Music as a civic "conspiracy": George Mathew

George Mathew‘s extraordinary musical project unfolds anew tonight at Carnegie Hall. On the bill is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, Mahler’s Third, with a couple of hundred star performers on stage, all for the benefit of Children of AIDS. The mission, grander even than the materials, might be titled: Music is a force that gives us meaning… that incarnates another way to conspire and connect… that puts us to work.

It is part of the statement tonight that master musicians and their students have volunteered for this gig — starting with the trombone legend Joseph Alessi, Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet, Glenn Dicterow of the New York Philharmonic and a dozen more concert masters in orchestras from Boston to Hamburg to Singapore. Two years ago, a pick-up band with many of the same stars in it played Verdi’s Requiem for relief in Darfur. Three years ago they played Beethoven’s Ninth for the earthquake-shaken in Kashmir. But George Mathew is always up to something more than musical philanthropy… something closer to musical “conspiracy”:

The humanitarian aspect — the mission even as manifest by the music — is really important. But still it is not the “deep magic,” as C. S. Lewis would say in the Narnia books. The deep magic comes from what your guest Daniel Barenboim said, about his West-East Divan Orchestra. The deep magic is that when musicians come together to play music, in an ensemble, in an orchestra, in a quartet, they are required to engage the highest form of musical activity, which is listening. Listening with a view — that the person sitting next to you who is playing music that may contrast or even conflict with what you’re doing, has to be given a right-of-way in your own consciousness…

Wilhelm Furtwangler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the middle of the 20th Century, has this mysterious diary entry. He wrote: “The West. Christ. Europe. The intensification of instinct and self.” And across the page: “The East. India. Buddha. The overcoming of instinct, self.” And I like to think these two things are not conflicting but complementary values that ensemble music actively embraces.

I had this incredible experience in India a few months ago. I was conducting a young school orchestra, all playing violins and cellos and reading a Mozart Symphony… It got to this point where I said: hold it, let’s stop for a minute. You guys in the back: do you know each others’ names? It turned out they’d been playing together for six months and didn’t know each others’ names. And I said: well now, you’ve got to breathe together, which means you’ve got to know when the other person is breathing. Will you play the phrase looking at each other? Will you play the phrase understanding where the other person’s breath is coming from? Oh, okay! And they did, and this went on. Finally, in about 45 minutes, the whole orchestra not only knew everybody’s names but they were living and breathing together. And they knew, for example, that somebody had a slightly bum A-string, so to make allowances for it. So they were going into the space of the other person, every single one of them. They were all bowing and playing furiously in tune, and it sounded like a very respectable professional orchestra that you might find anywhere in the Western world. After 45 minutes! And I said: you have to know that what you’ve just done is: become a community. You’ve just engaged eachother in a way that none of you can walk away from. Stop for a moment and consider what would happen if the Indian Parliament started behaving this way. Or the U. S. House of Representatives. Or, God save us, if the U. S. Senate started behaving this way.

In 2009 — three and a half millions years after the monkey stood upright and took a look around — maybe it’s time. And maybe we as musicians can make this our contribution. Maybe this is the moment when we say: the art of playing music, if we can expose it to the segment of the population which is biologically specialized to absorb this (namely the segment of the population which is under 12) might have an impact. And maybe if we really made a stand for musical education for our very young, with a view to what is happening in Venezuela or some of the other enlightened music education programs around the world, maybe we could have a chance that the aberration of civic life that we just saw in the last eight years will truly be a thing of the past; and these pained, hurt, deprived children will not grow up and come to haunt us in their adulthood.

George Matthew in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 9, 2009.

Related Content

  • georgem

    Dear Chris and Radio Open Source Community,

    I am writing on Wednesday almost 48 hours after MAHLER FOR THE CHILDREN OF AIDS at Carnegie Hall. It was one of those miraculous experiences. Certainly if conducting Mahler 3 is not a miraculous experience for a conductor, then one ought to question one’s own stem cells. But more importantly it was an evening in the practice of what we had explored in our conversation on Radio Open Source — that it IS eminently possible for a community of 115 instrumentalist and 124 choral singers, one mezzo-soprano and one conductor to become an integrated entity deeply concerned with the being of each other and by extension, the being of the larger community of whom we were a microcosm.

    There are so many stories to tell of exquisitely intimate playing by our principal trombone Joseph Alessi, the magnificently sure, wise and fatherly leadership and lyrical miracles dispensed by our much beloved and revered concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, the almost prophetic helmswomanship of our principal 2nd Violin, former MET Orchestra concertmaster, Elmira Darvarova who led her section with a kind of imperial yet supremely humane and gracious, graceful authority, of our posthorn soloist, Matthew Muckey, whose delivery was beyond perfect, and many more. Most of all, it seemed that we were able as an orchestra listening with more than our ears, to bear witness that the human being and the family of humankind is capable of this right now, in real time and with multiple narratives in real time. We know this because miracles of ensemble togetherness occurred in the concert, when actual aural co-ordination was not possible either because of distance or texture.

    Here was Rev. Martin Luther King’s “BELOVED COMMUNITY” made manifest in music, in ensemble living and in Mahler’s great symphonic act of embrace. The musicians, the audience and even Mahler’s spirit surging out of the score on the podium seemed to suggest that there is maybe a magic deeper than the “deep magic” of C.S. LEwis we talked about, and maybe that is the magic of pure affection — of love deeper than thought, and more potent than intention. At least that was the view from the podium.

