Pau Casals and JF Kennedy

13 November 1961 Dinner in honor of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín of Puerto Rico Please Credit Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Two roads diverged into a bush, and I
I chose the one less travelled by
and that has made all the difference

(Robert Frost, The road not taken, 1916)

The depth yet gentle touch of Frost’s words of wisdom, were mentioned by President John F. Kennedy in his famous speech at Amherst College upon receiving an honorary degree, 26 October 1963. Furthermore, the very same lines could as well be applied to extraordinary musician and social activist Mr Pau Casals, who put into practice throughout his life and artistic work, the philosophical concepts shared both by Frost and President Kennedy.

Indeed, Pau Casals was born in 1876 from a very poor and large family: 11 children of whom only 3 survived, being him one of them. Casals’s passion for music was most probably influenced by his father, who was an organist playing in the local church.

Even though Pau showed an incredible talent and musical ear since his early years, the economic restrictions of his family though, restrain him from approaching the world of music. While contributing to his family wealth by playing the Cello in some cafes of Barcelona, he bumped into the well known pianist and composer, Isaac Albeni, who decided to introduce him to his then friend, Queen Maria Cristina.

The lucky event changed the life of Casals and his family forever, since the Queen provided them all with financial help, and education, and stability.

While attending his studies in Brussels, Pau demonstrated great dignity and character, even when he lost all his financial fortune, by taking a stand against a disrespectful teacher. Although it seemed a brave gesture, the Queen did not approved, and Pau Casals fell into misery again. Years later, thanks to his stubborness, he reached his success in Paris, where he played among prestigious musicians and composers. Pau Casals funded the “Asociación obrera de conciertos” to provide the poor people with the opportunity to attend concerts and listen to the greatest musicians of the world. Music, in his opinion, was a form of art and as such it had to be accessible to everyone. Casals believed in the value of peace, and in 1939, due to the Spanish dictatorship, he began his exile and his long silence of protest and indignation. After some sporadic appearances in concert in the following years, with the end of the Second World War, Casals’ opposition to the Franco regime intensified to the point of pushing him to suspend his activity as a musician in protest. He exhausted his financial savings by hosting and lending money to refugees. Music became his language of protest, accompanied by the young Marta Montañez, and in 1961 he was invited by President Kennedy to play at the White House, in exchange for 30 minutes of private confrontation.

The two men had so much in common, although their role in life were so different. 

Quoting a President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst College:

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society–in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

One of his latest compositions was the United Nations Anthem, commissioned by Secretary U Thant and directed by him for his New York debut in October 1972. On that same occasion he was awarded the UN Peace Medal. He died in Puerto Rico, far from his wife Marta and far from his beloved Catalan land in Spain, and without having seen the end of the Franco dictatorship, which he had so much opposed in life.

Elena Arzani



In 2011 the duo Alex McLean of Slub and Nick Collins delivered the first “live coding” music festival, that became known by the new coined word “algorave” (from an algorithm and rave). The event was the first of its kind in London, UK, and in a way it was a technological evolution of the Rave subculture, during which people danced to music generated from algorithms. Djs projected their computer screens and used lived coding techniques, so that the audience could dance, while watching the code being manipulated.

What was this exactly, a performing art or an evolution of technological music making?

Alex McLean is the creator of Tidal Cycles, the main program live coders use to make music. Djs report that the focus was on people enjoying dancing and listening to the music, however, it takes a software engineering knowledge to type the code, while the audience isn’t required to understand what is displayed on screen.

Is there something missing here? Are we heading toward a misinterpretation of the language of music itself or, on the contrary, this could be seen as a natural consequence of a more digitalized approach to our daily life, that is slowly shaping the culture of tomorrow?

The English musician, Brian Eno, who is world-wide renewed for his pioneering contribution to music, and self-describes himself as a “non-musician”, in 1970 established a randomized approach to musical practice, which was rather conceptual and involved generating electronic dance music with algorithms. Eno influenced the techno culture of the ‘90s, which evolved and turned into a political protest, when the Government prohibited raves describing them as gatherings where music, (defined as a succession of repetitive beats) is played. The Anti EP, and more precisely the track “flutter”, was, therefore, a protest against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Hence, in the same year, two designers at Microsoft contacted Brian Eno, asking to compose music for the Windows 95 project. Mark Malamud and Erik Gavriluk commissioned Eno the “The Microsoft Sound”, that had to be 3 14 seconds long, and as they said, in an interview with Joel Selvin in the San Francisco Chronicle: “a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional”.

When comparing the Algorave to a more traditional culture of popular music, many are the elements that seem to be left out from the artistic production. No education of instrument play is required, as well as a previous knowledge of music composition. Still, this conceptual approach to music making embraces contemporary culture.

“Do you think that media-rich technology is the answer for music education, whether in a curricular sense or in self-directed, informal learning? Or do you think that technology is developing so fast that we should be more conservative in our uptake of it – and even then, what technology do you think is worth investing in, if any?

In 2017 an article published on the British journal “The Guardian” titles: ‘We could build something revolutionary’: how tech set underground music free. 

