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Students, Faculty + Alumni

Vijay Gupta '07MM, on music as a vehicle for social justice

Violinist and YSM alum Vijay Gupta '07MM is a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, an organization that "serves to foster a dialogue which tells the unheard stories of the most marginalized communities in Los Angeles through the power of musical expression," according to language on its website. We spoke with Vijay about the artist's role in society.

Q: What experiences at Yale and the Yale School of Music, and in New Haven, inform the work you're doing now with Street Symphony and in terms of how the arts can be a vehicle for social justice in a larger sense?

A: Well, it was two classes in particular. One was my Hearing class with Joan Panetti, which totally transformed the way that I teach and perform and collaborate. I was actually Dr. Panetti's TA for my second whole year at YSM, so that was really, really special for me. And it's kind of amazing, I kind of feel Dr. Panetti coming up in my voice and in my steps when I teach, so that's very cool.

The second class was a survey of late Beethoven by Markus Rathey, and he went through, I think, from Op. 90 until the end of Beethoven. And just being able to present in his class, and being able to look at the composers for who they were as people and not just as these marble busts of dead white guys, really, really changed the way that I approach playing. And it's a direct correlation to the way that I lead programs when I play Beethoven or Schumann in a county jail, because our audiences are not interested in how well we play, they're interested in the stories. They're, in a sense, interested in the humanity of the composers.

So those are two things that I got from those two classes. And of course I have to give credit to my amazing teacher, who was Ani Kavafian. She was just so wonderful and kind and got me to think about different aspects of my playing that I hadn't even thought about before, but she also cared about me as a person, which was kind of new for me having come from the conservatory system. Oftentimes in those situations my personhood didn't count as much as how well I played my etudes.

But I played a lot of Baroque violin at school with ISM; I was playing with Robert Mealy and that was an extension of what I was getting from Markus Rathey's class and from Joan Panetti's class. It was a very natural extension of what was going on in the life of these composers as they were composing.

And one direct example of how that's showed up for me in my organization is in our Messiah project. We do a yearly sing-along of Handel's Messiah in Skid Row at a homeless shelter. And we've actually now started placing formerly homeless Desert Storm combat veterans as our soloists, and we give them lessons all year long. And when you look at the situation in which Handel performed his Messiah, it wasn't in a concert hall, it was in an orphan's hospital, and the first concert released 142 men from debtor's prison. So if we're really doing authentic performance practice, if we're really going to put our mouth where our money is with regard to what these composers were actually dreaming and thinking as they composed, then we also have to have the same kind of social understanding of what kind of music our community needs. It became very clear to me at school that these composers were writing for their communities.

I'm sorry to go on a little bit here, but Bach's passions would have been called engagement sing-along concerts today, because everybody in the audience knew those chorales and they stood up and sang them. So what's our modern day Messiah? That's the kind of question that I'm asking in my head right now as I lead my life and do my stuff.

Q: What do you believe is the artist's role in society?

A: We have a critical role to be bridge builders and conversation starters. There's a lot of conversation around the arts as healing, and I actually think that our role is as much as healers as it is as disruptors and provokers. We've had an amazing experience at Street Symphony understanding the sort of link between our role as artists and occupying a place of immense privilege in society and also being able to speak to the experiences of people who are deeply underprivileged and deeply underserved. We have a responsibility to worship Bach and Beethoven as much as we do to understand and hold the stories of people who are disenfranchised in our world, and to tell those stories with the same reverence that we tell the stories of Bach and Beethoven to audiences of all economic spectra, if that makes sense. And so I actually serve on the board of directors of Americans for the Arts, which is the D.C.-based arts lobby, I'm a 2017 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, and these are the kinds of questions that we're kind of asking on a national level, especially in this time of unbelievable political upheaval -- that we have a role to create culture.

Q: What would you, if you were in a position to do so, tell current and incoming YSM students about the roles they can play in creating societal change?

A: The first piece is that we have an obligation to make our interests as diverse as possible. We are only as accomplished -- how do I want to say this -- we can only go so far as musicians before realizing that technique isn't everything, that if we really want to be consummate, whole artists, we have to be consummate, whole people, and that showing up to social causes is not a copout on our musicianship.

That's a myth that has been sort of told to us from the youngest age, that, "Oh, if you didn't make it as a soloist, that's when you join an orchestra," or, "If you didn't make it in your first couple of auditions, that's when you go into education," or, "If you didn't get the university job, that's when you start doing outreach with kids." And in fact if we actually, again, look back at the lives of composers, Vivaldi was working with orphaned girls in Venice, there was no conservatory model -- he made the best musicians out of these women. So that's one thing that I would say, and that comes back to wholeness. It's not about how many hours you spend in your practice room. It's about how whole you are as a person.

Q: So how are we doing, do you think, as a field?

A: I think we have a long way to go. I think the conversations that are starting now around artists challenging systems of white supremacy within cultural institutions, we're kind of at the back end of the way that these conversations are going in other artistic fields such as the museum world or the visual arts or dance worlds -- and I think even further behind the curve when it comes to issues related to political justice, social justice, policy making, business.

I think that we actually have to be quite radical, because the truth is, I think as musicians we are natural organizers. I think that as musicians we have natural tools that are part of our wheelhouse that we don't even know we have that come as a consequence of just how freaking hard we work, as students, as musicians. If we were to take the numbers of hours that we've poured into our instruments and apply it to any other field, we could have MDs, MBAs, and JDs and make all of our parents happy, and here we are in this arts world.

So, I think that we actually have to be really brave, and I go back to this point about being provocateurs, that it's as much our job to disrupt and cause the openings that lead to vulnerable conversations and to also have the awareness to lean in to those vulnerable conversations and restore the relationships that are currently broken and have been broken for a long time, maybe even for generations, when it comes to the people that we see in the jails or in Skid Row. It didn't happen to them in this generation. These are people who have been disenfranchised maybe for hundreds of years. So, with the scope of history that we inhabit through the classical music form, we can tell stories that go far beyond where we are right now.

Q: So what's the role of a place like YSM?

A: Well, I think that the role of place like YSM is to initiate that disruption in a sense. That's just kind of a thing that happened to me in Markus Rathey's class or in Panetti's class. It was the challenge and disruption that actually brought my own personal authentic voice to the forefront. That's exactly what happened for me in those classes. And it was challenging and powerful and beautiful, and those are really lessons that have stayed with me.

I remember just how demanding those classes were, and I did my presentation in Markus Rathey's class on the Grosse Fuge -- Beethoven Op. 133 -- and the B-flat Major String Quartet. And I must have listened to that piece all year just to wrap my head around what the hell was happening. And as a consequence, I started reading Beethoven's journals, and I started digging deeper into who he was as a person. And I still reference those things when I give my talks or when I teach. So it was the disruption, the challenge, but also understanding that all I had to do was look at who this person was as a person, and that was something that was really important to me.