Turning Wonky Economic Graphs into Chamber Music

Composers took income-inequality data as inspiration; performance Saturday at Tenri Cultural Institute.

Wall Street Journal, 18th of October 2015

When Julie Harting’s chamber composition “Too Much at the Top” is performed Saturday at the Tenri Cultural Institute in the West Village, listeners will hear instruments locked in simmering, yet stirring conflict. Throughout the piece, the flute and violin soar to higher notes and grow ever louder, while the cello lingers persistently in the lower ranges.

The contrast isn’t just about musical gymnastics. While written for the performers on a musical chart, the composition was inspired by an economic fever chart, one contrasting the growth of household incomes in the U.S.

The work, which has its premiere Saturday, is part of the fourth in a series of “Anti-Capitalist Concerts” founded by Ms. Harting and fellow composer Elizabeth Adams in 2013 as a reaction to the then-fading Occupy Wall Street movement.

The idea for the event, Ms. Harting said, came from graphs she found on the Internet, drawn from income-inequality data from economists like Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. The latter’s 2014 best-seller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” has spurred debate on the topic.

Four of the six works being performed, which sport titles such as “Ruin is Formal” and “Order from Chaos,” took an economic chart, in part, as their starting point. All will be played by the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, a chamber quartet for flute, violin, vibraphone and cello.

While the featured composers say their works aren’t meant as literal interpretations of the macroeconomic graphs, each translates the data differently in their music.

Jeff Nichols, who teaches composition and music theory at Queens College and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said he chose a graph showing the extremity of income inequality both at the onset of the Great Depression and today, with an intervening period of relatively even wealth distribution.

He said he believes a well-balanced piece of music should have most of its notes in the middle, just as a well-balanced society should have most of its people in the middle class.

“My piece has a kind of crisis when all the notes are too high or too low to sing—and that crisis is resolved when most of the notes get back to the middle,” Mr. Nichols said.

Another composer, Madrid-born Inés Thiebaut, said she looked to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his work “The Social Contract,” a manifesto for the creation of just political communities.

Her piece, titled “Oh Rousseau, Where Art Thou,” starts with an angry discourse, articulated by the vibraphone, that slowly creeps into the rest of the instrumentation. It is a melodic expression, she said, of the wish that “the people can make their voices heard.”

While society can’t resolve its political and economic difficulties through music, said co-organizer Ms. Adams, part of the idea of the concert is to incite debate. To that end, the evening will include a discussion led by Chad Kautzer, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, who often speaks on topics of social and economic justice.

And even if their music can’t change economic realities, the composers say, its power to provoke emotions and personal associations might influence listeners’ hearts and minds.

Perhaps the most data-driven work on the program is Ms. Harting’s, drawn from a graph created by the Economic Policy Institute, using data generated by Messrs. Pinketty and Saez.

The data, which come from the period 1979 to 2007, show income growth for the bottom 90% staying relatively stagnant, sometimes even dropping into negative territory, before hitting 5% in the final year. The line representing the top 1% of households, meanwhile, ends up 224%.

In interpreting those numbers, Ms. Harting said, her work begins with “slow-moving musical textures rubbing against each other, suggesting the tension of class antagonisms.” As the flute and violin climb upward, the vibraphone sounds an “aggressive, alarming” note. And that less-than-active cello? It symbolizes the bottom 90%, she said: “The cello is the worker.”

In the spirit of equal access, admission to the concert is a suggested donation: “half your hourly wage” or “what you think is fair,” according to organizers.