What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones? Phil Kline



Phil Kline

I suppose every compositional decision has political overtones, down to the revolutionary decision to become a composer in the first place, which one might view as the refutation of a certain capitalist mandate. Some of my work is experienced outside even the system of music capitalism, in the street without sanction, seats, or admission, and I guess it crosses those boundaries people are always talking about, though I’m not sure where because they weren’t so clearly marked on my turntable.

But the inspiration is not political, it’s personal. There is a saying that all politics is local. It is also personal. Inasmuch as an artist may sense what is hidden in one’s own time, it’s not via political theory, but personal observation and sympathy.

In the case of Zippo Songs, I am drawn to the personal voices of GIs who inscribed poems on their lighters during the Vietnam War. The poems are about sex, drugs, boredom, death, rage, and disillusion, among other things. As a composer I try to respond to the texts without prejudice, engaging their rhythm and character rather than loading them with meaning.

When it is all put together a picture emerges, one that brings a somewhat cathartic change of emotions. Since it’s a picture from Vietnam there is extra baggage that the audience picks up. In this whole process there is a triangle between me, the work, and the audience. The connections within that triangle, if they are made, make the politics. If any of us are changed by that, fine.

Perhaps I should add that the inspiration to add three songs on words of Donald Rumsfeld as a prelude to the concert was overtly political. The devil made me do it.