Q1: You have talked, in the past, based on your own experiences as a violinist, of music’s ability to change society, but your encounters have tended to repair or ease tensions. How far do you think music can really function as a constructive tool to initiate and promote diplomacy?
I think the power of music to change society in a positive way should continue to be explored. Because it has not been sufficiently explored, we don’t really know the limit. I think when you look at some of the best examples, such as El Sistema in Venezuela; you see them changing the society internally. Other examples can be seen between cultures, such as Beethoven’s 9th being performed at the fall of the Berlin Wall, to celebrate that occasion. We’ve seen what music can do, but yet there’s still a persistent belief among diplomats and politicians that music is something nice, but it’s a luxury, and so its capacity to bring about change is not fully known by anyone. So I think we have to continue to push forward, and to explore what it can do.
Q2: Do you think that growing international collaboration on musical initiatives, such as those promoted by Cultures in Harmony, can in any way damage cultural diversity, as each nation reaches more for a globalized market?
I think that cultural diplomacy can, on the contrary, help with the preservation of individual cultures, because one thing I’ve found, as a Western classical musician travelling to countries like Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea, is that traditional musicians there struggle for their music to be heard over the global mass-marketed popular music, just as much as in the United States, Western classical musicians struggle for their music to be heard as an alternative to the mass-marketed popular music that most people listen to. The idea that Western classical music is the music of the establishment is very outdated, especially in the United States, where it accounts for 3 percent of record sales. So we’re struggling, a musician in Zimbabwe is struggling, a drummer in Papua New Guinea is struggling. When we work with these people during our projects, we encourage young people to preserve their culture. I think we’re maintaining and sustaining the diversity of cultural expression that makes humanity great. For instance, when we worked with the members of an indigenous tribe in the Philippines, the youth of this tribe told us that, before we came, they did not realize the importance of their culture, and what made them distinct from other groups in the Philippines. I think cultural diplomacy plays a very positive role in that sense.
Q3: To what extent do you think that national governments have a responsibility to fund activities in the field of cultural diplomacy and the arts?
I think they do have a moral responsibility to fund cultural diplomacy, but if they abrogate that responsibility, then I think it is up to the citizens to step in to fill the void. Cultures in Harmony is happy to accept funding from the US State Department, but when they don’t come through, I think it’s up to individual Americans or American foundations and corporations to take ownership of how our country is represented abroad, how people perceive us, and also how we perceive them, and how that affects our ability to be effective internationally.
Q4: Finally, do you think that projects run by those such as Cultures in Harmony help give a more specific meaning to cultural diplomacy by adopting a more systematic approach to engaging in international dialogue through music?
Yes, in fact I was not aware that cultural diplomacy meant anything more than exchanges of musicians and artists for quite some time after I started Cultures in Harmony. I myself interpret the term ‘culture’ in a very narrow sense – meaning mainly music, dance, and theatre. Even though I think differently now, I guess I still have that viewpoint – that the most effective cultural diplomacy, the most effective way of engaging with different populations and cultures, is through the universal language of the arts. If the United States were to send a business expert to a developing nation, it’s numerically clear who’s “better” or “smarter” in this situation, which could create resentment. We send people to lecture about American business practices, and I suppose that’s welcomed by some, but it’s not an equal playing field. In music, you can create an equal playing field, because there’s no objective way of declaring something as “better” – we can learn from each other. Very few fields present such a wonderful opportunity. Music does, and it also presents a way to speak without making judgments, without references to conflicts. For me, the most effective way to engage in cultural diplomacy is through musical diplomacy.
Interview conducted by Emma Lough & Kim Cornett, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy