© 2019 by Daniel Whitworth

Snapshots of America

About the project and how it came to be

In our political climate, I sometimes feel that there is so little I can do as a musician to make a difference and often find myself helplessly watching things unfold from the sidelines. Accompanied with this sense of powerlessness is a deep-rooted dread derived from the idea that I’m not contributing anything useful to the world, and that my efforts pursuing artistic endeavors would be better spent elsewhere. I know I’m not alone in this mindset—many artists struggle with these same thoughts every day. It is not a matter of doubting art’s importance; art has clear cultural significance and there are countless examples of impactful art inspiring sweeping change throughout the world. The doubt lies with whether or not my art is important. Like many of the greatest artists in history, how can my music be channeled into making concrete, positive changes in the world?

 

During my time as an undergraduate student, I frequently reflected on this question. My concerns were greatly amplified by the results of the 2016 election, and subsequently my desire to do something drove many of my programming decisions and compositional motivations. Over the summer of 2018, I wrote Not Our Kids: A Fox News Operetta in response to the Trump Administration’s child separation policy, using clips from the right-wing media to illustrate the lies and cruelty that are peddled to rural America on a daily basis. The piece is an amalgamation of my anger and frustration channeled into a satirical and theatrical interpretation of Fox News’ toxic propaganda. The empowerment I felt after finishing the piece was short-lived however, as I soon realized that there were only so many people I could realistically reach as an undergraduate musician writing contemporary music in the liberal bubble of academia.

That was my problem; for so long, I’d been defining success through the ways in which my music can make concrete changes in the world. This is of course a meaningful dream to hold onto, but not every piece of music is going to create that kind of impact—and that’s okay. Altering the course of American politics is not a fair benchmark by which to judge a piece of art. I scaled back my ambitions and tried to understand the core of why I am driven to compose and perform music, and with that new understanding I was able to change my definition of success.

 

Writing and performing Not Our Kids was cathartic, emotionally cleansing, and served as a punching bag for which to unload my frustrations with the world. That is the experience I wanted to share with my audience. People are hurting in this country, and providing an artistic space for anyone to reflect, heal, and to learn is invaluable. My music could potentially have the power to help individuals within my own community reckon with the adverse political forces that are plaguing our world, and that is the kind of positive impact that I decided to strive for.

 

With my newfound inspiration, I approached my best friend and partner Becky Swanson (another saxophonist) to collaborate with me on a project that would put these ideas in action. Together, we came up with “Snapshots of America,” a concert of contemporary chamber music that addresses issues of political and social injustice in American culture and media. We showcased a selection of music that covered a wide range of topics including immigration, body image, and the 2016 election. In addition to the pieces we selected, we collaborated with an improvisatory ensemble that provided musical reflections between each piece on the program in order to make the concert completely seamless and uninterrupted.

 

Our goals for the project were as follows:

  1. Provide a space for healing, reflection, and cathartic release

  2. Draw awareness towards issues that don't typically get a spotlight

  3. To empower and inspire others to use their artistic voices to make positive change

 

The concert was transformative for everyone involved—Becky and I were incredibly lucky to be able to collaborate with amazing performers, composers, and improvisers. Below is a description and recording of each piece on the recital. Please take a look!

“This program is very near and dear to me not only because of how much all the performers and organizers have worked to put this together, but because this recital is using the power of music to stimulate thought and shed light on the narratives of forgotten and ignored people in a way that often plain words fail to do.”

Jamil Fuller, vocalist

BIG Talk (2017) by Shelley Washington

Becky Swanson, baritone saxophone

Alyssa Kuss, baritone saxophone

 

BIG Talk was written for two baritone saxophones as a personal response to the repulsive prevalence of rape culture that can be observed in catcalling and sexual harassment that female-identifying persons experience and endure on a daily basis. Many women experience these situations enough to psychologically alter their self-perception and their perception of others in a long-lasting negative way: fear, anger, depression- emotions that seep deeper into the self and permeate deeper into society.

 

This unrelenting, churning duo is written to be somewhat of an endurance piece that incorporates all aspects of the body- the muscular ability to play the piece, the wind to power the horn, the focus to see it through... I carefully considered the everyday endurance of a constant barrage of physical and verbal abuse, how we as women bear the brunt of the cultural burden, how we are expected to silently maintain physical and emotional poise to align with many "social graces" and how sick of it I am. How sick of it we are. The piece, the poetry, and the visual components are all linked to send a very clear and targeted message: stop perpetuating rape culture by any and every means necessary.

The Front Line (2019) by Daniel Whitworth

Else, if Else

Ben Portzen, prepared piano

Nolan Ehlers, percussion

Zoe Markle, string bass

 

Over the past few months I have been working in a classroom at a local preschool. This position has given me the incredible opportunity to form close bonds with many different children from diverse backgrounds, and I have found this work to be meaningful and rewarding. However, like many teachers in this current political climate, I have inevitably thought about the worst-case scenario: what would I do to protect these children in the event of a school shooting?

 

In the United States, teachers are increasingly being expected to sacrifice their lives to protect their students. But the truth is, in the event of a school shooting, I don’t know what I would do. I would like to say that I would take a bullet for any of my students, but it is impossible to know.

 

Ultimately, teachers should not have to grapple with these kinds of questions. It is not fair to ask teachers to be the first line of defense in the event of a shooting, and it is unacceptable that this aspect of our American culture has reached a point where many consider arming teachers in the classroom to be a more viable solution than enforcing reasonable gun control measures. Teachers already dedicate their lives, while receiving unfair wages, to educate and provide an enriching and safe classroom environment for children—the prospect of dying should not be added to this already heavy undertaking.

