Is Music Political?

by Barry Drogin

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Dear George,

Thank you for your essays on music, the humanities, Mozart and politics. I especially found your Jewish sympathies with the Queen of the Night to be insightful and revealing.

In two of the essays, you make much of music's "abstract" qualities, for which you bring in Virgil Thomson's support. Mr. Thomson's opinions are always completely on the mark, so true --- and, I have found, often dated and irrelevant.

You state, in a book review, that "Music is the least referential and, therefore, the least political of the arts." In an earlier essay, you state that music "cannot possibly have any content but an aesthetic one." Thus, music is chosen as the purest representative of "art for art's sake," a 20th century philosophy. At first glance, these statements appear, as does much of Virgil Thomson's writings, to be obvious, common sense. I feel they are incomplete, however, and wish to grapple with avenues of thought that contradict some of the absolutism and confidence they contain.

You later correctly point out that literature has not developed a proper vocabulary to describe what music means. I agree, which means this will be difficult and experimental. I'll be grappling with how to express a thought as I go along.

To start with, I think the act of considering "music" as a divorced entity from performance, presentation, economics and so on is a recent indulgence, if not a deception. Every act of creation carries with it a conception of audience and tradition. One writes a letter having read and received other letters; a poem is read at a reading, or published and purchased; literary criticism appears in magazines or journals, books appear in bookstores. An author does not write a novel so that it will be chopped into individual sentences and distributed in fortune cookies. There is an expectation of how it will be received.

Literature (when not adapted into other media) is still typically received in its original, intended form: as purchased words on a typeset page. All of the other arts have the possibility of distortion: a photograph of a sculpture, a print of a painting, a videotape of a dance or a film or a theatre piece, and a recording of a piece of music. The existence of these other forms have confused us about original intention. A cinematographer grappling with Panavision has no intention of having his or her work presented on a small, fluorescent screen with a different aspect ratio. A painter or sculptor dealing with his or her relation to the economics of the object, problems of surface texture, proportion and size, has lost all when the art work is reduced to a mass-produced image.

Similarly, "music" is embedded in the assumptions of its creation. In asserting that "music" is not political, we must ask: What is music? When Bernstein has a 10-year old proclaim, "I hate music, but I like to sing," he is addressing this issue. Perhaps it is not that "music" has no political content, but that we have chosen to devise a capitalistic revision of "music," which has become our new content.

What I mean is, music is not just ordered sound, and certainly it is not black marks on a page. For example, orchestration. When Mozart writes a solo aria, he is not just grappling with the limitations of the human voice, he is agreeing to write within that context. The context is: the vocal line will be louder than the accompaniment; the vocal line will be handled by one singer, and be within that singer's range; the vocal line will be singable, with places for breaths, etc.; there will be an acceptable cultural relation between the meaning of the words and the choice of musical expression; the piece will be presented in a form of location (typically, opera house - Mozart didn't write much lieder) with a social tradition, and so on.

This last is very important. Mozart, like Shakespeare, wrote pieces for presentation within a social milieu where the audience talked, ate, commented, interacted, during presentation. Later composers wrote pieces to be performed in the home, to be shared and enjoyed by performance, not by listening. Similarly, the institution of the orchestra evolved with its own rules. One of the most important was the concept of music's presence within silence --- elaborate rituals have developed to create an appropriate space for the presentation of music today. We buy a ticket, show up at an appointed time, are assigned a seat, we are separated into audience and performer both by mutual agreement and by physical location, the performer is concealed and then arrives as the audience sits in darkness, the audience claps their hands, and then, the most important part of the ritual: there is silence. And into this silence, the musical piece is placed. Violations of this silence (talking, coughing, spontaneous applause) are frowned upon. We choose to place music into this hermetic space, and then to say that it has no political content --- but isn't this choice exceedingly political in many ways?

I feel reverberations of the musical thought of Erik Satie, John Cage, even Richard Wagner, but I am moved most strongly to bring up Charles Ives. Consider the "Emerson" and "Thoreau" movements of the "Concord" Sonata.

