Can Music Really Be Political?

Can Music Really Be Political?

[Ed. Note: Composer, clarinetist, and journalist Jonathan Russell, who has frequently responded to threads on these pages, was eager to start up a discussion about whether composers can effectively engage in political dialogue through their music. We welcome this submission, and encourage others to submit their musings here as well. And we are as eager as he is to read your responses to his thoughts.—FJO]

Lately, I have been totally obsessed with two political/cultural issues going on in this country. One is marriage equality, and specifically the Proposition 8 lawsuit that was recently decided in district court, and will almost certainly be appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. And the other is the controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero, and more broadly the general backlash against mainstream Muslim Americans from some sectors of American society. Before anyone starts in, let me be clear that my purpose here is not to debate the sides of either of these issues. There are plenty of other blogs out there for that. My purpose here is to ask: how on earth can I find a way to relate these issues to my composing?

Right now, I’m way more fired up about both of these debates than any piece I’m writing, and writing abstract music at all feels like it pales in importance compared with these issues. And yet, I have fully accepted at this point that music is my calling, that it’s what I’m here to do, and I’m not about to turn my back on it to become a professional activist—even if sometimes it seems like that would be more worthwhile. The best solution would seem to be to find a way to integrate these issues into my compositional pursuits. But how? All too often, in my opinion, when composers try to tackle political subjects, all you get is either a gross over-simplification of the issue, or else music that is only really political because the composer claims it is, not because of anything inherent in the music itself. There are countless examples of the latter. An example of the former: I generally like the music of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, but if I really want to grapple with the issues of nuclear weapons and their impact on society, I’m far better off reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb or John Hersey’s Hiroshima than relying on Adams’s fairly superficial treatment of the material in his opera. The opera adds nothing new to my understanding; translating this issue into operatic form sheds no new light on it.

Back to marriage equality: I have been especially obsessed with the two lawyers who argued against Proposition 8, David Boies and Ted Olson, because they have a fascinating back story. They argued opposing sides in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that decided the 2000 presidential election, and afterward became close friends. Olson lost his wife on one of the planes on 9/11 and was George W. Bush’s Solicitor General. He has shocked and angered many conservative friends and colleagues by taking on the issue of marriage equality with Boies, but when you hear him speak it is clear that this is an issue he feels extremely passionate about and committed to. All of which sounds like it could make for a great opera—loss, unexpected friendship across political lines, crowd scenes of protests, etc. There’s lots of drama, lots of passion, and complex personal relationships, plus big important cultural issues. And yet when I think about actually doing it, e.g. when I think about having a singer/actor singing Ted Olson’s moving words about equality and the constitution, it’s hard not to feel that an opera would be unable to do the material justice. Why listen to an actor singing these words, when you can easily watch the real man speaking them at a real rally on YouTube? How could my opera compete with reality?

The one composer who amazes me more and more in this regard is Frederic Rzewski. A piece like Coming Together not only addresses a political issue but seems to embody the essence of it in its very aesthetic and construction. The aggressively, repetitively circling music perfectly captures the mundane brutality of the speaker’s existence. And the contracting of the motives at the end powerfully suggests possibilities falling away, walls closing in, the speaker’s fate being sealed. It takes a simple, somewhat dull letter from a prison inmate, and extracts from it the full sense of isolation, brutal conditions, and defiance that its writer experienced. And by its very existence and continued popularity, the piece keeps alive an issue—the Attica prison uprising—that most of us no longer remember or never knew about in the first place. I want to do what he does. But I don’t know how. Anyone who has tried to talk to Rzewski himself about it can attest that he has little interest in discussing it and isn’t much help. Any thoughts? How can you effectively connect your political passions to your music in such a way that the musical setting actually adds something, extracts new or deeper meaning, or puts the issue in a different light?

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19 thoughts on “Can Music Really Be Political?

