Art as Politics at Texas State University

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As part of Texas State University’s ongoing Common Experience initiative, pianist, composer, and Texas State alum Dr. Wayne Oquin returned to his alma mater last night as the artistic director for “Let Freedom Ring,” a one-night-only performance in celebration of the First Amendment. The performance was the culmination of the sixth annual Julliard Joins Texas State program, a collaborative performance by students from both schools.

Oquin’s program was an eclectic mix of music, dance, video and theatrical performances that linked Debussy, Bartók and other 20th-century composers with Martin Luther King Jr. and Molly Ivins. The seemingly disparate musical selections were at times jarring and dissonant, and elsewhere aching, soaring or sweet. The program featured vocal pieces sung by the unhesitating baritone voice of Julliard’s Davone Tines, and the explosive choreography of Adam Barruch. There was even a solo played on a “prepared piano,” which had nuts, bolts and weather-stripping applied to its strings. In lesser hands the diverse selection of performances might have felt like a couple hours’ worth of channel-surfing, but under Oquin’s direction the effect was investigative and conversational. The “jangling discords of our nation” mentioned in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech were first made audible in Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and the “symphony of brotherhood” King proposed could be heard in the program’s finale, Oquin’s Tower Ascending, performed by Julliard soloists and the Texas State Wind Symphony.

Oquin, who now teaches at Julliard, is known for incorporating music, dance and theater in his works—which seemed especially apropos to this year’s free speech theme. Central to the program were performances by actors Eugene Lee and Barbara Chisholm. Lee delivered two of King’s most famous speeches, beautifully rendering King’s zeal in the early years of the civil rights movement, and the weary determination he exhibited just before his assassination.

The program’s indisputable highlight was Chisholm’s performance of an excerpt from her one-woman show, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Ivins was known for her unflinching and often humorous coverage of Texas and national politics, and Chisholm’s Ivins is tough-talking, coarse and knee-slapping funny. But she is also a stringent idealist, reminding the audience that each person’s voice is a powerful political tool. Her message: that Americans should take to the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding justice and good governance from our leaders. “All of your life, whatever you do, you have another job. You are a citizen,” Chisholm urged, and as the lights went down, the wings of the auditorium resonated with the clanking of pots and pans.

Revisiting the words of thinkers and activists such as Ivins and King serves as a reminder of their principles, but Oquin’s program exceeded this goal by demonstrating the fundamental importance of the First Amendment to both art and activism. Art is about communication, and for this reason it is inherently political. Like democracy, its existence depends upon people’s ability to express ideas.

E. D. Watson is the Nonfiction Editor of Newfound Journal. She lives and writes in San Marcos, Texas.