The intersection of music and politics is perennially fascinating. Within the world of classical music, tenacious ideas about music’s aesthetic autonomy, its purported status as timeless Art-with-a-capital-A, often rub up uncomfortably with actual musical practice. How is it that Beethoven’s music of universal brotherhood could also serve as the anthem of an apartheid nation-state?
At Bowling Green State University’s 39th Annual New Music Festival last October, composers Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta sat down with me to share their thoughts about music and politics. Political music might be music that implicitly supports or explicitly opposes the status quo, music that expresses a current socio-political reality or promotes an alternative, or more broadly—to paraphrase Jacques Rancière—music that rearranges the set of perception between what is visible, thinkable, and understandable, and what is not. Music’s use as a political tool for protest, propaganda, or resistance is well documented, of course, especially the use of popular music in the 20th century. Our wide-ranging discussion touched on a number of ideas—the place of politics in contemporary classical music, the tension between political particularity and universality, the uses of programmatic music, and recent developments in the world of classical music. Few of these topics engendered easy or definitive answers, and it’s fitting that our discussion ended on a questioning note. Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and significantly condensed.
Ryan Ebright: To what extent do you engage or have you engaged musically with political or social issues?
Catherine Likhuta: The piece of mine that was featured in the festival, Bad Neighbors, is probably my most political piece. It’s about the war in Ukraine that is still going on. The piece has two horns in a kind of fight with each other: one representing Russia and its aggression and invasion, the other representing Ukraine and its fight for freedom. My collaborator from Australia, Peter Luff, commissioned it when the war had just started in 2014. My schedule then was quite booked, so we decided to postpone it. Little did I know that when I began writing it three years later, the war would still be going strong.
Ebright: Bad Neighbors received some attention from Ukrainian and Polish media. Can you tell us about its reception?
Likhuta: A consular at the Ukrainian embassy in Australia heard about the piece through somebody in the Ukrainian community who came to the premiere. She contacted me for an interview. The day after they distributed the interview I saw the track on my SoundCloud page had hundreds of listens from all over Ukraine. Then the Polish media also distributed it, because Poles feel very close to Ukrainians in this fight. This distribution was heartwarming and important, because I wanted to share the music with people in Ukraine. Even though I left Ukraine over a decade ago, all of my family members are still there.
Aaron Jay Kernis: From about 1990 to 1995 I wrote a lot of pieces related to world events. After 9/11, I composed a piece in memory of the victims of that tragedy. More recently, my horn concerto had something to do with Obama’s farewell and his singing of the song “Amazing Grace.” But earlier on, around 1990, I was very struck by the Rodney King situation and then a series of riots that made their way through Atlanta, and the threat that similar riots were going to come to New York City. My reaction to that time made its way into my piece New Era Dance, which is actually a pretty entertaining piece but has a violent undertone. After that, my second symphony was very influenced by watching the media’s portrayal of the new weaponry that was being used in the Persian Gulf War and various mega-bombings. This element of tragedy continued in pieces like Colored Field and Lament and Prayer, which started as a reaction to genocide in Bosnia and grew into a response to the Holocaust and, more generally, the relationships between various kinds of genocide that had been perpetrated throughout the 20th century.
I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events. For me it’s kind of inescapable to need to respond to that kind of tragedy, and it doesn’t necessarily engender the potential of butting heads politically because they are tragedies that we’ve all witnessed and shared in in some way.
Ebright: The warfare and tragedies of the early 1990s seem to have continued in the new millennium. Do those earlier works speak to the present day?
Kernis: Even though those works came out of a specific time, for me the key political element is in their attempt to speak to universal experiences. War has always been with us and will always be with us. Bringing that reality into the arts, and bringing that into music—that’s been with us also since the 19th century or even earlier, with battle pieces from the Baroque era, the Eroica, et cetera.
Samuel Adler: I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost. For example, I first heard Bernstein’s Mass during the Vietnam War, which we were all concerned about. Well, I just heard it again, and while there are some stunning musical moments, it’s completely dated and doesn’t have the effect that it was supposed to have. Mass was a bombshell of a piece. Today, it’s ho-hum. (The texts, not the music.) So you have to be very careful how you choose a subject.
The New York Chamber Symphony commissioned me to write a piece about 9/11, and I tried to do it so that it doesn’t just concentrate on that event, but becomes a larger expression of sorrow. I composed Stars in the Dust for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was ten years old, living in Germany, when that happened. My librettist and I felt that it should be a universal statement; it’s about something that may happen to a lot of people, and it isn’t happening only at one time. We have to look at what Spinoza called “the vision of eternity” rather than the moment.