  1. DavidTLittle

    Hi Jonathan! So nice to see your writing here; and about one of my favorite topics, no less! You have asked the ultimate question: how can politically concerned composers express said concerns through their music? One question you didn’t ask, however–though I think it’s implied–is: how can a composer do this without compromising the artistic quality of his or her work? This to me is really the essential question. It’s actually really easy to write music that gets all specific about a hot topic, and actually–maybe–contributes something politically. (For example, Cornelius Cardew’s There Is Only One Lie, There Is Only One Truthcan teach you some things about Maoist opinions after the Sino-Soviet split!) But how to do this without creating mere propaganda? That’s the challenge.

    I’ve been seriously struggling with these questions for about a decade now, and in the process I’ve written a lot of pieces “trying out” different approaches; considering everything from the proletarian worker songs of the 30s to the complex (and for me, problematic) idea that “all art is political.” What I’ve landed on is something in the middle; something that Bob Ostertag (in his very excellent Creative Life) refers to as “illumination.” For me this means exploring topical or historical issues in order to expose deeper truths about our culture, rather than just to provide reportage, opinion, or ideological commentary.

    For example, and forgive me for using my own piece as an example here, but my piece Soldier Songs could easily have been just-another-anti-war piece. I could have written something that blared “out of Iraq now!” Or even just put out there that “all war is bad” and left it at that. But do we really need art to tell us that? In the first case, no work of art alone will ever bring the troops home. In the second case, we already know war is bad (…and if we forget we already have Goya and Picasso to remind us.) Instead, the piece explores the issue on a human level. It explores what war does to the people who fight it–and to their families–and presents its findings to the audience for their own judgment. In a way, it is a little closer to investigative journalism than it is to political polemic, and in the end it leaves the audience with many unanswered questions.

    Ted Hearne’s excellent Katrina Ballads functions similarly, using primary source material from news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Rzewski’s Coming Together, which you mentioned, does this too, and is a big-time favorite of mine. And then there is also Louis Andriessen’s varied catalogue of works, ranging from Workers Union to De Staat, each of which had a slightly different political goal. (I write in more depth about this here.)

    I guess in the end, I think that if you really want to get involved in the Prop8 fight, for example, then you should get involved in the Prop8 fight. Put down your pen and bass clarinet and go out into the streets. Or write your Senators, or do whatever it is that can be done by an involved citizen. But if you want to address some larger issues–and I don’t mean more important, just…larger!–there are a lot of ways to make that happen artistically that satisfy both the need to be active in our culture politically, and the equally important need to make great art.

    Anyway, that’s at least where I am with all of this!

  2. Armando

    Ah, Jon, I’ve been thinking about this question for years and come up short as well. The problem I find with most political pieces is that they don’t tend to age well. The issues “political” composers tend to end up being less than universal (certain pieces about the Iraq war come to mind, as do the recent spate of settings of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and other former Bush administration officials) and end up being so married to their time that they don’t age well. Other pieces (I’m going back to things like Howard Hanson’s “Song of Democracy”) end up being so banal as to be utterly forgettable, but I’m not sure if the choice of subject matter is entirely the problem (at least not with the example I’ve given).

    What Rzewski does in “Coming Together,” however, is what any good composer of songs is able to do: he achieves an understanding of the text that then informs the nature of his piece, which in turn is an embodiment of the composer’s political ideals. It is a rare and beautiful achievement akin to Mozart’s seemingly inate understanding of humanity and human character in his mature operas. It is certainly something to emulate and difficult to achieve.

    Louis Andriessen, writing almost 20 years after De Staat was written, said about it that the very act of composition itself is a political act, as it reflects a composer’s “social circumstances and listening experience, and the availability of financial support.” “I have used passages from Plato to illustrate these points. His text is politically controversial, if not downright negative: everyone can see the absurdity of Plato’s statement that the mixolydian mode should be banned as it would have a damaging influence on the development of character.

    My second reason for writing De Staat is a direct contradiction of the first: I deplore the fact that Plato was wrong. If only it were true that musical innovation could change the laws of the State!”

