The inspiration to create and perform political music comes from the injustice, exploitation and oppression I see around me every day. On another level, it is simply a reflection of my life, which has been involved in political activism for over 30 years. My political activism began in the late ’60s and early ’70s with the anti–Vietnam War movement. After some political study, I became a communist and joined the Spartacist League, a Trotskyist organization. Although I left full-time political organizing in the early ’80s, I have continued working with the SL. For the past 15 years, the focus of my work has been the Partisan Defense Committee, the SL’s legal and social defense organization, where I am involved in building support for class-war prisoners.
What I hope to achieve by creating political music is a trickier question. I would love to be able to convey the necessity for socialist revolution and the program necessary to reach that end in a piece of music. However, the complexity of politics makes this pretty much impossible. What I believe is possible is for a piece of music to make people want to get involved with particular issues. A personal case in point is my piece “To War, For Empire,” a setting of an article written by then death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1991, during the first Gulf War. Unfortunately, with the current US colonial occupation of Iraq, this piece would be just as timely today as it was when my wife, Bernadette Speach, and I premiered it in 1992. What I found gratifying was that several years after that, when there was a great deal of activism before Mumia’s possible execution, I met several people at rallies and demonstrations who told me that they first became aware of Mumia’s plight because of my piece. Today, Mumia is still incarcerated, although the death sentence has been suspended for the time being. This is despite new, overwhelming evidence that he is an innocent man, including the confession of Arnold Beverly, who admits shooting Daniel Faulkner, the police officer Mumia was framed up for murdering.
Since music is a form of communication, it can also be used to spread political information. In the mid-’90s, National Public Radio‘s All Things Considered program contracted with Mumia to do a series of taped commentaries from death row. They reneged on their commitment because of right wing pressure in Congress. Bernadette and I wrote From Death Row, This is Mumia Abu-Jamal, which utilized Mumia’s taped commentaries, and was premiered by Essential Music in 1996. Thus, in a small way, I felt that we aided those like the Pacifica radio stations get Mumia’s message out despite political censorship.
From another view, a person has to put up a barrier in order to not let politics influence whatever he or she does. For myself, a piece that falls under this framework is No More in Thrall. My father, Jacob Schanzer, died in 1992. He was the survivor of a death march from the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, but spoke very little of his life before or during the war. After his death, I began to do research into Buchenwald and discovered an astounding story. Buchenwald was a primary camp for deporting political prisoners, not only German, but from all over Europe. Thus, there was an active underground resistance in the camp, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In the final days of the Third Reich, when the camp SS had orders to blow up the remaining prisoners, the Buchenwald resistance disarmed the SS and demolition team, liberating the camp and saving thousands of lives in doing so. The US Army did not get to Buchenwald until later that day. However, this is a story that is virtually unknown in the US, since the heroes were communists. In fact, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, the New York Times ran a half-page article without even mentioning there was a resistance movement there. Although I had first planned to write music dealing with my background as a child of survivors on a personal basis, the politics of this story inspired me to write No More in Thrall for string quartet and percussion. Each movement is based on a traditional melody associated with part of the camp population: Russian, Yiddish, and Roma (Gypsy) melodies were used as well as the “Internationale,” which was sung by the prisoners on the day after liberation. I also threw in a movement based on “Which Side Are You On?” to commemorate the murder of five trade union and civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party in Greensboro in 1979. This was my editorial statement that the struggle against fascism is not over when fascists can murder five people in broad daylight and then be acquitted. No More in Thrall was premiered a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald in March 1995 by the Sirius String Quartet with Kevin Norton on percussion, and later recorded on the CRI label.
In the end, I write and perform political music because I have to. To paraphrase Trotsky, musicians may try to ignore politics. However, politics will not ignore us.