Ives is composing a piano piece. He is stripped of most of the normal context for doing so, because he lives in America amidst culture conservatism and European chauvinism. The sounds he chooses to create will not be heard or understood by his fellow musicians, presenting organizations, publishers, home pianists, "music lovers," common folk, etc. This forces him to grapple directly with the meaning of his piece, why he is writing it, in what ways will it be presented, how will it exist. There are already aspects of the piece which a human pianist cannot produce ---as he asserts in the notes to the "114 Songs," he believes a musical piece "has a few rights...if it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly...Who shall stop it!" Simultaneous chords must be arpeggiated, a 14 3/4" board is required for a tone cluster. But now he goes a step further.

In the "Emerson" movement, two measures of barely audible music for viola. In "Thoreau," a part for flute, "a mist over Walden Pond." The "Concord" Sonata is nearly fifty minutes long. It predates recording technology, and isn't intended for recording, anyway. If we buy a score, purchase a record, we lose some vital meaning.

How do we perform this piece? We must hire a violist and flautist. The violist sits on stage through most of the first movement, plays two measures, then exits? The flautist comes on for the last movement, or sits on stage throughout the piece? Is this a solo piano piece? Is Thoreau alone with Nature, or is his purpose communication with others? Are these just notes, or is there more? As Ives writes in "Essays Before a Sonata," "If no flute, the brace is for piano alone...but Thoreau much prefers to hear the flute over Walden." The sonic appearance of the flute is not a magical entry, as might be experienced on a recording. There it is, written into the score. There's the flautist sitting on the stage. These are part of the music.

Even if we choose to play the piece at home, we must grapple with this problem --- we need another human being to play the other instrument. In addition, we are encouraged to vary the tempi "with the mood of the day."

How we violate these instructions by thinking of music as ordered sound! An object to be purchased at a record store, possessed, experienced in private, fixed in expression, stripped of performance and the problems it poses. John Zorn has written for recording: one experiences the cuts, the overdubs, the mixture of source materials. This carries its own meaning.

Is the problem at the other end? If music is not political, is it because of our understanding of "political"? Is there a better expression of societal ideals than the structure and discipline of an orchestra? Did not Gottschalk support his own cult of the individual through his piano pieces? Does not a jazz ensemble grapple with elitism, egotism, cooperation?

I assert that when we make a recording of a piece of music we are asserting that all of the meaning of performance and presentation of the piece are irrelevant, and that access, consumerism and absolute audience control is paramount. But Mozart, Gottschalk, Wagner, Satie did not write their pieces in this context, nor did the performers they knew present it in that context.

I write music for live performance. I make political decisions about thematic content, style, and performance venue. Others may impose their political agendas on a possible presentation of my piece.

You write that "the reality of musical experience exists in its own plane...most music remains apolitical." But if this is the reality of listening to a recording, or the memory of a recording or performance, then perhaps you have chosen to circumscribe the plane within which music can be experienced. Music breaks these boundaries. I would assert: Music, as experienced, has political content. This becomes most obvious by considering the ways and types of music we choose not to experience. Could Idi Amin talk Glenn Gould into giving him a private performance?

See, I haven't said one word about a plot line!

George:

Is music "the least referential, and, therefore, the least political of the arts"? I proceeded to explore what might be meant by "referential" --- what might music mean or contain, since you elsewhere use the word "content" --- and what might be meant by political, which I suppose I might confuse with ideology or sociology rather than the study of government, especially in the context cited. After all, you imply that other arts are more political, so it would be unfair to claim afterwards that all art is aesthetic, social, and apolitical.

Of course, aesthetics is, probably by definition, not politics. But why single music out for this honor? Certainly we could not carry the argument out through dance, or through sculpture, or through cinematography, or through the beauty of a prose style, or other aesthetic approaches to content. Yes, two characters in a book or movie could be having this discussion, but for that matter so could two characters in an opera. I simply disagree that music "cannot possibly have any content but an aesthetic one," and tried to point out content that could be construed as political, especially the "idea" of an orchestra. You must admit that "cannot possibly have" is a rather strong statement.

