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'Political Music' - a viable category?


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Author Topic: 'Political Music' - a viable category?  (Read 2461 times)
IanP
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« on: August 27, 2009, 09:30:32 pm »

As things have been a bit quiet save for the downloading thread, I'd like to know what anyone on here thinks about a few questions that have been occupying me today:

1. Is it meaningful to talk about such a thing as 'political music', separate from some other types?
2. If so, what would be the defining attributes of such a music?
3. Can the politics of certain music, or indeed any art, be gauged primarily in terms of the intentions, or even indeed other activities, of those who produce it (this can refer to composers, performers, free improvisers, or whoever), or is its reception the best measure of such a thing (or a mixture of both, or neither)?
4. What is achieved through the production of music or art that makes explicit a certain political agenda, other than in terms of a certain self-fashioning - is it any different to simply wearing a badge?
5. Might (as Adorno suggested) the very fact of turning explicit politics into art serve to diffuse that politics by rendering it aesthetic?

All views, from whatever perspective, are welcomed.
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John Cummins
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« Reply #1 on: August 31, 2009, 02:53:22 am »

My goodness; very interesting. 
Off the top of my head,

1. Is it meaningful to talk about such a thing as 'political music', separate from some other types?
Yes, insofar as:
- The composer/songwriter holds a political orientation and,
- - purports to express it in their work or,
- - it is to be considered from a biographical point of view.
- A piece, tune or song not necessarily political in content or intent has been adopted as a political anthem. 

It's also valid, therefore, to talk about the political in music.   

2. If so, what would be the defining attributes of such a music?
That the composer says it is. 
That it has explicit political content--what would that be?
That it is made use of in a political context.   

3. Can the politics of certain music, or indeed any art, be gauged primarily in terms of the intentions, or even indeed other activities, of those who produce it (this can refer to composers, performers, free improvisers, or whoever), or is its reception the best measure of such a thing (or a mixture of both, or neither)?
I guess I responded to this in #s 1 & 2, so, any or all of the above 

4. What is achieved through the production of music or art that makes explicit a certain political agenda, other than in terms of a certain self-fashioning - is it any different to simply wearing a badge?
Both instumental music and song can only tell and suggest; achievements are the product of people acting in light or in spite of the content of the music or song. 

5. Might (as Adorno suggested) the very fact of turning explicit politics into art serve to diffuse that politics by rendering it aesthetic?
Only for those who, even despite the vehemence of their political views, prefer experiencing the aesthetic to participating in the political.  This is a matter of character and temperament, not art or politics, although it can affect art and politics--usually badly? 
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guest2
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« Reply #2 on: September 02, 2009, 08:01:32 am »

My goodness; very interesting. 
Off the top of my head,

1. Is it meaningful to talk about such a thing as 'political music', separate from some other types?
Yes, insofar as:
- The composer/songwriter holds a political orientation and,
- - purports to express it in their work or,
- - it is to be considered from a biographical point of view.
- A piece, tune or song not necessarily political in content or intent has been adopted as a political anthem. 

It's also valid, therefore, to talk about the political in music.   
. . .

So, I wonder how these composers would fit in with those definitions: Beethoven (Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony), Britten (his operas), Xenakis, Yun, and Brahms (Academic Festival Overture)?
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Reiner Torheit
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« Reply #3 on: September 02, 2009, 09:00:20 am »

So, I wonder how these composers would fit in with those definitions: Beethoven (Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony), Britten (his operas), Xenakis, Yun, and Brahms (Academic Festival Overture)?

There are several issues which arise from this...
  • Several of the works you've mentioned are textual, and could be said to derive their "political" nature from the text onto which they have been fused...  after all, the text pre-existed the music.  Would that same music without that text, or with a different text, still remain "political"?
  • Are works "political" only when they purport to challenge or overthrow the existing status quo?  For example consider Cimarosa's comic opera IL MATRIMONIO SEGRETO, roughly contemporaneous with Mozart's allegedly "political" opera about a wedding, LE NOZZE DI FIGARO.   Cimarosa's opera winks indulgently at the "right" of aristocrats to subvent the law, and to behave in social unacceptable or repellent ways (the appalling "tests" to which "Count Robinson" subjects his potential bride and her family)?  It could equally be argued that this trifling social comedy is a deeply political work that seeks to garner support for the continued rule of the moneyed classes over their social and financial inferiors?  Equally you could argue that FIDELIO isn't political - it merely asks that existing laws be upheld.
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IanP
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« Reply #4 on: September 02, 2009, 10:42:39 am »

  • Are works "political" only when they purport to challenge or overthrow the existing status quo? 
No, absolutely not only then; it's as conservative a position as one can get to define only those views that differ from their own as 'political'.
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autoharp
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« Reply #5 on: September 02, 2009, 11:45:40 am »

The same question has been posted by IanP on the M&S board - with a couple of interesting replies.

http://mas.nfshost.com/index.php/topic,166.msg3245.html#msg3245

Elsewhere on M&S, the following exchange recently appeared.

