Image of a demonstration protesting police violence showing protesters sitting huddled in a row, blocking a street amidst standing police officers wileding batons.
THINGS HAVE GOT TO CHANGE!–Writing Political Music in Today’s World

THINGS HAVE GOT TO CHANGE!–Writing Political Music in Today’s World

I began studying composition with Fred Ho without knowing quite what I was getting myself into. I was 25 with a fresh graduate degree in composition under my belt, lost in that special way only millennial twenty-somethings get to be. I knew I wanted to write political works and, having met Fred twice before, I knew that he was the one who could help me do it.

The ensuing four years were a study in what it really means to fuse arts and politics: truly understanding the history of struggle and the historical power behind political music. Fred was the great champion of Cal Massey, a composer, bandleader, and Black Panther who was blacklisted from recording studios because of his politics. Fred’s band was the first to ever record and release Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, a nine-movement magnum opus that was commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver and tributes different figures in the black liberation movement. Cal used his music and his big band to hold many successful fundraisers for the Black Panther Party; it was for this reason that record labels saw him as enough of a threat to warrant blacklisting. Fred made sure that I studied Cal Massey’s music like it was the holy grail: his unforgettable Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change! never fails to infuse electricity into the room whenever it’s performed, tripling as protest fight song, audience sing-along, and underrated cornerstone of the big band canon.

It’s now 2015: Fred is dead, his life abbreviated by an eight-year battle with metastatic cancer. His political and musical vision transcended his time on this earth, however, and the implications of his music and lessons are more poignant than ever. As the daily news cycle goes from bad to worse and the non-indictments for cops killing young, unarmed black men pile up, I hear in my head the voice of my beloved and late mentor: WRITE. Fred didn’t believe in separating the arts from politics. Virtually all of his music—even the kitschy arrangements of superhero themes and his blazingly groovy interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes—had some political impetus at the basis of it. Fred’s works might have been political slogans, scrawled across a piece of cardboard and carried through a protest: there’s Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes!, written for the Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange; Paper Tigers are Real Scaredy Cats, his reimagining of the Pink Panther Theme for big band; We Refuse to Be Used And Abused!, a suite for his Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.

It’s all too easy for us as a society to forget that jazz has its roots in revolution: slaves used their African rhythms and tonalities to communicate on the plantation. As time passed, jazz became both a method of survival for black musicians and a profession that chewed you up and spit you out (see: the hard lives and early deaths of Charlie Parker, Cal Massey, John Coltrane, and a great many others). The jazz musician became a novelty and a stereotype: poor, sick, often drug-addicted, but genius; the music became appropriated, sanitized, and commodified.

I am lucky enough to have been taught all of these things by Fred; they were part of his requirements for me to study with him. As a young, queer woman in jazz, I take the implications of my craft and calling very seriously. When Fred became too sick, he handed over the baton to his Eco-Music Big Band to me, and I learned that he hired musicians with a serious caveat: at least 51% of his band had to be oppressed peoples. His musicians were his army, effecting change right alongside him.

As Fred’s successor, it is an honor to work with musicians who are moved to do the same. I hear the music that my colleagues are writing and understand the depth with which Fred’s legacy of political music reaches. It goes beyond the instinct to pay tribute to the greats of the civil rights movement and deals with the here and now. The MSO Trio—Albert Marques, Walter Stinson, and Zack O’Farrill (all of whom work within the Eco-Music Big Band)—has two new works that come to mind, both composed by Marques. The first, You’re Under Arrest, is a jazz-meets-heavy metal work about police brutality in the United States; the second, Jazz is Working Class, is a blues with Latin groove about the commodification of jazz for the affluent and its roots in poverty, slavery, and oppression.

If Fred were alive now, there’s no question in my mind that he would be writing works for Eric Garner and Mike Brown. He would want us to soundtrack the protests and then go out and shut the city down. He would demand that our works be virtuosic, loud, and groovy enough to lift the spirits of the masses and reach the families of these young black men.

We as musicians have a responsibility to respond to the world around us, to give the people a song to raise their spirits and fuel the fight in their hearts.

