Singing the Bill of Rights
Trump year 1
What have you done in the last year to respond to the upheavals in American politics? This is an installment in a series of short essays that reflect on the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Everyone who has been in a chorus knows that if you sing a text you never forget it, at least on some level. In 2005 I set the Bill of Rights to music, hoping to make the youth of America, specifically high school students, more aware of this precious text through song. Since that time there have been 30 complete performances of the work, a dozen or so performances of portions of it, and more performances of the First Amendment than I know (I stopped counting years ago, when the number passed 60). Most of the complete performances have been conducted by me; most of the partial and all of the First-Amendment-only renditions have been conducted by others.
I undertook this composition, and these performances, out of a great sense of urgency. Twelve years ago, Americans seemed only vaguely aware of the First Amendment; violations of the Fourth Amendment were routine (especially unauthorized searches); cruel and unusual punishments (torture) were back, in flagrant violation of the Eighth Amendment; and the revisionist reading of the Second Amendment (nothing like what the founders had in mind) was well established. In short, most of the Bill of Rights had been ripped to shreds. It was my belief that a greater awareness of our most fundamental rights as citizens would make things at least a bit better.
Since the presidential election of 2016 things have only gotten worse. The whole concept of due process is in jeopardy; presumption of innocence is out the window; freedom of religion and the separation of church and state are openly attacked; and the current president calls for control of the press by the executive branch. All of these issues are dealt with in the Bill of Rights, either explicitly or by implication. We are headed in the wrong direction.
These days I am resolved to perform my setting of the Bill of Rights as much as possible, and to work constantly to secure performances by other conductors and groups with whom I am not associated. Every now and then such a performance occurs. In southern California, for example, there will be a partial performance later this year. In suburban Atlanta a large church is learning the piece, one movement at a time. There are people agitating for performances in New Orleans, Houston, San Francisco and other cities. A Unitarian church in central Massachusetts plans a complete performance within the next few months.
It is still my belief that a populace truly aware of its fundamental rights under a constitutional democracy will not give up those rights without a struggle. Singing the Bill of Rights may seem a quixotic gesture, but it is a real one, and I know from years of experience that it is transformative on a local and individual level. It is fun, educational, and inspiring – and it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Neely Bruce is a composer/performer and the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music at Wesleyan University.