I’ve always felt that the way to get this world back on a peaceful passage is the idea of reconciliation. I was in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and I wrote a piece for the symphony in that week. Because I’ve always felt that we have to bring in everybody to mourn with us at the same time, I brought in tunes that people would actually recognize in America, especially in the South, where religion is so important.
Maria Grenfell: I haven’t actually written very much political music at all. My music tends to be influenced by mythology or poetry or fine arts. I’ve written a few pieces that have been requested for specific purposes, like to calm anxiety for children and adults in hospitals and to help soothe children with mental health problems, but I wouldn’t call that political.
Ebright: You draw inspiration from a diverse array of sources for your pieces—Celtic fiddle tunes, Māori legends, Salman Rushdie’s East-West short stories. Is the way in which you incorporate various cultural sources a political act or an expression of advocacy for multiculturalism?
Grenfell: No, I just find I really enjoy the diverse influences. They inform my use of colors and harmonic materials.
Ebright: What is a piece of music that you think is effective both musically and politically?
Adler: It’s been used so much that it’s almost self-evident, but the Beethoven 9th. It has had greater influence on Europe—they’ve used it as their anthem—and again, it has a kind of universal message. I’m not sure that any other piece has had that kind of influence. But we have to be very careful thinking that we can change the world with anything. If we can change one person, that’s very important. Classical music or the classical composer is no longer what he or she was—well, it wasn’t she at that time—in Beethoven’s time. When we talk about Beethoven’s Third, we always mention that it was written for Napoleon and he tore up the dedication when Napoleon made himself emperor. Well, if I write a symphony and dedicate it to Mr. Trump and don’t like what he does and tear up the sheet, nobody gives a damn!
Grenfell: Shostakovich’s 5th symphony is a really important work. What I actually find more interesting is the 4th symphony, which was in rehearsal when an article came out that criticized Shostakovich’s opera. So he put the 4th symphony away and it wasn’t performed until after Stalin’s death. I find that fascinating.
Kernis: Certainly the 5th has had an impact on its audiences from its premiere, and what we view as the kind of coded aspect. In many of his pieces, Shostakovich somehow was able to play right on the edge between populism and art, trying to navigate how not to be shot.
Ebright: The number one goal in composing.
Kernis: It’s true! But it’s a good thing we’re not in that situation at the moment. I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism. One of those works, The Source, is a theatrical work by Ted Hearne, who is one of the most politically active composers I know now. It’s based on transcripts of Chelsea Manning and about her court martial, and I believe at the end of the piece there was footage—the music stopped—and there was footage of a drone strike, about a ten-minute drone strike. It had this absolute edge. We were sitting there in utter horror at the innocent people being bombed, and there was nothing the music could say to that; the music would only detract from that sensation. Hearne knew where to draw that line and how to present the musical aspect of Manning’s life and its relationship to a bombing that could not be expressed in musical terms.
Adler: I think what we’re talking about is actually communicating either by theater or by words as the most effective means of political engagement. So that it’s not only with the music, except for the mention of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony…
Kernis: But you have to know! Shostakovich’s audience knew what was going on.
Adler: True, but it doesn’t mean the same to us, so it’s not a universal kind of expression. I mean, every college orchestra now plays the 5th symphony…
Kernis: But do they know what it means?
Adler: They don’t, they don’t know what it means!
Likhuta: At the same time, as a composer of mostly programmatic music, I feel like when I’m writing programmatic music, it’s kind of like a book or a movie that I want people to experience, but by means of music. In a way it’s more timeless than a movie or book because the language is more ambiguous. Listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies when I lived in Chicago, I felt like I was watching movies or reading books about these events. Maybe I could feel them a little closer to my heart because I grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine and my parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Every person in Ukraine at the moment has grandparents or great-grandparents who went through war and famine. And Soviet movies about war, which we all watched in Ukraine growing up, use his music, or music in that style. So I think maybe Shostakovich was closer to me because of that. I never felt that it was out of my time and that it’s not something current to me. I heard that music and I could feel—as much as one can feel having a mobile phone and food and warmth and all of that—the pain of the people who were experiencing the war.
Kernis: You have an experiential context for that, a historical context. But for people who don’t have that, without words, it’s hard to have that same involvement or understanding.