    The very act of composition itself, at least in 21st century America, is political. To write concert music, as culturally irrelevant a genre as one can find in this place and age, is itself a political act. Art is a reflection of a nature’s soul, and our stubbornness at continuing to create “obsolete” art in a culture that sees little, if any need for it is a statement to the inherent value of our nation’s soul. I am starting to believe that such music needs to be intransigent, unrelenting and unforgiving (if music can be forgiving). I’m not sure if I, personally, write such music (I’d like to think that I do), but the works that I admire increasingly embody these attributes. (Of course, I also still like a good tune and find beauty important also, but I think pieces can be unrelentingly and unforgivingly beautiful too.)

    No part of this rant, of course, really answers your question, so I’ll step off my soap box. For now…

  3. Armando

    David, I was thinking of your Soldier Songs as I wrote. I find Soldier Songs succesful because it does, indeed, the things you set out to do. It is a very, VERY difficult thing you’ve accomplished in that score (which I still hope to perform in its entirety one of these days, mind you). If the piece had been solely about Iraq, it would not be as powerful a statement and would be relegated to history. Since you focused on a specific and UNIVERSAL aspect of war, however, I believe this piece is destined to be recognized as one of our generation’s masterpieces, along the lines of Britten’s War Requiem.

    But where before I was standing on a soap box, now I feel like I’m brownosing. Let me just say, too, that it’s great to see Jon writing on here (and that we’re going to miss him in Washington next year).

  4. colin holter

    All music is political inasmuch as it represents an articulation of the composer’s ideology of art and society; whether a piece is deliberately propagandistic – which, by the way, I think Coming Together undoubtedly is – may be kind of beside the point.

    Ultimately I think David’s is the best advice:

    I guess in the end, I think that if you really want to get involved in the Prop8 fight, for example, then you should get involved in the Prop8 fight. Put down your pen and bass clarinet and go out into the streets. Or write your Senators, or do whatever it is that can be done by an involved citizen.

  5. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I have to respond to Colin by saying that in my opinion, any setting of a “political” text will be necessarily propagandistic, although this isn’t bad by definition. There are a number of wonderful texts out there to use, but attaching them to music begs the integrity of the work to be challenged, unless the issue is so far in our history that we have more or less sorted out our cultural feelings on it(i.e. Doctor Atomic).

    The question is: how does the political intention of a piece define the means of political communication? I’m a life-long vegetarian, and I feel very very strongly about it. I want to find a way to put it into the music, but the obvious results will be either winning enemies, or preaching to the choir. That said, I recently realized that my music will generally be presented in front of people who know me, or at least with me present. Maybe I can be more subtle- a suggestive title can allow people to make their own assumptions about what they hear, for example. I always spend lots of precompositional time working out the conceptual framework, which often means structuring the piece around some moralizing “message” or attitude. Nobody hears this, but I believe that my own emotional energy is communicated, and a title or some other prompt will probably be enough to make it a strong political statement.

    The other option is to look to composers like Feldman, Takemitsu, or Nono. I think that their success as “political” composers came from the actual issues which grabbed them. But they also never hit you over the head- they just plant the seeds for a kind of political revelation. It’s up to the audience to get it.

  6. Tom Myron

    First, my hat’s off to everyone here for keeping a topic that usually falls apart the moment it’s put forward on a very constructive level. I’m also pleased to see both author and contributors here siting their own work by way of example & illustration. Perhaps there’s a connection between the issues surrounding the topic & the types of composers that feel compelled to consider them. I, for one, would certainly hate to see the whole thing left up to Louis Andriessen.

    My own musical consideration of art, politics and culture is also (not accidentally) one of my most ambitious works- Käthe Kollwitz for soprano & string quartet. Kollwitz’s graphic art dealt mainly with the affects of war on women & children. Muriel Rukeyser’s five poems use fragments of Kollwitz’s journals as jumping off points for a sequence of meditations on an artists role (or lack thereof) in society.

    Because of its imagery, I found the notion of setting the central poem of the cycle to music very problematic. My eventual solution was to split the movement in two- the soprano sings the entire poem a cappella, then the quartet plays a modification of what would have been an accompaniment. My desire to be true to an emotionally & politically charged text pushed me to a solution that I’m sure I wouldn’t have otherwise hit upon- a qualitative experience that then (hopefully) makes it across to the listener. For me the issue is more about making connections between political & aesthetic modes of communication than trying to make “the music itself” (problematic phrase, that!) in some way “political.”

