In Protest: A Message to My Students

by David Kulma, 11/25/14
Delivered During My Music Theory Classes

I will perform this music in protest. I don’t know how many of you pay attention to the news, but horrible things continue to happen in our country. The main inspiration of my protest is the grand jury’s decision to not indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I am angry that police have the power to kill unarmed people in broad daylight. I am angry that police on Saturday killed a 12 year old boy in Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown, because he was in a playground with a toy gun. And as you probably have figured out, these dead people are black.

Much individual racism is underground, but still alive. But structural racism is alive and well in America. What do I mean by structural racism? I mean that I as a white man have power and authority merely because I am a white man. I am just some 29 year old idiot who knows a lot about music factoids. Because I am a white man, I am not afraid that I will be stopped by police for no reason. Because I am a white man, I am not afraid that I will be murdered by people sworn to protect us. No one denigrates me because of my skin color, my gender, my abilities, and so on. But I know that others in our country are not this lucky. Two of them are dead. Our society is structured to make me important, but not all of you. This is bullshit. I am not better than you or anyone else, and everyone in our country should have the same rights and privileges I enjoy as a white man.

You all have the privilege of studying music in college and getting a liberal arts education. This education entails learning about how humans beings live, have lived, made things, and make things. Some people in our world are not so lucky. But you need to know that music is a force for change in the world. My mentor, Ben Johnston, talks about how we as musicians must aim for being a positive element in our society. Music can bring us joy. It can allow us to grieve. It can make us better people. If we couldn’t make the world a better place through music, why would we all be here studying boring dots on paper?

As Thanksgiving approaches, and our world is far from the one enshrined in our ideals, I hope you will take the 4 and a half minutes while I play to contemplate. I ask that you listen for the sounds of your breathing. The sounds of others fidgeting in the room. The sounds of a cough or someone’s stuffy nose. Listen for the sounds outside this room. People talking and playing music throughout the building. Sounds coming from outside: birds, cars, the wind.

But more importantly, I ask that you contemplate your privilege and suffering, the privilege and suffering of others. I ask that you consider how you as a musician, an educator, a human being can make this world better through music and through other acts. I, as your teacher, and as a white man, have the privilege of speaking to you about the inequalities in our world. These few minutes are not much, they add up to little, but I hope they will help you change as a person and become the important and powerful person you all are and can be.

Here is John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds offered in protest for the living and in memory of the dead. I. 30” II. 2’ 23” III. 1’ 40” [I performed it live, but here is David Tudor, the original performer playing it.]