Classical music provides lens for Vietnam War

Paul Mayne // Western News

Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari, along with her Music and Politics class, partnered with Trax on the Trail, an interactive campaign music website, to create a series of podcasts that explore the intersection of music and presidential politics.

Emily Abrams Ansari may be an award-winning scholar, but the Don Wright Faculty of Music professor readily admits there are still things her students can teach her – and one of those things led to a Petro Canada Young Innovators Award.

The idea started with “a brilliant presentation” Music History PhD student April Morris delivered to Ansari’s Musical Americanism course last semester. Morris examined The Face of War, a little-known work by the American composer Elie Siegmeister which expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“She made me realize how little has been written about U.S. classical composers’ musical responses to Vietnam,” she said, adding such pieces could help her extend one of the central ideas explored in her forthcoming book, The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War.

One of the things I consider in the book is the effects of the Cold War on American classical composers’ stylistic choices between the 1950s and the 1970s,” she said. “April’s findings made me realize what I call the ‘politics of style’ became even more complicated when a composer was writing a piece of music in direct opposition to one of the Cold War’s most controversial ‘hot’ wars.”

The activism of rock and folk musicians like Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger and Yoko Ono in response to Vietnam are well documented. However, Ansari’s archival research project will explore the much less familiar story of the Vietnam-related music-making of American classical musicians.

She will explore three facets of the topic – classical musicians who aided the government, specifically State Department-funded musician-diplomats who toured Asia during the Vietnam War; anti-Vietnam War musician activists who led peace organizations and protest concerts; and anti-Vietnam War compositions.

Offered to full-time Western faculty members within eight years of their initial faculty appointment, the Young Innovators Award recognizes innovative work that has the potential to be of significance to society at large.

“We want to get a rounded picture of the very different ways in which the American classical music community engaged with the conflict,” Ansari said of the project that will be joined by Morris.

Some musicians worked as anti-war activists, organizing concerts and other musical events in opposition to the Vietnam War. Others felt compelled to articulate their feelings about the conflict in the form of anti-war compositions. A third group, meanwhile, helped advance the image of the United States in southeast Asia by touring and performing across the region with funding from the State Department.

About 60 works of U.S. classical music are known to have been written about the Vietnam War.

“Certainly, there will be overlaps between these three groups of musicians,” Ansari added. “Not all musicians who toured for the State Department supported U.S. foreign policy – so some may have been involved in anti-war campaigns. Many composers who were anti-war activists also wrote anti-war compositions.”

Most of the music she’ll be researching is little known today. Unlike anti-war rock and folk music from this period, this music did not make a big splash, culturally speaking. But it still merits study.

“Today, many Americans are strongly opposed to the actions of their political leaders. There is likely to be much interest in rediscovered classical music from the 1960s and 1970s that articulates many of those same feelings,” she said. “At the same time, this music has value to the historian, serving as a lens through which to understand the changing face of American nationalism during the 20th century.

“Many American composers from this period made their reputations writing ‘American-sounding’ music. But their proud patriotism was fading as opposition to Vietnam grew and as more and more Americans began to turn against American exceptionalism. This music helps us understand that shift that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s in a different way.”

Ansari and Morris will spend much of the award funding ($12,000) on travel to archives across the United States, looking for information about musicians’ activist work, their work with the government and their motivations for writing anti-war compositions. The research project also gives Morris hands-on training in archival methodologies to help her develop her PhD dissertation.

“I expect, and hope, we will discover musicians we knew nothing about who played a significant role in the anti-war movement, using music and music-making to try to win other Americans to their cause,” Ansari said. “We will find anti-war works that no-one has considered before.”