The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction

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In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.—Ernst Fischer

Most rebels do not succeed, but there are a few who strike the zeitgeist of their times, a few whose intellectual, moral, and spiritual courage tap into the undercurrents of time and space, to face the unknown and emerge triumphantly with vision. The inner struggle connects to the outer struggle. The seismic upheaval of society corresponds within the deeply aware and sensitive individual and allows an opening for profound articulation.

Composers are visionaries and mediators of potential futures. “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life,” wrote Joseph Campbell. Composers hold a kinship with the life-affirming elemental and cosmic forces of creation. The sounds we make matter for our spiritual and physical well-being.

Composer John Luther Adams has said that his music is “not about anything” but it is about everything. Adams’s music is a ritual in altering consciousness. Here is a composer who, amidst rampant destruction of human and non-human communities, seeks to create a new culture from this deluge. His music is “about” many things: resilience, compassion, redemption of the human spirit amidst the collapse of industrial civilization and unprecedented ecological change. In April 1849, in the tumult of revolution in Germany, the young composer Richard Wagner conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Dresden. In the audience was the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. So moved by this experience, Bakunin told Wagner later that if there was anything worth saving from the ruins of the old world, this score would be it. In the ruins of our own world, we must look to Adams’s example.