Political Music

Political Music

Last week, one of my students dropped into my office in order to discuss an issue that he found troubling. He was wondering why composers like Schumann and his contemporaries would focus on issues like poet’s love while ignoring the great political upheavals of their era. We talked through various ways in which their obsession with artistic details was indeed a political choice; how they were setting themselves apart from their predecessors by constructing an ideal of the artist as genius, capable of dispensing the transcendent experiences that were formerly the province of the priesthood. The more we considered the issue, the more we realized that these composers were actually making a political statement through their choice of subject matter.

I’m returning to this conversation now because the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan and their devastating aftermath are very much in my thoughts, and during a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society. We spend countless hours honing our craft, and yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter. Of course we have Churchill’s famous (yet apocryphal) quote in response to a proposal to cut arts funding during World War II, “then what are we fighting for?” Still, our art appears to pale in the face of a disaster of these proportions.

Henze has a theory that all art is inherently political, that every choice we make when constructing a new work either confirms the status quo or is an act of rebellion. In music, all of our choices—to write for orchestras or robots, beatless music or dance songs—place us within an artistic continuum and make a strong statement about our beliefs. Therefore, any artistic action is a political action. Some composers chose to strengthen this bond and to make music that is (to use Brecht’s term) didactic. A title can imbue an otherwise abstract piece with political resonance, or a text can be created that specifically discusses events of the day. A problem arises, in that art that speaks directly to current events quickly loses its resonance among changing landscapes, while the more abstract expressions can be reinterpreted in ways that belie the composer’s intentions.

I constantly struggle with the question of how best to address society as a whole through my own music. I believe that it’s important for artists to engage with the world (otherwise I surely would not be writing this column) and yet I am inexorably drawn towards art that emphasizes ambiguity. To me, the clarity of meaning required for art to make a firm political statement is by itself a reason to avoid such statements. But in times like these, when we are faced with unthinkable suffering, I believe that it’s most essential for artists to step forward, to express the true impact of events that cannot be assimilated by our facile immediate-responding news outlets.

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9 thoughts on “Political Music

  1. RCiprotti

    What about Shostakovich? He managed to be political without the use of overt titles or text. His was more of a ‘covert’ politicization.

    Music can be revolutionary in and of itself, and it can also express political ideals and feelings without being blatant, I think.

    Another example is Beethoven’s 9th Sumphony. I suppose “Alle Menschen werden Bruder” (All men become brothers) is kind of an overt statement, but I think even without knowing what the words mean, the music makes an effective and powerful statement about mankind. Certainly, that was Beethoven’s intent. His piece has been used again again in political situations, most famously at the fall of the Berlin Wall and as the anthem of the European Union.

    I guess my point is that there are a hundred ways of creating ‘political’ music.

  2. philmusic

    “..yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter…” .

    This is not the first nor will it be the last comment pointing out art’s lack of utility in the face of human tragedy.

    How wrong you are. Art provides solace, hope and healing.

    Long after the rubble has been cleared art will bring the remembrance and the forgetting.

    Phil’s Page

  3. ScottG

    Honestly, I think music does its best political work when it’s not trying to be overtly political. I’ve heard too many mediocre pieces of music trying to capitalize on current events in their title… I’ve heard too many lovely pieces of music ruined by words so topical that the piece only works in a 1-week time period… The things that are the most effective political music, in my opinion, are those that create beauty as an antidote to ugliness, or point out discord as an antidote to forced happiness, or or or…

  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    David, this is a great post.

    There certainly are many ways to make a piece which people will dub “political,” be it by inserting a topical title, or really formulating some musical procedure based on a deep understanding of a political issue. My larger worry is that regardless of the angle our music takes, who’s gonna hear it?

    Shostakovich was able to maneuver his social situation in order to build relevant political criticism. But his music would never have had a significant impact without performances. Bearing in mind that much of our music will reach a teeny tiny audience, maybe the goal should be another kind of political “use.”

    I believe that composing keeps me connected to the world around me. Therefore, as my anchor to the world, it keeps me passionate about all of the non-musical elements in my life. This is a private use, but maybe a good one. No, it benefits nobody in Japan, but how can arcane compositional methods benefit anyone tangibly in the immediate future.

    I’d prefer to find a way to remain passionate and put that energy into community service, fundraising, or some other demonstrably useful political action. Music excites the emotions, but Beethoven’s 9th never set anyone free. But just think how many people it may have motivated….

  5. holbrooke

    during a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society

    Sure it’s useful to honestly asses the value our occupations. But maybe the fundamental question is more important regardless of occupation: Am I doing enough to positively affect my world? And well, unless you are a compulsive do-gooder ruining your life through unhealthy amounts of self sacrifice, it seems best to always answer that question with a strong, motivated, inspired: NO. And then, do something.

  6. lawrence

    Great discussion. But I wince at your student’s implication that political upheaval is somehow a more worthy subject for art than love.

  7. colin holter

    But I wince at your student’s implication that political upheaval is somehow a more worthy subject for art than love.

    Love is political too!

  8. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Political Music vs. “Issue Music”
    This is a really excellent, movingly written, and (I think, given the circumstances) necessary post, so bravo on that front.

    This is something I struggle with a great deal in my own work: when does music go from being “political” (as in: inspired by real-world events) to being merely (what I call) “issue music”? Issue music, to me, is music that’s written to reassure the audience that their beliefs are the correct ones. This is why most Christian rock sucks: it is, as some brilliant person I can’t remember wrote, “message music for people who know the message cold.” Striving to convince no one, to change no one’s mind, all it has to do is pack in as many buzzwords and their musical analogs as possible in order to satisfy the audience’s inner checklist (he didn’t sing about MY disability!), which generally makes for bad art of any kind, in my view.

    Great political art, I believe, seeks to do the exact opposite. Its audience is the non-believers, the ignorant, the others. It seeks to persuade, not to congratulate. When I’m writing music that someone might call “political,” all I’m really doing is attempting to communicate my own experience to someone who might not share it, to illuminate some aspect of human circumstance that someone in the audience might never have thought about, but which they might find startlingly analogous to something in their own lives.

    The BEST political art, I think, connects the dots between our different experiences: your sadness and anger over being denied your civil rights because you’re African American is directly analogous, whether you like it or not, to my sadness and anger over being denied my civil rights because I’m gay. Which is not to say that those struggles are the same; its our reactions to them that bind us together as human beings. Where “issue music” reminds us only of our differences–think “Born This Way,” as in “different from you”–great political art makes the sameness of our struggles unmissable–think Ben Folds Five’s “Brick,” inescapably about but never actually saying the word “abortion.”

    Even if abortion has never touched your life, “Brick” is a perfect example of how art can say, “I know you’ve never been where I am, but you know exactly how I feel, and let me show you why.

  9. CM Zimmermann

    Let’s take a step back for a moment… a step back from thinking about the politics of music in terms of content, titles, authorial intentions and the like. Rather, when we begin to think about music in terms of the web of social relations set in motion or closed off by a particular work or mode of music-making (and the conditions of reception of that particular music), the political at the heart of music (and the musical at the heart of the political) becomes more pronounced.

    Here are a few more thoughts (a response to a previous NMBox chatter posting asking the question ‘can music be political?’: http://bigmouthsmusic.blogspot.com/2010/08/politics-of-music-music-of-politics.html

    From my perspective, a more interesting question is why we think that music is not political? Why do we start with the assumption that music is apolitical?


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