    More to come,

    George Mathew

    Mahler for the Children of AIDS

  • hurley

    A lovely conversation, and a gracious note from George Mathew. He and Chris and anyone else might be interested in a kindred conspiracy I’ve mentioned before:

  • jazzman

    I maintain that the penultimate form of musical activity is listening, either as an audience/constructor of the neural response to moving air generated by a live or reproduced musical performance or as the performer. The ultimate form of musical activity is the creation of the mind/brain representation of the concept we call music.

    One can “hear” music in one’s mind simply by thinking about a familiar melody or responding to “ear worms” those tunes or snippets that so often stick in one’s head. Those trained to read music can “hear” a piece by looking at its musical notation and add timbre and other nuances by imagining it being played by whatever instrument or group of instruments one wishes. Composers often conceptualize and “hear” music created in their minds before rendering it on instruments or paper.

    Classical music (any music intended to be played as written with perhaps a slight leeway for personal or managed interpretation) requires a certain amount of listening to the ensemble in order to render the composer’s intent more or less faithfully. The same music could be performed by a sophisticated computer program and be as enjoyable (if the behearer was not prejudiced by being aware of the production mechanism.)

    Large ensembles require attention and cooperation which naturally fosters bonhomie for the musical nonce and as George notes, tends to linger after the music is over which promotes empathy among disparate individuals and groups.

    In jazz however (which I maintain is the most demanding form of musical expression,) listening by the performers is the ultimate form of musical activity as it is ephemeral and after the head (the more or less classical portion of a tune (e.g. the melody of standards), generally played with less improvisation than the body) has been rendered the rest is as unpredictable as the mood of the players.

    Listening is paramount in order to mesh with the others and is best suited to small ensembles due to the listening requirement and lack of instructions. The more players, the more structure and discipline is required to maintain cohesion. Once played jazz is either left in the mind’s ear or recorded for posterity whereby it becomes a virtual classical piece frozen in situ to be recreated by the mind/brain.

    Playing jazz almost always transcends mundane prejudices and was instrumental (pun intended) in breaking down ethnic and racial segregation long before sports or legislation and I believe original roots of civic conspiracy are to be found in the worldwide language of jazz.

    Peace to ALL,


  • Dear Christ and the beautiful Radio Open Source Community

    I have many things to ponder over when I look through this site. But right now, sitting back at my laptop having spent a wondrous evening with George Mathew, I have to say my piece!

    1. Wilhelm Furtwangler was quoted as saying: “The West. Christ. Europe. The intensification of instinct and self.” And across the page: “The East. India. Buddha. The overcoming of instinct, self.” This kind of dichotomy is the result of a “western” mind – that is what I am beginning to believe increasingly. The heart of the “cross” that the man Christ Jesus carried daily and invited his disciples to take up daily is nothing less than the notion of the crossing out of instinct and self, which has been problematic to the West more often than to the East. In fact, what has happened is that this “crossing out” of the original connotation of what Jesus Christ accomplished as a man – the overcoming of instinct and self – is what has led the West to spiritual poverty and the seeking of some form of emancipation in Eastern practices. I have always held that the West – thanks perhaps to the preponderance of the Graeco-Roman and Judaic heritage and philosophy – derailed itself and had to come begging for spiritual salvation to the East when all the time the “truth” had always remained in the backyard of the West and yet Westerners never wanted to partake of it and considered this “wisdom” as dung. I do not want to go on in this vein because it would be unseemly and ungentlemanly. but I hold fast to this notion and the present happenings in the West are symptomatic of the West surrendering the mystical baton to the East.

    2. Civic conspiracy – What? Interesting phrase. Indeed and many civic conspiracies abound these days. In my conversation with George, though he did not use the very same term, I became subterraneanly (sic) aware that what George was doing is almost exactly what Srishti, the design school where I teach in Bangalore, is doing. End-February, we are organising a powerful music and film festival on the life and times of Kabir, the 15th century saint who using the oral tradition of poetry and music challenged the fundamentalist norms of both Hindus and Muslims who were at each other’s throats. You can get some information on this at This too is you could say a form of “civic conspiracy” in a country where fascist forces are increasingly rearing their ugly head in the form of Hindutva fuelled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bajrang Dal and the militant new force the Ramar Sena (army of Rama). Kabir challenges the ideologies of such forces with a voice that cannot be easily silenced and this voice also reflects the aspirations of 80 per cent of the Indian population which consists of the historically tainted “untouchable” or Dalit. But the central point is that the music – mystical and fuelled by Sufi energies – may yet make the difference!

    3. This civic conspiracy can take forms other than music too. For instance, we have had several artists from Germany, Finland, etc with us in the past three weeks working on a project in community/public art with our students on the theme “Fear and Gender in Public Spaces”. A very interesting intervention that happened took place in Cubbon Park, the central park of Bangalore. There is a space in Cubbon Park which has never been occupied by women, a space which is usually occupied by gay men. The artistic intervention saw girl students from Srishti and the artists occupying the space and drawing the attention of a big crowd of men, both gay and otherwise. The artists and art students used the opportunity to “change the space” in a civil manner through artistic exercises. For instance, the women first sat and braided each others’ hair (a feminine activity so-called) and then the spectators were asked to join the activity (breaking the gender boundaries). The intervention then went into the stringing up of colorful streamers and the net result was a “nonviolent” invasion of a hitherto forbidden space for women. CIVIC CONSPIRACY by artists and musicians! That is how the bulwarks against fascism and prejudice can be built.