Quote
from: Glorious fun said Wilfred on August 09, 2009
"Chairman Mao says: 'In the world today, culture and art and literature are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.' Is this really so in Red China? It is certainly not so in music of 'the world today' as we know it. And would one like music to be exclusively 'geared to definite political lines'?"

Quote
from: IanP
Certainly not. Only the Stalinist/Maoist factions of the left (which account for a large percentage of the far left in the English-speaking countries, including many who lay claim to the mantle of Trotsky) believe as much, wedded as they are to reified notions of classes and a depersonalisation of individual society members every bit as comprehensive as the attitude of a high-level manager of General Motors towards their workers (and charges of 'egocentrism' are a familiar cheap rhetorical tactic employed by these types of so-called leftists - and indeed by advocates of reified identity politics - towards so de-individualisation). Music 'geared to definite political lines' is rarely anything more than propaganda. Works commemorating the victims of Hiroshima, attempting to remember what was done at Auschwitz, piano sonatas about Vietnam, or works celebrating women's sanitation under Chairman Mao, serve little function other than to ease the conscience of some bourgeois liberal concert-goers. What progressive role they might have comes not from this cheap tactics, but from when the immanent properties of the music offers something that exceeds known meanings.

The Maoist line quoted above was associated, in England at least, with Cornelius Cardew from c.1971/2 up to (but not after) 1977.

I'm assuming that IanP's hit-list of works involve
1 - Penderecki's Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima
2 - Cardew's Vietnam Sonata
3 - Penderecki's Dies Irae (or Auschwitz Oratorio)
4 - Christian Wolff's Accompaniments

if my assumptions are correct, I'm surprised certainly at the inclusion of 1), originally entitled 8'43" and apparently opportunistically retitled after the composer heard the work. I've never really thought of that work as "political" any more than others of an In memoriam nature, but no doubt my view of what constitutes "political" in the context of composed music is considerably narrower than that of others. At worst, I suppose, such a work could viewed as "ambulance-chasing"? (to use a memorable phrase from IanP which appeared on an earlier board).

Quote
Are works "political" only when they purport to challenge or overthrow the existing status quo?
. Good point, Reiner. And how then do those works become "anything more than propaganda"?
[To declare a self-interest, I've composed works which could be said to contain a social/political dimension - indeed IanP has performed a couple of them (for which I'm eternally grateful) although I suspect he would regard one as "propaganda" (rightfully) and be dismissive of the musical approach adopted in both. But this is by the bye]
More relevantly, how do others today view works by an earlier generation of avowedly "political" composers such as as Eisler and Bush as well as less well-known contributions from the likes of Blitzstein and Schulhoff?
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IanP
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« Reply #6 on: September 02, 2009, 12:07:35 pm »

For the No. 3 you mention, I was actually thinking of Nono's Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto ad Auschwitz, but the Penderecki work equally fits the category.

More thoughts on autoharp's interesting post to follow, but a few other things that occurred to me:

In terms of a piece being 'political' which doesn't attempt to challenge or overthrow the status quo, the most obvious category for that would be numerous works celebrating those in power, either directly or indirectly: Beethoven's Wellingtons Sieg or Der glorreiche Augenblick, Berlioz's Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, Brahms's Triumphlied or Prokofiev's Hail to Stalin.
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autoharp
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« Reply #7 on: September 02, 2009, 03:38:24 pm »

In terms of a piece being 'political' which doesn't attempt to challenge or overthrow the status quo, the most obvious category for that would be numerous works celebrating those in power, either directly or indirectly: Beethoven's Wellingtons Sieg or Der glorreiche Augenblick, Berlioz's Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, Brahms's Triumphlied or Prokofiev's Hail to Stalin.

I take your point although I'm unsure about a couple of your examples. My understanding is that the Berlioz is an In memoriam work and the inclusion of the Borodin seems tantamount to suggesting that those works composed for Brenda's coronation are political! But then my use of the word "political" is probably far too exclusive. I suppose it might be useful to delineate the boundaries, if indeed that is possible.
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IanP
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« Reply #8 on: September 02, 2009, 03:50:15 pm »

The Berlioz was written to celebrate 10 years since the July Revolution of 1830, and the Borodin to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II. I would consider works written for any coronation as political, just as I would those to celebrate Lenin's coming to power, or Mao's.
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utopic dreams
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« Reply #9 on: September 02, 2009, 05:12:31 pm »

I suppose it depends what "category" means in this context.

