“Artists Unite!” Brought the Music Back to the Movement at OCCCA

Artists Unite!
Orange County Center for Contemporary Art

Music is the most subversive art form throughout our history from the spirituals to folk ballads. Pacific Symphony musicians came together with special guests last night for “Artists Unite!” a program reminding people of the power of song in these troubling times. The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art played host for the eclectic evening of compositions with its current exhibit “Art as Protest” serving as backdrop.

Special guest vocalist Carver Cossey began by offering a solo rendition of “Go Down Moses” to gallery goers. His basso profundo filled the room and invoked Paul Robeson at his very best. Three musicians followed wearing black masks around their eyes while the lighting turned to a blue hue. Grammy-award winning pianist Gloria Cheng explained the eccentricities of George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” before sitting down at her piano to pluck sounds from its entrails. The flute and cello completed the groundbreaking soundscape that served as ode to the environmental movement’s quest to “save the whales.”

Being an aficionado of Nueva Cancion Chilena, the highlight of the evening came with its tributes to Sergio Ortega’s “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” The anthem that emerged during Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile came at a cultural crossroads where Ortega’s Eurocentric classical training found a new revolutionary spirit in the folkloric sound of Quilapayún. The song’s chorus echoed in mass street demonstrations in support of Allende and lives on today in the chants of immigrant rights marches from SanTana and beyond.

Last night, Pacific Symphony musicians emerged from the gallery’s entrance in a march to the stage chanting the slogan. With just two guitars and a chorus of voices, the simple power of “El pueblo unido” could be felt. And in true collectivist spirit, singers encouraged the audience to emulate their South American counterparts by joining in the fervor, pumping their fists in unison while singing along. Cheng returned to strip the anthem down in the interpretation of Polish-American pianist Federic Rzewski that proved no less stirring.

The program continued with a more experimental arrangement next. Michael Daugherty’s “Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover” melded samples of the former FBI boss with stringed instruments striking an anxious mood. The sampled sounds of furious typewriter taping whirled around the repeated refrain “fear silences the voice of protest” all the while Pacific Symphony musicians played an acidic version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The piece served as reminder of what the FBI has meant to true freedom fighters before the current, bizarre political moment propped up the Bureau’s recently deposed director as a “hero” befallen at the tiny hands of Trump.

By the end of Artists Unite’s journey through song, a crystalline truth emerged. The President’s political ascent unleashed Alt-Right oddities like Pepe the Frog memes, Kekistan and “okay” hand gestures on the world with the farcical serving as veil to the fascistic. There’s even grandiose claims that hardcore conservatism is the new counterculture. But their movement, as Artists Unite! hinted by contrast, is bereft of the song and the spirit of social movements past and present.

Cossey reemerged to end the evening as a soloist suggesting that change can start with a just a single voice. His chosen gospel, “We Shall Overcome,” helped solidify spirits during the Civil Rights Movement along the elusive journey towards a “more perfect union.” In these times, it asks a lot of people to believe deep in their hearts in the promise of the gospel’s name. But Cossey had the crowd clapping along ensuring that by the time the program closed, everyone left with a little more hope that a better world is possible.

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