Sebastian Ruth is a professional musician and educator committed to exploring connections between the arts and social change. Mr. Ruth is the Founder and Artistic Director of Community MusicWorks, a nationally-recognized organization that connects professional musicians with urban youth and families in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2010, Sebastian visited the White House to receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama on behalf of Community MusicWorks. Also in 2010, Sebastian learned that he had been selected for the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for “creating rewarding musical experiences for often-forgotten populations and forging a new, multifaceted role beyond the concert hall for the twenty-firstcentury musician.”
1 Why is your work relevant to a broader audience outside of your specific discipline?
Music is a fundamentally human impulse and activity that we as musicians and educators need to keep our focus on, rather than music as a highly specialized activity for only those who are highly specialized in it. Being a musician is fundamentally human and available to everyone and the most special experiences in music are ones that don’t require a huge skill acquisition. Like, when you are playing a concert, in that moment of playing music, there’s some deep communion of emotion and sound and people that touches on memory, touches on feeling, touches on something current, and touches on some things in the past, and it happens between the performer and the audience. That is human. That is human communication. And everyone just participated in that. It’s a communal activity. And that’s the thing I feel is so important to remember and to recall and to work toward in music, and those things can happen without a highly specialized violin player. That can happen with a group of people singing a protest song at a rally where suddenly words and banners change into people singing together and the whole atmosphere changes. Or it can happen in a church, or when the President stands up and decides to sing “Amazing Grace” at a funeral. There’s different moments when music happens and it’s deeply communicative.
2 What are the “commons” that your specific research fights to preserve, protect, contest, or share?
It’s not a word I use in my work very much, but I like it. I’ll give you an anecdote as an answer. Over the years, with Community MusicWorks, we have done a series of events that have tried to bring us to the sweet spot of musical performance, community gathering, food, and a kind of collision of demographics, where people from different parts of the city, different class, and different race come together in a moment of good. And it’s those moments that we try to chain together over the years, that really build a sense of what the city is and what it can be. We celebrate the unusualness when people say “I’ve never been to this part of town, but I felt really welcome and comfortable here.” Well, that’s pretty profound. And that goes from an affluent person going to a poorer part of this city, and having that feeling, and the other way around too. After having done these concerts over the years in gyms and community centers, last fall we did a series at a taqueria as a monthly event. It happened over four months and the reason we partnered with this taqueria was that it already had a pretty diverse clientele: from Mexican people who knew the food and would order the not-so-gringo food, like real Mexican cuisine, all the way to the white person seeking a good burrito who doesn’t live anywhere at all near this neighborhood. So they already had this broad appeal. They have this great tagline—it’s a very mom and pop sort of place—by way of saying it’s not a corporate tagline, just their tagline: “Authentic Mexican cuisine for every comfort level.” In other words, if you want to eat tripe, it’s authentic tripe, and if you want a burrito, that’s good too. So we said, well, maybe it’s authentic concert music at every comfort level too. We are going to make this an experience that anyone could walk into and not feel like there’s this barrier of knowledge or class or education or something that would prevent you from being welcome in a classical music concert. There was some trial and error to get this right, but by the end of the series, the thing we liked best was the diversity of folks in the room. To say: what else is a cultural event where so many different groups are coming and feeling welcome and they own it? So, just that people would have this comfort level to try something that’s a little bit new. For me, the thing that was so juicy about this series is that it had a feeling of a commons: this is a place people can come together across difference for a shared experience that’s meaningful.
3 What is at stake in your work?
Music is not at risk of going away. People are going to sing, people are going to listen to their iPods. They are going to stream music. So that’s embedded, at one level, as so fundamental to how people interact and how they go to music even as individuals. That’s not going anywhere. I guess that from where I sit in particular, because of my bias having done this organization for 20 years, I am very comfortable with the idea of death and reinvention. We don’t need to preserve and protect the very institutions of music in order to protect the best qualities of it. So, if some of the large, storied institutions go away and they are replaced by different approaches to music making and concert music, then that’s okay with me in some sense. It’s a little cavalier to say that I don’t care if the big institution at the top of the pyramid goes away; I do care. At the same time, one of the people I’m reading a lot in the past years is John Dewey, who, in the 1930’s, in his essays on the meaning of art, was bashing this idea that art gets to sit on its own, preserved and removed from the real world. Whereas art is this fundamentally human thing. The problem is when people start to disassociate it from everyday life and problems, and we have to constantly work, and his phrase is, to restore continuity between the everyday and the art experiences. So when people say, how do we reinvent the concert experience, and how do we think about making a meaningful music experience in a community of people? Well, that’s a very vivid question. And the answer to that could be make an orchestra concert more of a broad, demographic experience so that people can really come together in a feeling of community around that orchestra, or it could be that people come together for concert music experience in a taqueria and in some sense, I’m equally comfortable with either answer.
4 What are the physical spaces that potentially perpetuate or exacerbate the issues your work seeks to redress?
Well, let me answer that in a way that’s not exactly answering that, to raise a related question. We have done a lot of work over the last five or six years envisioning a future space for Community MusicWorks, and some of the dilemmas we face in that question have to do with “transparent” and “easily accessible” versus “sanctuary,” “removed from the noise of the street.” To me, they are both really powerful ideas. So in the transparent and accessible [model], we say the DNA of this organization is tied to our storefront, where for 15 years of our 20 years, we’ve had rehearsals at street level where young people and other passersby can just look in the window and see a group of musicians working. There’s a constant implied invitation for someone to open the door. That levels the whole notion that the classical musician is somewhere cloistered away and not accessible or participating in normal life. And so there’s something we celebrate about normalizing it with the space at street front with plate glass windows. And then there’s this other concept, which is to say, yes, but the invitation to a young person who’s walking down the street and seeing all these symbols of “you’re not worth very much” or “you don’t deserve very much” like the inner city streetscape phenomenon. And that’s through no action of that young person. Instead, to communicate this message of, “come into this space for a musical experience, where we can open our imagination and be removed from the noise of the street.” I think those are two powerful and contrasting views. I don’t think Dewey would reject the formal as being removed from everyday life, just because it’s formal, as long as other factors are taken into account: who gets to walk [inside], who gets to have the invitation to use their imagination? Those are the essential questions.