So, in light of the political climate we live in—for Eric Garner, for Mike Brown, for Palestine—I pick up my pencil and write. A melody. An ostinato bassline. It’s got to groove, Fred would say. You aren’t going to move people if it doesn’t.


Marie Incontrera

Marie Incontrera is a composer, conductor, and band leader whose work spans queer opera, political big band, and music-for-the-oppressed. Marie is the conductor and band-leader of the Green Monster Big Band (Fred Ho’s premiere big band) and the Eco-Music Band (a smaller, variable ensemble), both ensembles for which she also composes and arranges. She was Fred Ho’s last composition and conducting protege.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “THINGS HAVE GOT TO CHANGE!–Writing Political Music in Today’s World

  1. Garrett Schumann

    Thank you for this post Marie, Fred Ho’s writings and passion have inspired me, too. I think you’re right on about his response to the last six months’ current events. Excellent work!

  2. Mark Smithson

    I appreciate all such struggle, all such a grasping for justice. And yet -without ignoring truly “in your face” types of modern violence and oppression – who is anybody to absolutely quantify what is or is not necessarily an “oppressed peoples” without themselves – in such an exclusion – becoming discriminatory? This smacks of a particular narrow political perspective (and potential selective tolerance), as every great nation and people have at one time suffered oppression and violence which has left deep historical roots. That, and every man has his titanic struggles: we are all oppressed or suffering peoples in some profound way. At the very least, I hope that in your considerable passion and respectable artistic angst you see that “fighting the power” doesn’t necessarily conform to just one perspective. For instance, in your case, working as a “queer” musician (or making that the leading label to your artistic voice) is blazing a path; yet somebody of a different political, cultural, or religious tradition should also be allowed to “fight the power” against such wholesale changes to culture (which, as you know, often take quite the militant form.) At least, if we are truly to be free, all sides need to be heard. Keep making beautiful music, and thank you for this honest article.

  3. Frank Lin

    Let’s be clear, in the arts world, the far left is the unchallenged status quo, not because its more intelligent, or more informed, or more compassionate. Its because it has the power. If someone composed music on, say, explicitly anti-feminist themes that person would be blacklisted from academia. Let’s drop this self-congratulatory back patting that upper middle class kids go to college to learn revolution. They go to internalize and proselytize yet another orthodoxy. It takes no bravery to parrot the political sentiments
    of your professors, your mentors, your department heads, and your funding committees. Its no different than Mozart flattering the sensibilities of aristocrats. They all know which side their bread is buttered.

    I’m sick of the assumption that only one political persuasion has anything to offer in the realm of contemporary art. Let’s have some diversity where it counts: diversity of ideas.

  4. John C

    To address Frank Lin a little, and further comments that may come:

    There are plenty in the arts world that are on the far right–you’re taking a narrow stance regarding what the “arts” entail. What you really mean to say is “academic art music.” And that’s a scene Fred wasn’t exactly hanging out in. He forcefully rejected a lot of that . Even if the ideals were similar with lots of academics, his own choice in methodology was far more radical than most academics are willing to use. I see far far more overt

    There is a diversity, though that diversity is not always present within single (sub)genres. One only needs to look at country music to see quite a few pieces of music that run antithetical to that idea. Or the musical I had the “pleasure” of starting to orchestrate out until my conscious couldn’t handle it anymore–pure antebellum South whitewashed nostalgia. While I couldn’t finish it ($1K wasn’t enough to ease my conscious, even while I couldn’t pay my bills), it has been performed a number of times in the original rock version, and the creator had some local fair dates lined up for the revisionist history.

    The attack on academic music as not being the most diverse in opinions is a true enough statement. I’m not actually going to disagree with that. But it’s a statement that could be pointed out in any number of genres. One need only look at the fighting in rap over Iggy Azalea, and the question of appropriation (which was covered in an early NMB series). And while that is far from any defense (not really a defense at all), it’s important to consider the issues in diversity. Is it really a diversity of political idea in the music we want to see? What about the larger diversity issues in academic art music, the lack of minorities of all types, women having issues reaching leadership positions, old guard holding to outdated ideas of race, religion, and gender? It seems that even while we say “the professors are leftists!” we can point to a societal issue that seems more in line with conservative thought. Which makes me think we need these statements even more–if we’re not seeing equal treatment in our ranks, why not use our music to attack those very thoughts! It seems there is a diversity of thought, generally speaking, otherwise we’d see more equality across the board in art music (though that is incredibly glib).

