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First 100 Days

The Declaration of Independence and a Piano Concerto

by David Lee on Jul 3, 2019

With Independence Day just around the corner, I found myself reflecting on my experience in the Aspen Institute’s Academy 2.0 program for non-profit leaders in 2015. Funded by American Express, the program took a cohort of non-profit leaders through a weeklong seminar on leadership, values, and good society at Aspen Institute. 

In the morning, we would participate in moderated dialogue on the creation of civil society, responding to readings as diverse as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to Hobbes’ Leviathan to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the afternoons, we would break to go for a hike in the mountains, listen to the world-class music at the Aspen music festival, or rehearse our production of Antigone, a requirement for anyone who participates in a seminar at the Aspen Institute. 

I remember one morning, we discussed the formation and drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The conversation focused on how Jefferson addressed and attempted to solve the core challenge of drafting such a document, namely that it had to function both as a legal document to enumerate and justify the reasons for independence, but also as an aspirational document that set forth the ideals that transformed the thirteen British colonies into states, ideals that the men of the time could not live up to (eg, the dissonance of owning slaves and believing that all men are created equal). 

That afternoon, we went to see a discussion with Conrad Tao, a pianist and composer, who talked about early fame, his process for work, and maintaining balance between work and life. Tao also played some of his recent compositions and I was struck by how our morning discussion was reflected in his work. 

In Jefferson’s writing, he’s solving legal problems to show the receipts of the monarchical abuses from Great Britain that violated the natural rights that had been endowed to all man. This is contextually some pretty heady stuff but Jefferson is up to the task. 

In Tao’s piano compositions, I could hear him playing ever more complex and interesting musical phrases that needed to be resolved and bridged into the next phrase. Tao was solving musical problems in his composition in the same way that Jefferson was solving legal problems in the Declaration of Independence. 

All artists are problem solvers in this way. They see the world in a particular way and have to solve a series of problems in their medium - whether it’s music, light, color, marble, dance, acting, or words - to show the world how they see it. 

There’s unfortunately a long-held misperception that this work in “the arts” is fluffy. It’s not. It’s hard work, full of grinding, rigorous, and sometimes, beautiful and inspirational practice.

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