One of the 23 MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants this year has gone to Sebastian Ruth, a 35-year-old violist in Rhode Island and the moving force behind the Providence String Quartet. Founded in 1997, the Quartet is a lively, energetic ensemble, and Ruth himself is a precise, passionate violist; in performance videos, he is seen sitting on the very edge of his chair, swaying and bobbing as he plays. The MacArthur grant has gone to Ruth, however, not so much for his musical skills as for what he has done with them.
The Quartet sits within an immensely admirable organization called Community MusicWorks, powered by Ruth’s belief that musical education can improve lives not only aesthetically but materially. Each year, the Quartet’s members train around 100 students, entirely free of cost, working with inner-city children to offer an alternative to the brutal iniquities of life on the street. Further, the Quartet disburses its own music generously, almost always playing in unorthodox venues. “We want people to see the Quartet where they wouldn’t expect to,” Ruth once said. “We’re here on the street, we’re in the community centre, we’re in the soup kitchen, we’re in the nursing home…or an indie-rock club or city hall.”
It isn’t difficult to see why The Boston Globe lauded Community MusicWorks for carrying out “a small revolution”. Music is so often referred to, casually and thoughtlessly, as a universal language that we forget how restricted, how decidedly un-universal, access to classical music is. In Europe, this has been the case for some centuries, ever since music moved out of churches—where, for example, Bach’s mighty chorales made their debuts—and into concert halls and opera houses. In India, that shift has occurred within living memory. Every story I’ve heard about villagers thronging Carnatic concerts in rural south India has had, at the centre of the anecdote, a musician such as M.S. Subbulakshmi or Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, somebody from the mid-20th century. Today, Carnatic and Hindustani concerts reside, for the most part, in frigid auditoriums, reaching out only to people who already have at least a glancing acquaintance with the music.
Lifeline: Community MusicWorks members playing at an event.
Ruth’s model isn’t a complicated one; there are similar programmes elsewhere in the US, such as the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Charity Music project in Michigan. The model requires a certain stubborn idealism to sustain, but it is one that could easily be cloned anywhere else in the world. There are also precedents of spirited musicians who tethered their music to ideas of social justice. In one essay, Ruth cites Pablo Casals, the cellist who directed his musical career against the Spanish Fascist government; Vedran Smailovic, another cellist who played placidly on a Sarajevo street amid artillery fire; and Yehudi Menuhin, who took on the Soviet Union when it refused to allow the violinist David Oistrakh out of its borders.
Best of all, Ruth’s model is hardly an act of charity. If even eight of Community MusicWorks’ 100 annual students take to a life in music, that isn’t merely eight kids taken off the street; it’s also eight new talented musicians, two whole string quartets that can fill old music with new experiences and fresh perspectives. We have, at the end of it, a richer music for ourselves.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org