James Austin Smith on Music As Witness

By Anthony Roth Costanzo

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

I first met James Austin Smith when I was singing with the International Contemporary Ensemble many years ago, and not only did we find affinity in our slightly sardonic senses of humor, but we found parity in our timbres and our goals as artists. We have performed together on too many stages to count, from Lincoln Center to Spoleto, from small seaside towns to noisy restaurants. James is a star and an anchor of the Chamber Music Scene, but also something of a maverick, carving his own path in classical music. He is always engaged in fascinating ways to blow new life into chamber music, creating a strong sense of community all the while. As I was talking to him about wanting to create a series of performances connected to the idea of myth as I get ready to take on the mythical leading role of Orfeo this season at the MET opera, he told me about incredible work he has doing for years, and I am elated to see it come to fruition at National Sawdust! 

ARC: This is such an exciting project, can you tell us about its inception, and when you first discovered your interest in this material?

JAS: In 2005 I was a wide-eyed oboe student in Leipzig, Germany, where you could find the recent history of East Germany everywhere you looked. During my studies, I heard some wild music from the ‘70s and ‘80s by composers whose names were foreign to me, and understood there was an oboist involved in that whole era. I long thought I would do some research into that time and place; it was in March of 2020 that I finally had the opportunity to really dig in. In the fall of 2020 I moved to Germany for a few months to track down this amazing history.

ARC: So will this project and a narrative arc, or is it glimpses of abstraction?

JAS: This will very much be an evening of storytelling through words, film and music. The history is absolutely fascinating—the dynamics of being a musician in a dictatorship, of creating a realm of free speech through musical abstraction, of navigating a system that both enabled and crushed. The music is inextricably linked to the history, and both are colored by the nuanced nature of post-Cold War memory. I can’t wait to tell this story through words, others’ and my own, and through music that, because it has been overlooked for the past three decades, will be heard for the first time by just about everyone in the audience.

ARC: What can people expect to hear in the music of these composers? Are there similarities in their approaches?

JAS: The then-East German composers each had (or have) distinct voices but they operated in the same very small and quite insular context. The musicians and composers of the small country fed each other: the musicians, through their sheer ability, enabled the composers to explore realms they hadn’t imagined; in turn the composers pushed the musicians to extremes—instrumentally, musically, dramatically—extremes they might not have otherwise tempted themselves.

“The oboe’s singularity comes from its inherent resistance. We blow air through a tiny opening, into a very narrow resonating body—that resistant energy is what makes its sound so potent and its aural effect so profound. I think you could argue the political resistance that plays a large role in this music is well-suited to the instrument.”

ARC: What grabs you about this music?

JAS: The music is visceral - you can sense that it represents something more personal than abstract inspiration. These composers were composing against something, not necessarily in protest, and not necessarily in every note, but their existence in a dictatorship was restricted and that resistance provided a pressure against which to push, something that gives the music a certain intensity and a certain pathos.

ARC: What was the process of working with Matana Roberts like?

JAS: Matana Roberts inspires me as a performer, a composer, a musician, a thinker and a human. Matana’s work is something of a model for the work I’ve been doing with Hearing Memory—their large-scale project Coin Coin speaks to a similar understanding of music as a historical document, music as witness, music as a portal into a past, as a medium through which to process, to honor, to memorialize, to remember. Matana’s approach as an artist is one of distinctive openness and their music one of immense creativity. I could listen to them play for a very long time. That Matana was willing to write a new work in the context of this project is an immense honor for me.

ARC: How can music function as a form of protest, propaganda, or political action? Can its impact be tangible?

JAS: This is very much the question—and I would add what does it mean for our role as artists in society? I think that there are many ways for music to manifest itself as a form of protest—propaganda would be one way of describing the music written at the beginning of the East German state—music written by the likes of Hanns Eisler, set to texts by the likes of Bertolt Brecht, to earnestly assist in the building of a long-dreamt-of socialist state. That same state eventually became the very subject of much of the protest music written by Eisler’s students in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I have to imagine that our world is far “noisier” today than it was in East Germany in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so how do we have an impact on society as artists when we’re so easily drowned out? We have to be thoughtful about it, and examples from the past, like this one, can only help inform how we deal with and react to our present.

ARC: How will the interviews you conducted influence the music making?

JAS: The interviews have helped enormously in contextualizing the music and the era, but in many ways I have tried to keep the music-making my own. Breathing life into rarely heard repertoire requires a fresh mind and fresh ears—I think it’s important to honor any music in that way.

ARC: How is the oboe uniquely equipped to express this kind of story, and what are some unique features of the way it’s employed throughout the evening?

JAS: The oboe’s singularity comes from its inherent resistance. We blow air through a tiny opening, into a very narrow resonating body—that resistant energy is what makes its sound so potent and its aural effect so profound. I think you could argue the political resistance that plays a large role in this music is well-suited to the instrument. The audience on October 28th will hear the oboe played in ways that most will have never heard before, not as a novelty, but as a means of expression, of searching, of reckoning. It’s a wonderful sound world into which to enter.

ARC: In your mind is a myth a fundamental truth or is it, by modern standards, a lie?

JAS: In my mind a myth is perspective, it is context. It is both cautionary and illuminating. Take in this case, the widely accepted myth of a divided Germany—that Germany was always meant to be one "united fatherland”—what do we lose of the past when we accept that original myth? In many ways the acceptance of this myth is what led us to forget an entire (East German) society. The idea of the ‘End of History’ gained such “mythical” status as our present-day geo-political paradigm that we were caught unaware when it proved to be in fact, in and of itself, a myth. Myths are intoxicating, both in their ability to mesmerize us, and in their ability to hide underlying truths, to allow them to go unseen. This evening will reveal memory lost to myth, a kind of rehabilitation through story-telling and sound.

ARC: Do you feel there’s a way in which music, or art more generally, lets us experience history more profoundly?

JAS: We live in a world where music is omni-present, whether at the grocery store or in a restaurant or as background to that annoying video that always plays after we get into a taxi. We are inundated with it, and it can become difficult to avoid allowing our listening to become passive. But the reality is that music, like a great painting of Goya or a ballet of Nijinsky or a film of Charlie Chaplin, is a historical document—if we listen actively, if we are given a little bit of context, we can experience it as such—it can add a dimension to the past as immediate and as intimate as sound.

About Anthony Roth Costanzo

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo began performing professionally at the age of 11 and has since appeared in opera, concert, recital, film, and on Broadway. He was recently awarded a GRAMMY, an Honorary Doctorate from Manhattan School of Music, a visiting fellowship from Oxford University, and the History Makers Award from the New York Historical Society. He is a recipient of the 2020 Beverly Sills Award from the Metropolitan Opera, a winner of the 2020 Opera News Award, and Musical America’s 2019 Vocalist of the Year.