Social Music: Sparking Change Through Resonance
Who could have known that music would play such a powerful role during a pandemic? I, along with many other musicians, had to wait for this worldwide lockdown to experience an additional dimension of music which would have never been conceivable had physical space not been removed from the scene. It turned out that, in times of physical distance, music — and particularly live music — could function as a glue transcending space to align and connect human souls.
GAIA started with a spark: A very simple, but concrete and appealing idea that came up during a conversation between Antoinette Klatzky and Otto Scharmer — quickly shared with excitement with the rest of the Presencing Institute community — and that brought together thousands of people from all over the world during a three-month journey. With little more than a chosen date for the initial event (10 days later!), a rough design for the different stages of the journey ahead and — this was critical — a longer term aspiration of systems change and civilizational renewal, dozens of volunteers quickly got on board to engage in a rich co-generative experience with the hope of navigating an unprecedented, existential global crisis.
It was during the second GAIA session when we all experienced the cathartic power of social music. The guest speaker, Dayna Cunningham — an eternal source of inspiration whom I have the honor to consider my intellectual mentor — was talking about structural violence “as a set of human agreements” within which groups of people exert power over other groups. In response to a participant’s comment in the chat, she introduced the idea of “structural love” as the needed collective reaction. Through stories which were simultaneously devastating and inspiring, you could see on the hundreds of faces attending this conversation, from different places in the world, how deeply touched people were.
I had been asked to perform some music in front of the camera after Dayna’s words (since the conception of GAIA, these musical moments were introduced to help GAIA participants to stay with their own ideas and emotions). But this time, instead of playing the classical piece I had been preparing for this session, I just let go of my plans and started improvising to resonate with Dayna’s words. In part, I reacted in this way to create some space to allow my own feelings to be expressed, touched as I was. But also, my intuition was telling me that a musical improvisation could contribute more meaningfully to amplify the social field that was being crafted through the dialogue. Music could complement and enrich what words had started.
A new type of practice had been born for me. It was not the first time I had improvised in public nor that I reacted with music to spoken words in a room. But the unplanned nature of this resonance in particular and the surreal setting — me playing from home to an audience of more than a thousand people spread across the world in the context of a global lockdown — opened up a very profound field whose full potential is yet to be explored.
To understand how this musical resonance came to be in this moment of history and how this could continue playing a role in activating social transformations, let me first share some insights about the musical journey that brought me here.
Growing up in a Mediterranean town sparked my social approach to music. Godella is one of the dozens of small towns around Valencia’s huerta (the vast agricultural fields that nurture this city) whose local life is deeply shaped by the music school and the wind orchestra. You can hardly find anyone in town who is not somehow connected to the Banda del Casino Musical, an institution that has been contributing to the local cultural life for over 200 years. Sustained by small monthly donations of hundreds of families, this institution offers weekly — sometimes even daily — events, that range from formal big scale concerts in the local concert hall, to performances by the students of the music school, to musical improvisations on the streets. Being part of such a versatile cultural institution for over 20 years — first as a clarinet student and a member of the wind orchestra, and in later stages also as a concert pianist and orchestra conductor — seeded my understanding of music as a rich and powerful tool for social change.
The (perhaps overly) long detour of my architecture studies allowed me to expand my perspective on the social power of music in different directions, that I now see as connected. I felt very attracted by the spatial dimension of music. I studied how this art form functions as a natural focus point for spontaneous social gatherings in any given space, and how this property could be enhanced through architectural design. I fell in love with Hans Sharoun’s proposal for the Berliner Philharmoniker: the first big auditorium to place the public not in front, but around the central stage. Not surprisingly, this concept was soon reproduced in dozens of concert halls all around the world. As an architect-to-be, I always came back to this idea and reflected on the relevance of the spatial dimension of music; as a music student, I kept on exploring venues where people could gather organically around the piano.
In my first trip to Mexico, back in 2010, I carried my clarinet. I felt that my music was going to be a natural way to connect with people of a social reality hitherto unknown to me. Who could have known that this experience was only going to be the first of uncountable moments in Mexico and other Latin American countries? My passion for this incommensurate region of the world, so deeply tied to my Mediterranean roots, had just started. And looking back ten years in, I now realize how music has been always present in my personal and professional exchanges in Latin America, playing a crucial role in shaping social relationships and cultivating moments of reflection and action among those whom I have met along the way.