Perhaps the problem is that I have a narrow view of what is defined as "aesthetic," and you have a narrow view of what is defined as "political," so the content in music for me which falls outside of aesthetic bounds might be construed as political, while for you it can never touch politics' domain. Perhaps the problem is that I am unfairly taking three statements of yours from different articles and creating from them a view you do not hold, or a context not meant.

As to music's special place, I would hold that music does not contain words and does not contain visuals, and since human beings rely most heavily on words and sights for thought and memory, music seems "abstract." One could just as well make the case that words are the most abstract of all, or that we visualize through a limiting context of form, just as we are taught to hear melody separate from accompaniment, and so on.

Music is most certainly argument: not to audiences, perhaps, but to composers. Composers write a piece disagreeing or agreeing with previous piece's they have heard. I am working on an a cappella opera because I think most modern opera sounds like a film score with a voiceover, and I think opera must (a value judgement!) have the major musical content in the voice. This is both an aesthetic position and a political position. Someone who hasn't heard any operas written within the last fifty years may enjoy listening to my opera --- personally, I don't care as long as they pay their money. But I want to hear an a cappella opera, and I want to have an effect on others so that they'll start writing operas I enjoy hearing. I believe in the validity of all aesthetic experience. But I believe in taste, too, and I hate the absence of melody in opera.

It would appear from your citations that "art for art's sake" clashed with "art for religion's sake" or "art as religion" in the nineteenth century. "Art for politic's sake" was an issue in the early twentieth century, as mocked by Marc Blitstein in "The Cradle Will Rock." Certainly, notions of "political art," propaganda, and "all art is political" are twentieth century phrases. I would agree that "The Beggar's Opera" and "The Marriage of Figaro" had their run-ins and controversy, too. But you must be right that the debate extends back into the nineteenth century. I have always seen its watershed as the coming of abstract art, which could claim not to represent anything, but the history of ideas and what people think they mean or meant by them is a wonderfully amorphous thing.

Of course, it is a common lament that "Guernica" never got anybody to stop bombing anybody, that art is not a political force. I agree and I disagree --- otherwise, I wouldn't be working on the pieces I am working on ("Alamo," "The Psychoterrorists"). Art can make fun of the powerful and contribute to a change of context leading to the condemnation and dethroning of the powerful. It can't do it by itself, but it can contribute, I think.

I also think that art is continuously misreceived, misinterpretted and distorted, both in its own time, and certainly over time. I think Mozart would despise a contemporary performance of his work, in all its trappings, just as some despise a disco version of Beethoven, as we think it should be. I am not willing, however, to give the job of misinterpretation over to the literary critics and deconstructionists --- I'd rather misinterpret it myself, thank you.

To continue in your letter:

1. I don't think politics is a science, but then I don't think science is a science. I recommend to you, without hesitation, Ludwik Fleck's "Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact," which I am reading now, or you may borrow my copy when I am done.

2. According to you, the Chinese are grappling with the real issues of our age, or at least the issues of my life. I would stop short at redemption --- I'm not sure how much I believe in that. I have also been reading John Adams on the presence of a meritocracy. He would elevate virtue above fame and fortune --- the question is, are the poor, by definition, virtuous? Adams would say that the dictatorship of the masses (the French Revolution) shows otherwise.

3. I'd have to check Maimonides on whether doubt is holy and faith blasphemous. The Christians don't know anything, anyway.

4. As a staunch civil libertarian, I agree that democracy --- or rather, a bicameral legislature, and separate executive and judicial branches, with term limits, a bill of rights, and one man, one vote --- "is the only philosophy that can be theoretically at piece with both Jews and music." I guess I don't fully appreciate the difference between the social and the political, between political science and sociology. I have never taken a course in political science. Should I?

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007