But why should music be exempt from political viability, any more than any other art form?

As Adorno would certainly have insisted. And did Smiley. Often. And with great eloquence.

"Might (as Adorno suggested) the very fact of turning explicit politics into art serve to diffuse that politics by rendering it aesthetic?"

Where does Adorno "suggest" that? Or at least insist upon the 'explicity'?

Do you mean Adorno on Brecht?
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IanP
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« Reply #10 on: September 02, 2009, 06:12:18 pm »

But why should music be exempt from political viability, any more than any other art form?
I certainly don't think so, but acknowledge that others disagree. But having a particular category of 'political music' (or 'political art') implies that there is other music/art which is somehow not politcal.

Quote
"Might (as Adorno suggested) the very fact of turning explicit politics into art serve to diffuse that politics by rendering it aesthetic?"

Where does Adorno "suggest" that? Or at least insist upon the 'explicity'?

Do you mean Adorno on Brecht?
Yes, I'm thinking of his comments on Brecht and Sartre (and Picasso, and Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw) in 'Committment'. And that's at the heart of my problem with the Nono work - it purports to be some sort of musical representation of the worst horror known to man (or its victims), but succeeds in creating something abstractly beautiful. I appreciate that this may be a means of attempting to recapture the victims' humanity, but think it a very dubious aesthetic strategy at best.
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John Cummins
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« Reply #11 on: September 02, 2009, 08:13:04 pm »

... the inclusion of the Borodin seems tantamount to suggesting that those works composed for Brenda's coronation are political!
and almost everything by every court composer there ever was!?
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IanP
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« Reply #12 on: September 02, 2009, 08:28:23 pm »

... the inclusion of the Borodin seems tantamount to suggesting that those works composed for Brenda's coronation are political!
and almost everything by every court composer there ever was!?
Pretty much so, yes, at least those pieces written for a particular function.
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Reiner Torheit
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« Reply #13 on: September 02, 2009, 10:52:22 pm »

Pretty much so, yes, at least those pieces written for a particular function.

I would go further and include all works written for patrons holding positions of inherited or elected power. After all, the principle reason for maintaining musicians at Court (or at noble households etc) was not (usually) for the pleasure their compositions or performances gave, but as a manifestation of the power, wealth, and alleged artistic discrimination of the patron in question... a "publicly acceptable" proof of political power.  Visitors, for example, to Esterhazy would come away with a greatly enhanced opinion of His Excellency having seen and heard music-making that excelled that of many of the Crowned Heads of Europe.  One could possibly make a case for excluding music commissioned by connoisseur-patrons (such as the flute-playing Frederick II) but even then perhaps his performances could be classed as merely the fullest realisation of the "gloved fist"... the omnipotent ruler who also - did y'know? - also played the flute. 

"Soft power" it's called these days. Rather like Condoleeza Rice giving Brahms recitals  Angry

If music composed to express opposition to a particular political viewpoint is "political", then it's an obvious extrapolation that music that endorsed that same political viewpoint also has a political content to it, albeit an apparently "latent" one.   An easy "test-case" for this line of logic would be the composers who found it "convenient" to support the Third Reich, or at least to cooperate with the Reich for the sake of an easy life and professional advancement.   Clearly it wouldn't be true to say that it was only the Reich's opponents (Hindemith, Weill, Ullmann, Eisler etc) who wrote politicised music - the Reich's allies (R Strauss, Orff etc) were just as politicised.  And before anyone thrusts my geographic location up my nose  Wink  clearly the same would apply both to composers who clashed with the USSR authorities and those who reached accommodations with them..  both are politicised to an equal extent - it's unavoidable.

I am still interested to explore how abstract textless music can express "political" ideas, however? Other than by the extraordinarily heavy-handed means of quoting pre-existing music that has an established political leaning?  For example Puccini is sometimes accused of anti-Americanism in MADAM BUTTERFLY (viz the introduction to Pinkerton's Act I aria that quotes the American National Anthem)...  but how many people notice the Japanese National Anthem (of the time - Japan has a new one these days) quoted during the tea-ceremony showdown with Sharpless, when Cio-Cio-San rubbishes her own country's marriage laws?  Surely such clumsy requoting can't be the only way of expressing a political idea without text?  Can it?

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IanP
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« Reply #14 on: September 02, 2009, 10:58:58 pm »

For once, I think Reiner and I are in complete agreement (except perhaps on abstract instrumental music - more on that another time). What I really take exception is those who can accept that under fascism or communism music-making is 'politicised', but can't accept that this could at least be equally true of music created in feudal or capitalist societies.
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