Exposing Paradox in Political Tribalism – a musical and visual artistic collaboration

Project Abstract

We will create a musical and visual multi-media experience to be perfomed as a catalyst for dialogue. Dialogue will encourage contemplation of the current polarized political climate in the US (political tribalism), and its relationship to faith practices.

The music will be performed while the visual plays. An invited interdisciplinary panel of sociologists, political scientists, clergy of different denominations, etc. will use the preceding performance as a springboard for discussion and commentary.

We plan two public performances with further distribution to institutions, both public and private, that show interest in continuing this dialogue using the musical and visual products generated.

Proposed Research or Creative Activity (Narrative).


In November, 2017 Earl MacDonald completed a jazz orchestra commission for the UMASS Amherst Jazz Ensemble 1, which he titled “By Our Love.” Elements of the piece are derived from a frequently sung hymn, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” composed in 1968 by then-Catholic priest Peter Scholtes. MacDonald’s work is a reaction to the political tribalism in America which compelled three-quarters of white, evangelical Christians to support a presidential candidate who is seemingly the antithesis of all the things Jesus taught and lived. There is a disturbing paradox to the hymn’s title in the current era, when allegiance to political party appears to take precedence over the tenets of one’s faith.

Although MacDonald’s brooding composition makes a statement by itself, its intent and driving rationale to stimulate discussion, and raise questions & awareness regarding the incongruencies between faith and politics could be reinforced considerbly with visual prompts. Cora Lynn Deibler will create an illustrated video which will correlate with performances of MacDonald’s composition. The video will consist of quotes from the presidential campaign trail which demonstrate or imply misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, racism, dishonesty, vulgarity, revenge, materialism, etc., followed by incompatible Biblical quotes. Factual statistics will be presented to illustrate the number of church-going individuals who internally reconciled overlooking agregious moral infractions which are incompatible with their core religious beliefs. Republican stratigists/policy advisors such as Karl Rove, will be cited to illustrate how Christians have been succussfully convinced they are most alligned with and best represented by the G.O.P.. By using illustration rather than video footage, audiences will visualize and process the presented information with a mindset different from passive television-watching, where longstanding, entrenched views are rarely subject to inquiry. In the absence of absolutes, or “truth,” there will be room to question, and examine, the juxtapositions presented.


Investigative research and consultation with colleagues in political science and Biblical scholarship will constistute considerable time and effort as we formulate the content presented in the video. Once ideas and themes have been identified and developed, illustrations and hand-done text will be created and forwarded to an animator and video editor to organize and manipulate for motion and optimal presentation.

MacDonald will reassess and revisit his musical composition, adjusting it to match, compliment and reinforce the visual and written content. Similarly, the video will be tweaked to allign emotionally-powerful, musical moments with equally potent imagery.

The music will be rehearsed by a student ensemble under MacDonald’s direction, thereby drawing students into the creative process and introducing these young instrumentalists to the experience of working directly with a composer, in the act of artistic creation. The length of the video and music will be coordinated and adjusted.

Advanced screenings would be presented to students in School of Fine Arts convocations, which might result in further tweaking, depending upon audience reaction.

Performance venues and dates would be secured, the performing ensemble(s) would be contracted, post-performance discussion panels would be assembled consisting of political science faculty, clergy from varied denominations, sociologists, the artists, etc., and the events would be promoted in the communities in which they will be presented.

Significance of the project:

The completed musical composition and corresponding video have the potiential to be performed in a wide variety of settings, including churches, university campuses, theatres, libraries, etc.., where dialogue would be stimulated through their combined impact. Round-table discussion panels, comprised of political scientists, clergy from varied denominations, sociologists, public servants, the artists, and others, could respond to the video and to audience questions. The driving point will be to ask panels and audiences to consider, more broadly, language, ideas, and context(s). Hopefully, upon return to spaces beyond the performances, the questions will linger, generating a deeper thoughtfulness that appears to be lacking across all categories today.

The composition could be marketed to university, professional and community jazz ensembles across the USA, as a vehicle for collaborating with individuals and groups outside the fine arts, to engage lively discussion amongst expanded, diverse audiences.

If this is a framework that works, and it is deemed successful, equally vital current topics could be addressed in a similar manner, through subsequent presenations. External grants would be sought to continue this work.

Investing in Collaborative and Interdisciplinary Research is one of four initiatives outlined in the School of Fine Arts Academic Plan. Further, this proposal has relationships to other elements described in the School’s Academic Plan, as follows. Most notably:

Global Arts and Cultures:

The School is committed to fostering interdisciplinary arts as a creative research practice.

Artists, Scholars, and Public Discourse:

The University’s plan calls for an expanded engagement with the critical issues of our time, and recognizes that higher education has a leadership role to play in finding solutions to problems like inequality, the environment, and violence. Unique among its peers, our University academic plan recognizes that the arts can play a leadership role in social engagement. A number of our faculty – artists, performers, and scholars – engage with important social issues in their work, including the environment and sustainability, human rights, the legacy of colonialism, aging, race, gender and sexuality.

Experimental Film, Video, and Animation:

Film, animation, and video are a growing force in the creative and economic life of the state and they are also art forms to which all the School of Fine Arts departments contribute.

Key Opportunities for Collaboration Across Schools and Colleges:

In the previous sections we’ve discussed a number of ways that the School is increasing collaboration.  In addition, the School of Fine Arts has the potential to contribute to several of the University Academic Plan’s proposed Strategic Areas:

  • We have a leadership role to play in “Arts, Humanities, and Public Discourse” and in
    “Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”
  • Several artists and scholars in the School, including those involved in the Human Rights Institute and the interdisciplinary studies programs, can make significant contributions to “Human Diversity, Disparity, and Rights.”

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