    And it’s disingenuous to say universities and colleges do nothing but set-up a new form of orthodoxy of the left. Over-generalizations are exactly what your post seemed to be against, but at the same time was based entirely in over-generalizations. If we are to compare anecdotal and personal experiences, we won’t get further than a “he said, she said.” In my case, I could say writing political music (as I have since I started composition seriously), wasn’t looked upon positively or negatively. Most faculty I met were ambivalent at best about delving into politics with their music. We can see the same sort of sentiments from The Met with their moves away from political statements (from either their direct statement re: Anna Netrebko, or their recent bowing to cancel The Death of Klinghoffer’s live broadcast.

    But that’s not really the point, is it? Let’s take a zoom outwards from the microcosm that is academic music. Starting in the small circles of academic music, political music is a sub-genre, at best, practiced by a few. These few do lean heavily toward having a more left/center-left view with progressive social policies at the heart. Zooming out from that sub-genre, we see academic music being only somewhat engaged politically. Zoom out further into classical music, we see major movements against being political, that somehow classical music is above this worldly turmoil (foolish idea, really). We can zoom out more and look at a something like “historically based performance music” or some other incredibly broad category–something that includes classical and jazz as a subsection of music. Now we see the world Fred Ho and Marie Incontrera live in, a world that in jazz has those treating it as historical practice divorced from the societal impetus(we could generalize to academic jazz programs, but I don’t think that’s justifiable), those fully engaged with the social and political background (Fred, Marie, Wadada Leo Smith, Nicholas Payton, and many more), and other movements within that all along the continuum. Zooming out further in art music, we can start to see more and more political pieces in underground groups that are less represented in the academic world.

    And so on. This is already too long for a reply (NMB, feel free to ask me to write essays). The point being, by taking a stance of “there’s not enough diversity in political statements in art,” a myopic view of art is taken–one that focuses on a microcosm of a sub-genre of a genre. By asking for diversity by attacking the view that is perceived to be the majority in a small group, it is also ignoring that that view, while possibly a majority in a small group, is the minority on further levels within society. So, perhaps, in these small circles, the far left (sorta far left, for American standards) have power, but in the grand scheme of the US, they do not. And the music works against that power, the over-arching societal power, not the small force that is little more than a subset of a subset.

    Could also get into the idea of “is tolerating bigotry tolerance?” But that’s for a separate post really. But spend a little time reading up on all the discussion with it, especially following the Charlie Hebdo attack.

    i think it’s something to consider, when working through the issue. While we’re often not dealing in satire in music (sometimes, but not always), we can start to pull out the bits about freedom of speech vs. freedom from being called a bigot. Those are two different things, and one wonders if someone did create an anti-feminist (or anti-women, or anti-BlackLivesMatter, or pro-traditional-marriage) what the backlash would be? Freedom of speech, not freedom from criticism.

    Just as you, Frank Lin, have every single right to make the post you did, i have the right to criticize it. If someone with a strong far right view wish to state it via music, nothing, legally speaking, is stopping him her. Nothing is stopping them from independently mounting productions. And they do. The obstacle is the criticism, which no one is free from, and getting people to join in.

    TLDR: that’s a small definition of art; power comparison in a small group is not the argument, it is using the power of the small group against a larger group; and possible themes of “is it ok to tolerate bigotry?” Some things to consider.

  5. Guy Livingston

    your article touched a chord for me, even though the more critical comment about left-wing ivory towers also hit home; I’ve seen all too often in academia the dominance of one or another viewpoint. But I can’t agree with the writer that it’s always left-wing: there are plenty of right-wing, conservative, anti-change universities and schools, and even if they have liberal students, the faculty or trustees can be on the other side of the political spectrum. I address some of these issues in my radio show: Pianos and Politics on ConcertZender Radio:
    (which is the first in a 5-part series on music and politics). Thanks for such thought-provoking material!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.