Tonight my friend and I went to see a performance of pieces by Steve Reich (with the composer present!) by Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish, co-hosted by the UCSD Department of Music and ArtPower!, UCSD’s on-campus performing arts series. The program was comprised of three pieces-”Clapping Music,” “Electric Counterpoint 3,” and “Music for 18 Musicians”-and there was something lovely about each piece, each in its own way. The first piece was literally four pairs of hands clapping different rhythms, so simple and yet so complex in its layers. The second piece was sheer intensity pushed and pulled in different directions-starting out like waves crashing in and pulling out, shifting into a sprightly dance between a boy (not sure why) and his shadow, almost touching but never quite one, and finally taking off in full force with complementary melodies by two guitars gunning forward in tandem toward the end of the piece. And the third piece-even with all the musicians, the music took its time to build up and then diffuse its own tension, forcefully teasing and yet so satisfying.
In short, it was lovely. And it made me grateful that I am at a university that offers opportunities to see such performances, or to hear lecturers from around the globe speak on different topics. As a kid I lived in Riverside, and my parents took me to similar concerts at UCR. I was often too young to understand the context or significance-for my nine-year-old self, there was little difference between a brass quartet playing atonal jazz and a group of musicians playing indigenous South American music, they were both equally cool-but I knew that I was seeing something out of the ordinary, that these concerts were “special occasions” for my family. Even as an undergraduate I remember being moved by performances by professional modern ballet companies and musicians like Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck, hosted by the university’s Lively Arts series.
But what about other people? People who live in or near La Jolla and San Diego, who know that UCSD is here but might never know that it had these performances, often free for students? What about people-especially kids-living in cities without large universities that hosted such performing arts groups? Are we, as members in institutions of higher education, doing enough to make music, theater, or even something simple like literature available and accessible to people within-and beyond-our communities?
Then I think about my niece-who is not yet two and is so curious about everything, wants to see things, to touch things, to put everything in her mouth. Will she, living in San Francisco, have exposures to music, or theater, or dance, or even good books when she goes to school? Will her classmates? Or the other kids from her neighborhood? How difficult will it be for her to win the lottery to get into the “good” preschool, that will get her into the “right” elementary school with the good arts program? Will there even be arts programs when she gets to elementary school, especially at public schools? And will she one day decide to apply to university, one that offers opportunities to see great performances, or one that will close her libraries due to budget cuts?
It would be great if opportunities to see live performances were accessible and inexpensive for those who wanted them. In fact, it would be great if kids in California (and other places too) had the chance to hear and see the arts in school as they were growing up, so that they would be able to learn what kinds of things they enjoyed, what kinds of things they found to be “wonderful” for themselves. I want kids to learn, to have exposure, to be able to dream, “Can I do that? Can I be that?” There is something so powerful in that moment when we see someone on stage, playing an instrument with so much passion-yet so controlled and measured-and we think, “Will I ever have the chance to pursue my passions in that way?”
I want my niece to have that chance. And her classmates. And all of the students I teach as a TA at UCSD. And I hope that we are the kinds of members of our university community-graduate students, faculty, staff and administration-that take the time to influence the way our education system works from K through 12 and beyond, to help make clear that the arts and humanities matter. And if people don’t have access to see art performances, then we can bring the art performances to them. Because what are the humanities for, if there are kids out there who don’t get the chance to hear different kinds of music, to see plays performed on stage? What kind of life would that be, and what kind of humanity would a childhood like that enable? And of course it’s not just the “humanities” that we need to make accessible-it’s also our math and sciences, our lessons about engineering, and knowledge about the social sciences and practices of policy making that are important in our daily lives. If we can make all of these things more meaningful to kids starting at a younger age, I think we’ve taken one step closer toward envisioning a better humanities to come. And what a step that would be.
[Photo Credit: From the ArtPower site for the performance...copyrighted to the photographer!]