 

This piece is a reflection on the experiences of being an educator in an age where school violence is becoming normalized.

Body of Your Dreams (2002) by Jacob Ter Veldhuis

Daniel Whitworth, soprano saxophone

Becky Swanson, alto saxophone

Nick Muellner, tenor saxophone

Nate Wood, baritone saxophone

Program note written by Becky Swanson

 

Many promises have been made by American media agents, and none has been more potent than the promise of a miracle cure to weight loss. As body image standards grow more unattainable every year, desperation in American culture continues to grow as well. The early 2000’s craze of the late night weight loss and fitness infomercials once captured this desperation; one such infomercial featured “The Abtronic Pro.” Advertisements claimed “The Abtronic Pro” could vibrate body fat away while toning and sculpting muscles just by wearing the device. Jacob TV’s Body of Your Dreams utilizes sound files from the original 2001 infomercial for the device, and is meant to provide commentary on, and ironically accompany the original promises made by the entrepreneurs behind the device

With the rise of the internet, the fast fitness industry has only continued to grow in the past decade, and despite the vast amount of consumer complaints about the product, countless spinoffs carrying the same promises as “The Abtronic Pro” are still available on platforms like Amazon and Ebay today. A product such as “The Abtronic Pro” in many ways captures the American attitude towards the resolutions of chronic problems; we desire to see a change without actually having to change. Similar to the values of the fast food and fast fashion industries, high demand exists for products that are fast, easy, and simple, while ultimately allowing us to postpone dealing with our real problems at their core.

Tantrums (2017) by Asha Srinivasan

Becky Swanson, alto and baritone saxophones

Aaron Montreal, percussion

Ben Portzen, electronics

 

In the aftermath of the 2016 national election, I noticed an uncanny parallel between the morphology of my emotional response and my toddler’s tantrums. Periodic outbursts of wailing subside into simmering whimpers followed by an uneasy silence as we try to regain composure. Just as we catch our breath, allowing ourselves to be consoled, new thoughts retrigger the raging beast within, until finally, we have lost all energy for shouting and we reluctantly settle down. Perhaps rationality returns and beauty is rediscovered. Here is when a toddler’s Buddha mind, ever in the present moment, can be diverted back to play and laughter. But, the adult’s monkey mind drags us back into the past; frenzy and panic build again. Ultimately, though, we cannot bear this state of anxiety and we drift into a numb acceptance of reality.

This Earthly Round (2014) by Miriama Young

Daniel Whitworth, alto saxophone

Luke Auchter, prepared piano

 

This Earthly Round was written as a musical response to climate change-deniers who choose to ignore scientific evidence to the contrary and continue to set policies that exacerbate environmental problems.

 

The music attempts to capture a sense of Planet Earth's beauty, fragility and vulnerability. The 'round' slowly corrodes, becomes weaker and less hospitable, until the piece concludes with a bleak apocalyptic view of our possible future habitat.

 

This is our Earthly Round - A musical round;

Our joyous, brief moment of habitation;

On a fragile sphere known as Planet Earth, held in the balance.

 

The piece is dedicated to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Not Our Kids: A Fox News Operetta (2018) by Daniel Whitworth

Jamil Fuller, baritone

Bianca Pratte, flute

Daniel Whitworth, alto saxophone

Becky Swanson, tenor saxophone

Zoe Markle, string bass

Ben Portzen, piano

Nolan Ehlers, percussion

 

On May 7th, 2018, the Trump administration announced that the United States would adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward anyone caught crossing the US border illegally.  Part of this policy included separating any accompanying children from their parents (even those legally seeking asylum under international law) and detaining them in “detention facilities” in order to deter additional immigrants from trying to enter the country. Over the following few weeks, details of the appalling conditions at these facilities were brought to light, as well as the traumatic experiences that the detained children and babies have been suffering. Many children have also been lost, likely to never be returned to their parents.

No matter what your political views are, separating children from their families is objectively evil. It’s a black and white issue, and it transcends any form of justification. Despite this, conservative media outlets have been attempting to spin the Trump administration’s child separation policy as some kind of positive. Fox News in particular (known for being the most watched news network in America) has been methodically shielding its viewers from the issue through a series of weak justifications, gaslighting, and shifting blame to “democrats” and “liberals.”

 

Not Our Kids is a satirical commentary of the right-wing media’s role in normalizing the Trump administration’s child separation policy. For the piece’s text, I compiled a series of quotes from Fox News personalities, anchors, and newscasters that demonstrate how the network is rewriting the immigration narrative. These quotes are then sung and spoken by the vocalist, at times sounding mechanical and abrasive to reflect the propaganda machine of right-wing media, and at times resembling a work of deranged musical theater. My goal is to highlight the insidious and untruthful rhetoric that is being masqueraded as “news” and draw attention to the fact that this propaganda works.  Millions of Americans watch Fox News, and consequently, we are facing a disturbing lack of empathy regarding immigration in this country.

Musicians involved in Snapshots of America

Performers:

*Listed alphabetically

 

Luke Auchter, piano

Nolan Ehlers, percussion

Jamil Fuller, voice

Alyssa Kuss, saxophone

Zoe Markle, bass

Aaron Montreal, percussion

Nick Muellner, saxophone

Ben Portzen, piano and electronics

Bianca Pratte, flute

Becky Swanson, saxophone

Daniel Whitworth, saxophone

Nate Wood, saxophone

Improvisers:

*Listed alphabetically

 

Milou de Meij, piano

Jamil Fuller, voice

Wendell Leafstedt, violin

Special Thanks:

 

Technology and staging assistance from Hank Laritson