graduate student at Yale. The piece, for violin and piano, explores the phosphorescent bullets that enabled helicopter gunmen to more accurately aim machine guns while firing at night during the war. The piece premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1982 and marked the beginning of Lang’s philosophical wrestling with the role of music in society. His Pulitzer Prize-winning vocal piece “the little match girl passion,” drawn from the story “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen and set in the format of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” is a musical meditation on suffering and the limits of human compassion.

In 2016, Robert Blackson, director of Temple Contemporary, a gallery at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, called Lang to tell him that he had access to all of the broken instruments in the Philadelphia public-school system, and to ask if Lang would be interested in composing something for those instruments.

I couldn’t believe how amazing this was,” Lang said. Inspired and excited, he was also infuriated by the social and political realities on stark display in one of American’s poorest school districts. “Public-school music had changed my life,” he said, “and here were 1,500 broken instruments, out of circulation, not changing the life of someone else.”

Lang’s “symphony for broken instruments” premiered in December 2017. An ensemble of more than 400 professional musicians and public-school students from across Philadelphia played those broken instruments, creating a beautiful, moving sound. And here, music really did change the world: all of the fixable instruments are being repaired and will be returned to the hands of schoolchildren. As a composition teacher, Lang challenges his students to think hard about the role music plays in a community.

On the Navajo (Diné) Reservation in New Mexico, violinist Ariel Horowitz ’19 M.M. works with children living in poverty and environmentally toxic conditions. Her small organization, the Heartbeat Project, provides music and math education for two weeks in the summer for students living on the reservation. The program builds on traditional Navajo (Diné) music and educational practices to offer academic and musical experiences for disenfranchised students who are hungry for opportunities.

We are not really teachers, we’re students,” Horowitz said. “We aren’t meant to speak over our students’ struggles, or define their struggles for them.”

Similarly, Gupta said, Street Symphony musicians need to be clear about their relationship to the communities they enter. “We aren’t part of the Skid Row community, and that’s something we need to own,” he said. “We get to leave.” Yet, he keeps going back. Showing up, he said, is a huge part of the work, a counterpoint to the personal and societal abandonment so many Skid Row residents have experienced throughout their lives.

For some people, a place like Skid Row or the county jail is the beginning, a place of remarkable rebirth,” he said. “We hear amazing stories about incredible resilience. Once we sit and talk with folks, we realize they’re just people. Of course we have privileges, but we’re all battling our own demons. Their raw honesty and authenticity are very refreshing.”

For American classical musicians, questions about music, community, and justice are increasingly coming to the fore. “We’re at an interesting place in our field,” Horowitz said. “We’re having to innovate more than ever to make our art form accessible to more diverse, younger audiences.” The focus, she said, “has to be about us going to other people,” not the other way around.

Like many young performers, Horowitz sees the future of music as being closely tied to the well-being of communities. Gupta, quoting Nina Simone, said, “An artist’s duty … is to reflect the times.” And, he said, to build bridges.

It’s our job to tell the stories, to offer evidence to the contrary,” he said of the prevailing narrative that places blame on the individual rather than the systemic forces — race, class, institutional power structures — that land people on Skid Row in the first place. The women and men of Skid Row are “our beloved community that we’ve forsaken.”

For Matyakubova, an intangible bridge connects both sides of the citizen artist’s life, spanning the space between social-justice practitioner and professional musician.

We rehearse in the morning as a professional string quartet,” she said of her work at Music Haven. “Then we switch through the lunch hour into the very basics of teaching our instruments. The inspiration itself becomes a bridge. For me, the learning is about holding on to your own self as an artist. I feel very blessed and grateful to have the opportunity to do both.”

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Mackenzie Dilbeck: mackenzie.dilbeck@yale.edu, 203-436-4928