The most powerful experience, I still recall, of a process of social transformation where music and other art forms were intentionally brought into the design took place in the community of Jardim Colombo, an underserved neighborhood in the Western side of São Paulo, during the winter of 2018. The community was struggling with the presence of a huge dumping site in the middle of the neighborhood. Hoping that this site could one day become a public park, neighbors self-organized to clean up the dumpster. However, despite the massive collective efforts, the site continued to accumulate trash and rubble. It was only a co-generated art and participation festival on the dumping site, planned and designed within only six weeks, that ended up sparking a collective change in the community, both in behavior and in mindset. The site would no longer be perceived as a dumpster, but rather as a public space for collective celebration and self-organizing (in this interview about my master’s thesis I reflect on this experience with the help of a piano). Like a spark — again — this celebration ignited the collective capacity to address other challenges of relevance for the community, including the extreme health emergency that Jardim Colombo was going to face two years later, which is now being masterfully managed under the leadership of my much admired Ester Carro. Who could have known that art and music would be so decisive in building community?
Two extremely different contexts — a Brazilian community deeply tied to the ground and a virtual global community — yet music connected them both. Since that GAIA session in which I was called to improvise, I have been contributing with moments of musical resonance in dozens of virtual events. From students to professionals to people from worldwide wanting to connect with others, the types of audiences I have played for (or with) is as diverse as the nature of these events allow (that is, individuals with access to technology and internet and, most importantly, with the time and the mental space to attend online sessions for one or two hours). Yet every time I witness how, no matter who is on the screen, music touches them. Eyes closing, smiles, slower breath — after these few minutes of music, I can often perceive a slight shift in the participants’ interior condition towards a more open-minded and open-hearted attitude. Music sparks the willingness to connect with ourselves and with others.
Trying to describe how these musical improvisations take place is not an easy task and goes somehow against the nature of this practice itself, which does rely on a form of communication that is nonverbal (I resonate here with my colleague, Olaf Baldini’s, reflections on his visual practice). What I can share is that a musical resonance starts with listening deeply to the conversations that are taking place, from which I tend to pick one or two prevalent ideas that I try to imagine as sounds. If we are talking about trauma and grief — or structural violence, for that matter — I will probably start on the left side of the piano, playing slow bass sounds. If the mood of the participants feels lighter, I will then start with faster notes on the right side.
The second main insight to unleash the improvisation is more directional. Besides the ideas that are being shared more or less explicitly, which capture the current tone of the conversation, I make an effort to imagine where the intention of the group is heading. After staying with the initial thoughts and feelings, I start moving the music towards that desired outcome, which is usually more positively charged — somewhere close to the concept of structural love. What exactly happens between beginning and end is, nevertheless, unpredictable, and depends on several different factors (ranging from the quality of the inspiration on a given day to purely technical issues that influence on the overall experience). I let the music speak for itself. The rest is noise.
Looking back to how the past 25 years have unfolded since I first encountered music, I can only think of this long period of time as an extensive and organic improvisation, kicked off on my first day at the music school in Godella at the age of seven, and guided by a set of blurred life intentions — my North Star — that have helped me make sense of my existence: my firm belief in the possibility of a more just world where equitable human flourishing and collective well-being are prioritized. Along the way, the people I meet and the experiences I am part of feel like notes and chords enriching and informing this improvised and collective journey of my life. Wherever I go, regardless of people's origin and context, I keep on witnessing, every time, how music contributes to sparking individual and collective transformations. As the current global health crisis is making clear, people do not even need to be physically in the same space for changes to emerge.
It is my commitment to continue leveraging music as a tool for social change, with the hope that one day we will start behaving as if we were all part of a global orchestra performing for a planetary resonance.
Let us play together.
Thanks to Eva Pomeroy, Antoinette Klatzky, and Rachel Hentsch for the invitation to write this piece and for their thoughtful comments on its earlier versions.