Following the Beat to Social Change

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If you were in Montreal this past spring, chances are you’re familiar with the nightly “casseroles” that formed a faint metallic rhythm heard all over the city. These pot-banging protests brought thousands of Montrealers into the streets, kitchen utensils in hand, to express their opposition to the provincial government’s controversial Bill 78 that aimed to subdue the ongoing student protests over tuition hikes. Every 8:00pm, like clockwork, small groups would form on apartment balconies and street corners, transforming within the hour into droves of hundreds proceeding throughout the city.

I remember talking to my landlord shortly after the casseroles started, who complained of the “damned noise” that marched down out a normally quiet street.  Could this same noise, however, be considered a nightly serenade to other ears?  Such a question was considered in the recent public discussion, “Noise Creates Meaning,” presented by McGill’s Personal and Cultural Enrichment Program and Pop Montreal.

Music is implicated in all social movements simply by the fact that it’s the archetypical expression device: it makes us move, act, and even experience a unique sense of collectivity as seen in Montreal’s casseroles.  Considering the particular cultural diversity and political polarity of the city, I was surprised to see such a wide range of participants banging their pots and pans every night. Compared to earlier protests (mostly made up of students) the casseroles involved a deeper cross-section of Montreal society: mothers and their small toddlers stood with elderly couples, hipsters with young middle-class professionals. It was as if the rhythm was able to cross cultural barriers that initially seemed impenetrable and at one time forcibly separated these groups of people.

Amazingly, the casseroles were also able to overcome language, one of the most polarizing cultural hurdles in Montreal.  When I first moved to here two years ago, I quickly realized that simply opening your mouth and uttering a few syllables in this city is a politically implicated act.  Despite such potential anxieties brought up by language, the persistent and collective nature of the casserole’s beats worked to unite individuals into one common cause in the face of otherwise tangible communication problems. One speaker in the discussion even mentioned that the casserole was the first time he ever spoke to his francophone neighbor who was shocked to learn he was also a supporter of the protests.

Participation in a casserole was as easy as grabbing a cooking pot and wooden spoon from a kitchen drawer—the fact that just about anything could be used as an instrument meant anyone could be a musician. Making music with others allows us to form relations within social and cultural frameworks. The casseroles utilized one of the most basic parts of music to resonate (positively or negatively) with all of Montreal’s population.  Whether the beats of the casseroles were considered music or just noise, many in the discussion realized, depends on the political outlook of the listener. How we hear revolves around our personal positions, socially and politically, within society.  Whether Montreal’s nightly casseroles were personally inspiring or just plain annoying, it’s hard to deny that they got people moving, acting, and talking together. The collective action caused by this kind of audible expression is central in furthering a more cooperative and lasting form of social change.

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