Last week, one of my students dropped into my office in order to discuss an issue that he found troubling. He was wondering why composers like Schumann and his contemporaries would focus on issues like poet’s love while ignoring the great political upheavals of their era. We talked through various ways in which their obsession with artistic details was indeed a political choice; how they were setting themselves apart from their predecessors by constructing an ideal of the artist as genius, capable of dispensing the transcendent experiences that were formerly the province of the priesthood. The more we considered the issue, the more we realized that these composers were actually making a political statement through their choice of subject matter.
I’m returning to this conversation now because the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan and their devastating aftermath are very much in my thoughts, and during a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society. We spend countless hours honing our craft, and yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter. Of course we have Churchill’s famous (yet apocryphal) quote in response to a proposal to cut arts funding during World War II, “then what are we fighting for?” Still, our art appears to pale in the face of a disaster of these proportions.
Henze has a theory that all art is inherently political, that every choice we make when constructing a new work either confirms the status quo or is an act of rebellion. In music, all of our choices—to write for orchestras or robots, beatless music or dance songs—place us within an artistic continuum and make a strong statement about our beliefs. Therefore, any artistic action is a political action. Some composers chose to strengthen this bond and to make music that is (to use Brecht’s term) didactic. A title can imbue an otherwise abstract piece with political resonance, or a text can be created that specifically discusses events of the day. A problem arises, in that art that speaks directly to current events quickly loses its resonance among changing landscapes, while the more abstract expressions can be reinterpreted in ways that belie the composer’s intentions.
I constantly struggle with the question of how best to address society as a whole through my own music. I believe that it’s important for artists to engage with the world (otherwise I surely would not be writing this column) and yet I am inexorably drawn towards art that emphasizes ambiguity. To me, the clarity of meaning required for art to make a firm political statement is by itself a reason to avoid such statements. But in times like these, when we are faced with unthinkable suffering, I believe that it’s most essential for artists to step forward, to express the true impact of events that cannot be assimilated by our facile immediate-responding news outlets.