  7. danbecker

    Hey comrade Jon – A BIG discussion, as just about everyone has already acknowledged! However I confess that for me personally the truly big question is whether music can be political (or at least social) WITHOUT text? If there’s text it’s EASY to be political (superficially). Whether it’s propaganda, tasteful, relevant, artful, useful, etc, becomes the big discussion. (But an important big discussion.)

    Even a tasty title can make an instrumental composition immediately political (Penderecki’s Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima, Harbison’s Abu Ghraib, etc.) But does that really work? …Another really interesting discussion.

    For me the most fascinating question is whether a purely instrumental piece, minus its title, can be political. I’ve been digging into this one for years, and while I sympathize with Tom Myron who wrote above that he “would certainly hate to see the whole thing left up to Louis Andriessen” (fair enough), I can’t help but to quote the most interesting part (to me) of the same passage by Andriessen that Armando cited above but which he left out:

    Andriessen: “Many composers feel that the act of composing is “suprasocial.” I don’t agree. How you arrange your musical material, what you do with it, the techniques you use, the instruments you score for, all of this is determined to a large extent by your own social circumstances, your education, environment and listening experience, and the availability—or non-availability—of symphony orchestras and government grants. The only point on which I agree with the liberal idealists is that abstract musical material—pitch, duration and rhythm—is suprasocial: it is a part of nature. There is no such thing as a fascist dominant seventh. The moment the musical material is ordered, however, it becomes culture and, as such, a given social fact.”

    I could go on forever but I’ll leave it at that. Truly an endly fascinating and important subject.

  8. philmusic

    Really there is;


    lyrics (optional)

    editorial (what the composers and others have to say about the work or their interpretation of it)

    the title

    the composer’s intentions (the privileged editorial)

    The fact is after composition a musical work has a life of its own.

    It can be used by anyone for or against anything.

    Phil Fried
    Who sang the international with striking workers at the Bastille -a professional high light!

    Phil’s not very political page

  9. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Dan and Armando-

    I love this Andriessen quote- I hadn’t read that before. I agree completely that music is a composite of the social and cultural influences we’ve soaked up, even to the extent that our intellectual minds construct systems informed by our lives. But there is a difference between acknowledging the social foundations of artistic thought and the active pursuit of political communication. I think that working with this understanding we can still create moving and influential (manipulative?) works if we approach the composition cautiously.

    In terms of political music without text- I think we’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of pieces with political elements we can agree upon without the aid of titles. But this is the same with any program: unless you’re actually (ahem, Strauss) recreating the “sound” of a real-life experience in music, the best a composer can hope for is that people guess the program correctly. Even Stravinsky’s arrangement of the national anthem is essentially a musical setting of a sonic object, very much akin to Strauss’s sheep in Don Quixote.

    So what makes pieces like Phrygian Gates, Sibelius’s 5th, For Philip Guston, Ravel’s String Quartet, Carter’s 3rd Quartet, Triadic Memories, Nuits, and on and on… so grippingly evocative? I truly believe their potential for meaning lies in a very clear power they display. They all demonstrate a conviction and love on the part of the composer so deep that they demand of us that we question our own understanding of it. Every time I hear Britten’s 2nd cello suite, for instance, I find myself struggling to comprehend what must have been going through his mind. I’m not saying these are specifically political pieces, but maybe there’s a different sense for “political” energy…. Just a thought.

    If, however, you are happy to have text or a guiding title, then I have found that ruminating on the subject matter is the best thing to do. In this sense Rzewski is a master, even if manipulative at times….

  10. philmusic

    It seems that the discussion here is not about politics at all but about the ability of text setting composers to accomplish their intentions. Sometimes those intentions are political. There are many ways to set a text. The fact that we prefer a particular type of setting does not make the other types wrong.

    We need more art and if some is political so be it. I want to see more GLTB characters and situations in song and story. Not just stereotypes. War too. Wherever the artist wants to go is fine with me.

