“Community” is a popular word these days, due significantly to our community organizer in chief and his heavily publicized references to a wide range of communities from the international to the online. President Obama’s intention to transfer the principles of local community-building to the national and international arenas is not necessarily a simple shift. Nation-building bears little resemblance to the kind of issue-based organizing that occupies countless community organizers in smaller niche populations throughout the world. But then again, there might be some lessons from smaller-scale community building that deserve attention as foundational questions for how to create a shared identity and sense of purpose.
When do communities start? And how do we know?
I turn to the experimental musical scene in New York of which I am a part. Last week, my membership in this community was based on my participation in a one-time concert of Composer Terry Riley’s minimalist opus “In C” with over 50 other musicians. I was invited to participate one month in advance by the event’s organizers, and then watched as the original roster of artists blossomed from 30 to 40 and then 50, as more people got wind of the happening and invitations were extended to all those willing to spare an evening. Spilling off a stage no bigger than my living room, on the evening of the concert we pulsed through the piece’s 53 short, melodic phrases—each at our own pace—for an hour and fifteen minutes.
Do people in a community have to share something in common?
For me, this performance was an opportunity to see some of my closest friends, people I have grown up with. It was also a chance to interact with some of the older and more seasoned musicians that I don’t know personally, and have never talked to, but admire sincerely. There were plenty of people I met who I didn’t know prior to the evening, and probably some that I didn’t meet and will never know.
Is it possible to create a community without direct communication with other members?
“In C” is particularly well suited to this kind of experiment in community-building. In 2009 alone, I am aware of at least three performances in New York City (though I imagine there have been many more): a celebrity-filled performance in Carnegie Hall featuring Terry Riley himself, an outdoor performance by teenagers from a local music school, and an upcoming performance on recorders by thousands of elementary school children also at Carnegie Hall (Full disclosure: I work as a program manager at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall). The piece is accessible to such a wide range of performers because most of it uses only the 7 pitches in the c-major scale (all the white keys of the piano) but also because with the right guidance and players, little ensemble rehearsal is required. In other words, you don’t have to be a virtuoso soloist to perform “In C,” you just need to know how to follow written directions and respect those around you.
How do you teach community-ness to others?
One of the most interesting things about the performance last week was that it was quite a mess. With all of those people onstage (a large number playing amplified instruments), definition of any kind was hard to come by. Yet, the score specifically says that for a performance “a group of about 35 [players] is desired.” I have colleagues who prefer a smaller and more detail-oriented version of “In C” and I can attest to the elegance of clarity in such a scenario. But I also wonder whether a smaller version (or even a larger version with a conductor to hold things neatly together) negates the importance of the piece: to enable individuals to make their own decisions anonymously within a larger framework of accepted regulations.
Does a community need to be messy?
I had a great time at the performance. The energy in the room was contagious and I won’t soon forget the experience (see picture above). In particular, I am struck by the strong musical bond I formed with the drummer sitting next to me who, due to the loudness of his instrument, proved to be a major leader of the performance’s intense build-ups. I felt like he was listening to me intently and responding directly to my every change, not because they were the right changes, but because I was standing right next to him and he could hear me the best. In this way, I felt like my actions and decisions could shape the direction and tone of the overall piece and as a result I stayed focused throughout. My guess is that some of the other players had similar experiences that evening. As I contemplate our ad hoc community, I am struck by the fact that it was formed not out of some kind of unanimous agreement. Rather, our community resulted from localized bonds that extended by way of the community members’ willingness to enlarge their scope of listening beyond their immediate proximity.
How can we assess a community’s success?
According to the score, “In C” ends when all of the players wind up on the same two-note phrase and, on cue, stop together. Our ending worked mostly that way, without the whole “stopping together” part. Either some people didn’t see the cue to end, or else they chose to ignore it, but the ending was staggered and clumsy. Afterwards, I packed up my instrument and talked with some friends before loading my car in the cold and driving back home. In the microcosm of the experimental arts community, the evening was a success. This exercise in community-building wasn’t for the sake of political advocacy, certainly it was not a matter of life or death, and it had very few global implications besides a couple online articles that might spark the interest of aficionados from distant locales. But the questions it raised seem just as relevant to the task of nation-building as they are to the organization of a concert performance, and just as difficult to answer.
Is this how our community will end?