02/27/2008 11:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Music: The New Diplomatic Tongue

There is a time when music becomes the best politics. From its lilting cadences and bursts of staccato to its heartrending twins of harmony and melody, music can be a truly transformative medium and a powerful instrument of human connection. Yesterday, The New York Philharmonic gave an unprecedented concert in Pyongyang, leaving many to question whether this moving musical occurrence could foster warmer ties between the nations. Can musical diplomacy usher in a new era between North Korea and the U.S.? Can the jazz of Gershwin and the culturally-poignant "Arirang" move our nations to a heightened level of diplomacy?

The concert, spanning both American and Korean musical traditions, elucidated the common ground between the countries - and its significance for both New York Philharmonic members and Korean listeners was echoed loudly, and tearfully. "This might just have pushed us over the top" in finding a way beyond past discord, said former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry. Indeed, music may be exactly what we need to foster connection amidst the tumultuous times of our global community.

Culture matters: I've certainly seen it happen on the domestic scene, at a time when the political challenges were no less daunting. In Wilmington, Delaware, during the early days of the civil rights struggle, I worked in an all-white church located in the center of an African-American community. Instead of retreating to the comfort of their suburbs, these white congregants, amidst the upheaval of the early 1960s, chose a direction for their church, and I'm proud to say they chose justice -- making the church a beacon for civil rights activism. It wasn't the easiest or most comfortable choice, but it was shepherded by the power and grace of music.

Congregants hired an astute political minister who knew how to change policy, but also how to change people's hearts as a precursor. He hired my then-husband, a young and talented choral conductor, to use music as a means to get whites and blacks -- who had not shared a church, a school, or a common culture -- to come together. He taught them to sing Beethoven and the blues, pop songs about change and Bernstein's West Side Story. Music built the foundation for very different groups of people of all ages to work on housing and jobs, education and equal rights. It was marching time, and these suburban whites and inner-city blacks marched in Wilmington and on Washington. They may not have shared dreams before, but now they stood together listening to the famous "I have a dream speech," delivered by King and worked diligently at home to create a new vision of community.

The political power of music is still very much alive. This November, at the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit a project of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, in partnership with The White House Project, the Council of Women World Leaders, and the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum) Gala, celebrated musician Angelique Kidjo not only enthralled listeners with her moving vocal and rhythmic performance, but she called upon the global audience to utilize the medium of music as an accompanying force for political change. Kidjo, who is known as the "galvanizing voice of sub-Saharan Africa," was echoed by Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, who asserted that Track II efforts require not only dialogue but unique means such as the arts to foster understanding, open communication, and successful diplomacy.

In the aftermath of the Summit, planning for a women's Track II diplomatic force has already begun, extending the use of current diplomatic missions which women leaders have already begun to undertake. These informal but essential connections between women world leaders, women working on the ground, and national decision-makers are critical in fostering peaceful solutions in areas of conflict, and they consistently use music and dance as part of that connective tissue towards change.

In looking at our failures in Iraq, and the tense tightrope we walk with North Korea, it is evident that our old formula of politics "from the head" is not working. That we have often acted without regard to differences in language or culture or history, and that (particularly in Iraq) this ignorance has fostered nothing short of devastation. In today's New York Times, Philharmonic musical director Lorin Maazel hoped that Tuesday's concert, which was broadcast to an audience of 200 million, might be important to "people who want relations to improve" - and yet the Bush administration was clear that as they see it, "a concert is only a concert." This denial of possible positive diplomatic outcomes is one more example of the shortsightedness that has steered our country in such a poor direction.

But this week, The New York Philharmonic has reminded our city, North Korea, and hopefully the world, that the value of music cannot be discounted, as it speaks the common language of the heart. And if we can learn to incorporate this new "tongue" into our diplomatic dialects, perhaps it will illuminate possibilities previously unknown. Perhaps when we integrate this language of the heart, we can traverse bridges previously burned, and encourage the head to follow.