Widgets Magazine

Students discuss intersection of music, politics and sexual violence

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and a slew of sexual harassment accusations against President-elect Donald Trump, the nation found itself in the middle of a conversation about sexual assault. On Wednesday evening, Stanford Philharmonia conducted a performance and discussion of musical pieces that were originally rooted in stories of sexual violence to turn the conversation from politics to art.

The gathering at Toyon Hall hoped to bring to light the fact that sexual assault is not merely a modern issue. The topic has deep roots in classical texts, works at the foundation of musical and literary canon.

According to professor of musicology Heather Hadlock, the discussion aimed to inspire a reckoning with the often ignored sexism in art.

“We’re describing artistic creativity,” Hadlock said. “The idea that pursuing some beautiful object, whether it’s imagination or expression, is this metaphor: seizing a woman, spotting her in the distance and running after her. She tries to get away, because artistic inspiration is fugitive.”

But the content of the metaphor — the fact that it depicts an act of sexual assault — presented student artists with a difficult dilemma.

“You begin to think, can I perform something beautiful out of a heinous act?” said flautist Tiffany Jiang ’19.

Wednesday’s discussion considered the issue of sexual assault in art within the context of “The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a symphonic poem by Claude Debussy. The event also featured performances of Théophile Gauthier’s “Lamento” and “Barcarolle” by mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich and pianist Christine McLeavey. All three pieces surround themes of sexual possession, temptation and masculinity.

The event was an opportunity to hear a preview of the Stanford Philharmonia’s Nov. 12 performance at Bing Concert Hall.

For Anna Wittstruck, interim music director of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Stanford Philharmonia, the discussion served to contextualize the upcoming concert and explore connections between music and politics.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Well, this is a great piece of music, but I can’t program it without causing a lot of trouble,’” Wittstruck said. “And then I thought, ‘That’s not a good solution. Actually, we need to be talking about these things.’”

The discussion revealed information to contextualize featured pieces as well as broader themes of sexual violence in literature.

For example, attendees learned that Debussy’s “Prelude” was a musical response to a poem by French writer Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem describes a faun who, in a dreamlike state, encounters and attempts to rape two nymphs. For Hadlock, it was critical to reconcile the evil of the faun’s actions with the beauty of the artistic work. This discussion raised a number of questions. What should modern musicians be thinking as they perform the prelude? How does the knowledge of the musical context inform the interpretation?

“The piece is incredibly delicate, ephemeral, beautiful, transparent — it has all the qualities that we love in French music,” Hadlock said. “So the idea that it could be rooted in a situation that would be objectively horrifying or troubling is one of the contradictions that [we were] hoping to create a space for.”

Students who participated found this lesson highlighted throughout the night.

“I think the context of the piece is just as important as its technical aspects,” Jiang said. “I’ve seen recordings and interpretations, but when you really get down to it, you learn why. Why did he write this in the first place? And I think that it really impacts how you interpret it.”

For Wittstruck, Stanford Philharmonia’s upcoming performance is an opportunity to provide an emotion-inducing experience to the community as a whole, especially in the wake of the recent election.

“Giving a concert at this moment, after the election, is cathartic — a moment where people get to lose themselves in something bigger than them,” Wittstruck said. “And music has this sort of wonderful, transformative power. I think this music specifically is so varied, sensual, beautiful and evocative, and I think people will really connect to that. There’s a lot of optimism in it. There’s a lot of despair.”

In these moments of political conflict and confusion, Wittstruck said, music and politics often intertwine. She hopes to lead more such discussions in the future to explore similar topics from different angles.

“In the past few weeks, with sexual assault becoming front and center, a silver lining that came out was that a lot of women were empowered to tell their stories,” Wittstruck said. “Being able to connect that to music is so important.”


Contact Xinlan Emily Hu at xehu ‘at’ stanford.edu.