Likhuta: Absolutely. The work that I originally wanted to mention, though, was Karel Husa’s Music for Prague. I heard him talk about this piece a decade ago at Cornell. He said he didn’t choose to write this piece; this piece chose him to write it. He was in the United States when the Soviets attacked the Czech Republic and he was not allowed to go back, so he felt he had to speak up through his music. Music for Prague opens with this solo in the flute, like a birdsong, and it’s a Czech folk tune about freedom, which then gets gobbled up by the orchestra. It’s political not in the sense of Democrats versus Republicans; it’s political in the sense of fighting for freedom. I think it can speak to anyone. It doesn’t have to be of that time. It speaks to me as a Ukrainian person whose country is experiencing a war, now.
Adler: That piece is also based on the most important hymn of Czechoslovakia, so it’s as if it had words. So it’s not a piece of abstract music.
Grenfell: There’s an Australian composer, Robert Davidson, who has written quite a few pieces setting political speeches for choir. They’re very funny, and he often interpolates them with video, and sort of chops them up and has lots of loops and sequences. His most successful one used a recording of Julia Gillard, who was Australia’s first woman prime minister, when she was lectured about sexism by the then leader of the opposition, who is a very conservative politician. Her response became known as “the misogyny speech.”
Likhuta: There was one about Trump recently that finished with, [singing] “I just don’t respect her!”
Ebright: I want to switch gears briefly to think about musical politics rather than political music, per se. And I also want to end on something of an optimistic note. What is one positive change within the field of classical music that you have seen during your career?
Adler: I’m the greatest optimist you’re going to find. I feel there’s more great talent in the world of classical music that ever before. The level of our student composers is at least as high as it ever was, if not higher. I see great things happening in the next generation and the generation beyond. But to answer your question: one change, in which Aaron played a role, is the reading by professional orchestras of works by early-stage or student composers.
Kernis: Most recently, I’m very encouraged to see the issue of inequality being addressed, in terms of women conductors and composers in particular.
Grenfell: It’s very encouraging that this is being spoken about openly. It’s on the table now, particularly with women programmed in orchestral concert seasons. And I also think that the opportunity to work for a short intensive period of time with a professional orchestra is absolutely invaluable. I helped set up a program that’s been going for about 11 years now in Australia called the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Australian Composers’ School. The aim is to bridge the gap between higher education and being commissioned, which is where the worst gap is. That’s where everybody falls through the cracks unless they can leap over somehow and get their first commission. Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.
Likhuta: I also appreciate how many composition professors support young composers not only in their composing, but also by showing them what being a composer is like. That it’s not easy, but it’s not necessarily as hard as somebody would think. It’s a tricky field, and today you need to learn to be an entrepreneur, to be your own producer, your own publisher, all that. And I think it’s starting to happen more.
Ebright: So, more holistic mentorship?
Likhuta: Yeah, I think that’s important. The final thing that I want to mention is that international collaborations have become so much easier now. I do at least as much work with international collaborators as I do in Australia. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.
Ebright: Are there questions from the audience?
Audience member: I have a question about Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which Professor Adler held up as the paradigm of a successful political piece. In going for so broad a theme as brotherhood (which you all seem to agree keeps music from becoming dated), did not Beethoven open himself up to having that music reappropriated by vastly differing political movements such as the Nazis and the EU and the reunification of West and East Germany? How do you navigate universality without losing specificity to the point that it can be about any kind of politics?
Kernis: Your question has me ruminating on instances where a culture or country has taken a work of art and used it for its own political ends. I can’t think of so many. Recently, certain popular songs have been used without permission in political campaigns or events. But thinking back to Germany using Beethoven’s work to promote the idea that Germany was the most advanced culture—have there been many more instances?
Ebright: Rhodesia used the “Ode to Joy” as their national anthem as an apartheid state.
Kernis: That is the perfect example of the problem—the music can be used nefariously for totalitarian purposes.
Audience member: Classical music can be built upon pillars that encompass misogyny and traditionally white European culture. As a student I have mixed feelings about studying something that is so narrow in its invention and its audience. How can we see through that structure as opposed to seeing around it?
Grenfell: I think programming is really important. There needs to be more awareness and openness of what gets programmed and where things are placed in a program. Because programs tend to fall into the same patterns over and over if there’s not a conscious decision to shape it. I think it’s good that some organizations are getting called on for not including more women or ethnically-diverse composers on their list.
Adler: But you have to be very careful not to look at the past in terms of today. It was a different time; you have to take everything historically. Things change and we have to change with them, but at the same time, you can’t reject the past. There are still great works that were written in the past that speak to us. You just can’t put our aesthetics on the past.
Audience member: What’s the difference between political music and propaganda? Is propaganda just political music that you don’t like?
Adler: [laughing] Propaganda is everything bad!
Grenfell: Maybe propaganda is the kind of music that you’re forced to write or forced to hear in a certain way, whereas political music is a choice as a composer?