A provocative reflection may then consider the cultural role played by Institutes such as the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, as opposed to Computers Companies. Furthermore, the very same performances of both Afghanistan National Institute of Music and the Algorave Festival may be considered as two forms of social action, using the language of music to pursue freedom.

As Director of A.N.I.M., Ahmad Sarmas, says in his interview with Sydney University Dr. James Humberstone: “without cultural diversity, we shouldn’t say that all right, we’re building a civil society. What kind of civil society are we building if an Afghan child or an Afghan will be deprived of learning Western classical music or playing jazz or not being allowed to learn its own musical culture. Or not being allowed or unable to get engaged in cultural dialogue to any means that can be understandable to the wider community.”

What are the opportunities and perils of artist devoting their work intentionally to a humanitarian cause, for instance, or to addressing political oppression in the context of the wider education?

Hence, Francis Xavier, founder member of the Motorik record label, when interviewed by Dr Humberstone, said he didn’t get influenced by a guitar first, instead he was intrigued by the engineering side of the musical composition, being a reader of UK Magazine Music Technology. Francis was also influenced by “synthetic drums and synthetic machines, and just the creation of noises to make a pop song” underling how there is an EQ component, when learning music, and that the language must resonates with oneself, in order to be engaging and attract the student’s interest. He also pointed out how the role of a Dj is often misinterpreted, leading to the wrong assumption that the person qualifies only in changing songs for the audience.

And then again, as Lecturer of Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Western Sydney University andmusic educator Dr. Wendy Brooks quiet rightly pinpointed in her PhD study, there is a wrong age associated with the initial use of technologies, that is internationally agreed. So, how can we “free” music of whatever genre, if we are constrained by a wise use of media technology? Moreover, how may traditional studies for composition equally coexist with a conceptual improvisation within academic institutes?

In Francis Xavier’s opinion, “to disregard electronic music, to do that would be quite a sin, because it’s so, you could use a technology to be more immediate, and you want people to just grab hold of it straight away, and have interest. And I think that’s where music should head, I mean, I think teachers should be more open to the current use of technology to teach people in music.”

As long as music is performed and conduits the transmission of social values, I guess both “languages” can be presented as 2 faces, that complete each-other by tracing a solid fil-rouge between cultural heritage and innovation. And perhaps the notion that, the act of imagining a different reality is the precursor of positive social change.

Elena Arzani


“WHY” supporting the Arts at time of Covid19

Around 1930, the Great Depression period, a federal program for artists and the safeguarding of the arts was established in America. Contrary to the idea that the art sector was only playful and entertainment, jobs were created under the national direction of the Curator and art expert Holger Cahill and the presidency of Roosevelt, financially supporting writers, musicians, visual artists , directors etc. Funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Federal Art Project, since 1933, was the first of 5 “New Deal” projects, which financed art workers for 11 years. The Milwaukee Handicraft Project, a major project, was started in 1935 and became famous for employing over 5000 unemployed people, many of whom were disabled, discriminated against due to old age or poor school education. In total it is estimated that the Federal Art Project has created over 200,000 jobs, subsidizing renowned artists such as Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko, as well as some of the most important public works of art today.

At times of Covid19 spread, I am experiencing a sad reality concerning the way the artistic sector is disregarded in Italy. Indeed, politicians opted for economic strategies, that do not support the Arts, nor take under consideration the worth, and impact on the Italian society and culture, of Museums, Galleries, Art Fairs, but mainly Musicians and their Industry. Being Music a conduit for personal development and social growth enhancing the collaboration within a community as well as providing an experience of deep equality, I disagree with the current political position of my Country of origin, and I feel pretty speechless.

Maxine Greene defines the concept of regard as essential to the success of civil society: “A citizen is somebody who has regard for the integrity of other people and out of that regard, out of that feeling of kinship, a community or civil society may take shape. It’s never finished….[It] depends upon a regard for other people’s significance and potentiality.”  Being culture a “fluid reality always in construction and evolution”, I wonder, have Italian politicians consider the impact of their present choices on the future?

Hence, I can totally rely on what President Kennedy’s speech in 1963: “If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice”. I therefore, believe that by refusing to help the artists, creating a state of poverty within that sector, Politicians avoids confronting with “unwanted” forms of criticism, a tactic that in a way reminds once again of Maxime Greene’s considerations, when she says in a keynote talk at the conference Imaging Art and Social Change: “The trouble with fundamentalism or all these things, they feel they have the answer which is so frightening. It’s like what tyranny is like, people burst in. It’s not just the idea of the Nazis. It’s the idea of any kind of authority that takes you over, prevents you from thinking for yourself.”

While all over the World people are marching against racism and social injustice, fighting the continuing disparities of opportunity, Nations need to be supported most than ever by those artists that can foster social imagination, informed by values of tolerance and a skill for engaging with difference.

When commenting on Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, M. Greene suggested that he was opening the way to imagination, providing the people with inspiration and a view.

As JFK said: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him”

Elena Arzani