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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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Is participating in culture a political act? It's the season to talk about it. I was making a note about politics & art this morning, and this afternoon some interesting articles and interviews popped up over at New Music Box about Steve Reich's Daniel Variations and the denazification of German music after World War II.

Many composers have strong political points of view. Christopher DeLaurenti comes to mind, as do Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, and Kyle Gann. So as not to re-cover the serious sweep of history, I'll leave it to Kyle, a proper musicologist.

For me, music without words simply isn't representative of political meaning. It's abstract sound. Words certainly make a difference (whether in a title or text), as do culturally tuned melodies, such as Schoenberg's hair-raising use of Sh'ma Yisroel in A Survivor from Warsaw. Weaving into a composition tunes with verbal history or other deep cultural roots can identify a composition as a political statement -- whether or not, stripped of the words or a listener's cultural association, it would still contain any particular message.

To say again, music is abstract. Think of this. Beethoven looks up from the score of his third symphony, discovers Napolean has declared himself emperor of the known universe, and rips up the dedication to the Eroica. So Ludwig's dramatic statement leaves him out one sheet of paper and avoids a future keen moment of embarrassment -- but makes no difference within the music. It's still got nice plump heroic-sounding chords if you take them that way, but nothing calls out, "I loved Napolean once but don't anymore." Similarly, a colleague dedicated a composition to the oppressed Palestinians. Nothing whatsoever was evident from the music. He might as well have dedicated it to his cat.

Sure, music, even abstract music, can irritate the powerful. The Soviet realists wanted music like Beethoven. 'Great hulk of a man' was the associated text. Bourgeois student Marxists also loved Beethoven, not Schoenberg. At rally-round-the-Mao events (and yes, some serious activism permeated my life for many years), the kitschy Internationale was weepily sung over bad booze and dope. But art cannot be detached from politics, as Mao insisted? Rubbish. We make choices that one class of observers will call élitist, another class trivial, another class revolutionary. Sure, as nonpoppers we've been associated with an establishment, but the choice of how and what to compose is -- and I'm expressing a belief, as none of this is remotely provable -- a consequence both of acculturation and a simultaneous artistic resistance to acculturation.

Art is always about discovery, which prompts some of my own rage at compositional capitulation to mediocrity. The subtext of all grant-driven institutional art is that one can't have too much in art. Art is dangerous, not easy. Dictators understand that, too. Stalin and Pinochet were political opposites but artistic mates.

Even so, politics doesn't grasp abstract musical art, and vice-versa. Yes, there's the social aspect that can be extrapolated into politics with little effort. When discussing improvisation, one is drawn into the political nature of a group of artistic equals. There is something socialistic about improvisatory work, a body of equals trading actions and coming together with equanimity and sans rivalry, just as there is something fascistic about the conductor, without ever touching another musician, commanding their behaviors with a stick or a finger. The improvising ensemble subjugates the individual, the product of a single hand glorifies the individual. (By the time one gets to serialism, the imprint of the individual is all-encompassing, not only in the individual works but in the mechanisms by which they function. It is anti-populist in origin, completion and sound.)

It's a short trot from observing the interaction of improvisational ensembles and their apparent cultural commonality to the belief that the result of that interaction is sonically different -- and politically self-evidently distinct -- from the invention of an individual. Breaking over from one to other may have deep significance, but that significance is the effect on the individuals and their future contributions to the sonic sphere. In other words, I seriously mistrust the concept of the abstract sounds being reverse-associable with their creation. Yes, one can tell work by committee, but improvisation is different -- it is the individual reaction to an interactive circumstance. That circumstance modifies the extant and inspires the future, but its political content is entirely specious. One would have to apply from the past's future, our present, to a process millennia old to extract any political meaning from the sonic events taking place around a fire following a Paleolithic hunt, even if the era is considered in modern terms to be an equitable and homogeneous society.

On the other hand, one only need observe those improvisational events when an individual is not already acculturated, subjugated and sufficiently talented or practiced. There is an expectation of expertise, and an implicit inequality of anyone other than the equals. Improvisational ensembles (and I only use the improvisational model as a contrast to the solo composer) are élite societies in themselves. Paying one's dues is not merely an economic expression.

These conflicts are natural to abstract artistic expression, wherein one might just as well find religious themes if the hunting grounds are properly illuminated. The derived concepts are thoroughly untrustworthy. Is Bach's own name in his work a cross, a path mistaken, an ambiguity, or an astrological projection? One need read words to understand the intent, and then it is only audible through conscious awareness.

Oh, no, I'm not denying the cultural heritage of abstract musical expression. Even without the words, Reich's Different Trains has a haunted quality. Nor am I denying that abstract music may be used for political purposes, whether it is glorification of the established or rebellion against it. Rzewski is brilliant if blatant in his attempts at political statement by extracting extant music from the culture in, say, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and political movements have regularly promulgated concepts of musical glory or decadence, rewarding or punishing composers on the whim of political judgment. I am, however, denying the art's ability to speak in other than its own terms, which are specifically sonic. How that sonic persona finds its place among others in a culture is significant in the depth or clarity or contrast of its appearance, but the translation into words -- and politics is the verbal distillation of social interaction -- will always fail. Whether Beethoven or Henze or Cardew or Nono, the wordless music has a task unaffiliated with politics.

That being said, head over to the peculiar Composers' Political Compass (which last time I took it placed me further southwest of left-libertarian than Bartók).

Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde poster
1974 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde poster: The event had political effect. But the music?

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