Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Ken Smith
David Del Tredici Meets Ronald Reagan
Photo courtesy David Del Tredici

Not Always Sure of the Score

Leonard Bernstein would wax rhapsodic about the Kennedy years to anyone in earshot–and wrote not only his theatre-piece Mass for the opening of The Kennedy Center but struggled long and hard with a musical entitled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Aaron Copland, facing a personal dilemma over whether to allow one of his pieces to be played in the Nixon White House, allowed the performance to happen but declined to attend — though when a piece was later suggested by the Carter White House he offered to conduct.

Both composers were politically savvy to understand that at some point in the public eye proximity equals endorsement. Copland was clearly not the man to write a “heroic” opera about Nixon. That task fell to John Adams, a composer who is himself a Presidential namesake, and whose “polyphonic” view of the President in Nixon in China existed outside his own view, as well as those of his co-creators Alice Goodman and Peter Sellars, and in fact most of his audience.

But that opera was written during the Reagan era, when the climate had changed once again. As a case in point, witness a striking photo of David Del Tredici shaking hands with The Gipper in 1984: the composer whose current project for the San Francisco Symphony is entitled Gay Life meeting the President who couldn’t bring himself to mention the word ‘AIDS‘ in public until 1987. The event was a state dinner honoring the President of Italy and, tellingly, it was not Del Tredici but Frank Sinatra who provided the music.

“Clearly there was no prior investigation of me,” Del Tredici says. “They must have gotten my name from the list of Pulitzer Prize winners, or Italian-Americans. I was so stunned because there was nothing in the way of me going up to Clare Boothe Luce or Al Haig.”

Getting to the President was a little trickier, but even he was not elusive. “I could have gone right up to him,” Del Tredici admits, “but I didn’t see the point.”

Times had certainly changed since Charles Ives wrote to Presidents Taft and FDR proposing matters such as “a People’s World Nation” (based on President Wilson‘s doomed League of Nations)–and Taft actually responded (though he called Ives’ proposed 20th Amendment to reduce the government “impracticable”).

Obviously, Ives’s role as a business figure granted him notice far more than his artistic efforts, but the same personality was at play in both and at some point personal traits become inextricable.

“I see a great philosophical overlap between music and political life,” says composer Philip Kent Bimstein, who also serves as the mayor of Springdale, Utah. “A composer can look at a community dialogue as different strains of melody. Dissonance doesn’t mean that whole will be torn apart, and you can have different styles or different voices blending together in a number of ways. Not that I take this too literally.”

Again, it was Bimstein’s business background, rather than his art, that helped in the job, but it was his visibility as a composer and his work on the local arts council and as director of New Music Utah that gave him visibility.

“If anything, the job can be a distraction from my work,” admits Bimstein, who is in the third year of his second term. “But it does show people that people who compose music are part of society, and that they can be credibly engaged in serious issues.”

One would be hard pressed to find a American composer maintaining an active political life on a national scale — certainly not on the order of Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek composer who’s up for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Still an active critic of U.S.-Serbian policy, Theodorakis’s nationalist concert works became a symbol of resistance against the occupation troops in World War II, then during the Civil War in the late ’40s. After the country’s military coup in 1967, one of the first things the incoming dictatorship did was ban his music.

Because of their lyrics, operas have long fueled controversy. From the thinly-veiled critique of the MozartDa Ponte Marriage of Figaro to the nakedly pro-Palestianian Adams-Goodman Death of Klinghoffer (“The Politically Correct opera par excellence,” critic Tim Page raged at its premiere). Steve Reich and Beryl Korot‘s first video opera The Cave, slights the Palestinians almost as much as they’re championed in Klinghoffer, but Reich maintains that his statement is personal rather than political. “I’m a craftsman,” he says. “The duty of a composer is to music lovers, to refresh their spirits. That’s the best I can possibly do.”

But historically, even the most abstract instrumental music has carried political weight, under the right circumstances. “For people who can’t gather freely, music functions as a covert language,” says Bard College President Leon Botstein. “It becomes an outlet for both audiences and the musicians.”

Certain musical styles, too, are by their very nature political, Botstein adds. The Soviets and Nazis stressed music for building community and mass racial enthusiasm. “Contrast Carl Orffs Carmina Burana with Schoenberg‘s Moses und Aron,” he says. “Serialist music was viewed as degenerate and a capitalist collusion, and as such it developed a revolutionary sense.

“In this country, music has been a powerful political statement for the oppressed, because its one of the few areas they can enter the mainstream,” says Botstein. “Ellington and Berlin, for example, were both people at the margins who took the soulful sound of exclusion and made it part of the broader cultural framework. There’s great irony in the fact that Appalachian Spring was written by a homosexual Brooklyn Jew; the American tradition of composition is a nation-building enterprise.”

It is no accident, Botstein adds, that after the fall of Communism composers like Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Pärt have turned to spirituality and religion as subject matter. “For music to have a public platform,” he says, “a composer has to speak to the audience in the condition they are in at the time, to their historic, economic, cultural position.”

American critics have looked on occasion for greater political and cultural significance. “Reviews of my music tried to link the opulence of tonality and lavish orchestrations to the Reagan excesses,” says Del Tredici. “They considered this a negative thing, I gathered.”

But more often than not, composers are individualists reflecting society’s broader lack of interest in the political process in general. In an age where the personal quickly becomes political, however, the composer’s role will still puts issues on the table, no matter how they choose to define them.

“I’m not too politically minded, but I like very much having that part of me visible,” Del Tredici admits says. “Whether Gay Life is personal or political is a chicken-and-egg thing. I don’t believe in ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I don’t want to be marginalized and through my art I’m in a position to make it public.”

Reich, for his part, comes down much more strongly. “Frankly, I don’t believe that any sort of real art can be effective politically, with the exception of rock and roll that can raise a lot of money,” he says. “‘Serious’ art has been pretty lame. Picasso is one of if not the greatest artist of the 20th century, but ‘Guernica‘ didn’t stop aerial bombing for a second. Weill and Brecht wrote Three Penny Opera but ran like hell when Hitler was in power. Judged as members of society they were all failures. The idea that The Cave can help peace in the Middle East is absurd. It may have a tiny effect on a few people, and hopefully won’t hurt the situation. What’s important is that an artist do the things that matter to him or her, because if it matters to the artist it will matter to the audience.”

From Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington
by Ken Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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