    Certainly protest art does not stop with Picasso, nor is irony, especially the mis-fired kind (that is Janus faced), the only approach. Social Realism anyone?

    At one time there was a forbidden “devil’s interval” the fact that there is not one now does not mean that it won’t be back in some form. Rather it predicts that transmuted it will return.

    Perhaps it’s here already.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page

  11. Celaya

    I agree with those who argue that the mere selection of an idiom or style is a political statement chosen by the composer. Text may be required to put forth a narrow doctrinal statement or to comment on an immediate news item. Is not the music of a gnarly academic composer, say Charles Wuorinen, a political statement about class, elites and his belief about his position in a class structure?

    Political texts need not be short-lived. Many Hanns Eisler’s songs still resonate, though we may not be in the midst of world war. Those Eisler songs that fall flat are those that go beyond comment and reflection and engage in the more grotesque forms of propaganda. Weill’s “Dennwie mann sich betet so liegt mann” from Mahagony remains valid critique of the sort of amoral, unregulated capitalism that has been the subject of criticism by many since Adam Smith (yes THAT Adam Smith who was not so laissez faire as is often claimed).

  12. philmusic

    “..Is not the music of a gnarly academic composer, say Charles Wuorinen, …”

    Didn’t you say that all compositional choices were political? Then your singling out the above composer is merely gratuitous.

    Oh I forget that for the current style police its always open season on serial composers.

    Phil Fried No Sonic Prejudice

    Phil’s politics is local page

  13. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    look closer
    I agree that all music is political- that’s a given. But in the end, it’s really only a given, and it doesn’t say anything about the composer’s real intentions with a specific piece. I hope that most composers are aware of what they are doing- in the large-scale, career, raison d’etre sense. But maybe we need to look at what composers are intending on the small scale, pencil-in-hand, picking the next note in a melody sense. My feeling here is that although we can argue that all music is abstract and only text will steer audiences in a forseeable direction, people will pick up on unpredictable messages in our music. Acknowledging that phenomenon shows that we’re in touch with the life of our music- that we have come to terms with its existence after and beyond the drafting table. How we do this, I’m not entirely sure, but without being too manipulative I suspect there are good ways to display political energies without the help of text. Or with, of course.

  14. colin holter

    How we do this, I’m not entirely sure, but without being too manipulative I suspect there are good ways to display political energies without the help of text.

    Not quite sure what it would mean to “display political energies” – although that’s a very inviting thought-experiment! – but I do think that untexted music can certainly suggest new models for social behavior and organization; you mentioned Nono earlier, who fits this to a T, I think. Pgblu has written here in the past that one function of music is to disabuse us of the notion that our way of seeing the world is the only way, and if that’s not political, I don’t know what is.

  15. pgblu

    All I can do here is regurgitate something I learned from my own teacher, Mathias Spahlinger. There are four aspects of music that are political in nature: the mode of distribution, the extra-musical content, the production method, and the (intre-musical) aesthetics. We can’t be politically progressive on all four of these fronts at once.

  16. elliotcole

    I think there are two questions here that we’re calling one:

    1. Does music have features that can be fruitfully interpreted in political terms?

    — is a much softer question than —

    2. Can music can be effective in the national conversation today; can music be functional as activism?

    (– and harder still, the implicit question:

    2.1 Can through-composed postclassical arty music that nobody hears be effective… etc?)

    The political discourse is, in my opinion, the most inhospitable landscape on earth, whether it’s happening on TV or in the proxy war in our living-room. Adrenaline runs high, we shout, we don’t let each other finish. We’re never consistent in our positions, we never listen to a rational argument, we dispute the premises, we attack character, we parrot our leaders of choice. We make immediate assumptions, we ignore complexity or we drown in it, we repeat hearsay as fact, we present false choices, we shut down. We take our anger at X out on our grandmothers, we bully our friends. And we never, ever change our minds.

    Our music requires the one thing that political conversation never allows: a sustained, thoughtful expression of subjectivity in all its ambiguity, and a listener that remains patient and open while it is expressed.

    Should we come to the conclusion that our music cannot effectively join this discourse, might that be its strength?


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