Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics



Vote Gann
Photo by Jessica Farwell, politicized by NewMusicBox

“There is no such thing as Art for Art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.”

—Mao Tse-tung

Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and I have something in common: we’re both ashamed to share our home state with George W. Bush. But she’s gotten a lot more attention for having said so. After she dissed the President to a concert audience in London, she and the other Chicks received obscene phone calls, threatening drive-bys, bomb threats, and had their songs blacklisted off of hundreds of radio stations, many of them owned by the right wing-connected Clear Channel Corporation. Meanwhile, John Mellencamp revved up an old 1903 protest song called “To Washington,” refitted it with new 2003 lyrics, and released it provocatively just as the troops were headed for Baghdad:


A new man in the White House
With a familiar name
Said he had some fresh ideas
But it’s worse now since he came
From Texas to Washington
He wants to fight with many
And he says it’s not for oil
He sent out the National Guard
To police the world
From Baghdad to Washington

For that, hundreds of radio listeners called in and said things like, “I don’t know who I hate worse, Osama bin Laden or John Mellencamp.”

No one can doubt that music has a big role to play in the world of political protest. The controversial musicians we read about in the papers, though, are mostly from the pop and folk genres. It’s not only that those musicians are more visible, though that’s certainly true as well. Classical music and jazz seem to have a more long-term, measured, even sublimated approach to political protest, slower to react and more deeply embedded in the structure of the music itself. When John Mellencamp writes a political song, he can use the same old chords and instruments he always uses; political classical composers often feel that the political intention entails a special style and strategy. When Billy Bragg is infuriated by an item in the paper, he can fire off a song that day:


Voices on the radio
Tell us that we’re going to war
Those brave men and women in uniform
They want to know what they’re fighting for
The generals want to hear the end game
The allies won’t approve the plan
But the oil men in the White House
They just don’t give a damn
‘Cause it’s all about the price of oil.

—”The Price of Oil” by Billy Bragg

The classical and jazz worlds, however, generally have a longer turnaround time.

Some composers see themselves playing to such a small audience that they see no point in writing political music, and often they compensate with more conventional types of political activism; Conlon Nancarrow, for instance, didn’t believe in music’s ability to portray anything extramusical, let alone political, but was nevertheless a sufficiently committed Communist to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Others feel, more obliquely and with little opportunity to gather concrete evidence, that through the nature of their music they can encourage perceptions that bring about greater awareness in the general population.

Most problematic of all, perhaps, is classical music’s traditional relationship to established power and wealth. Rock guitarists and performance artists can challenge the status quo without subsidy, but the composer who gets performed by orchestra or chamber ensemble usually does so by the grace of either government grants or wealthy patrons or both. You can write a symphony subtitled “Death to the Corporate Ruling Class” if you want, but think twice about showing up for the orchestra trustee board meeting at which the commission is announced.

Consequently, political controversies involving classical music have been few and far between, and not always attributable to radical intentions on the part of the composers. The few highly visible cases are easy to enumerate. In 1953, Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait—and how can you get any more innocently American than Copland’s narrated tone poem with Lincoln’s words laced by folk song quotations like “Springfield Mountain” and “Camptown Races”—was abruptly canceled from performance at President Eisenhower’s inaugural concert, because an Illinois congressman, Fred E. Busbey, had protested Copland’s Communist connections of the 1930s. Copland had never actually been a Party member, but had written a prize-winning song for the Communist Composers’ Collective, given musical lectures for Communist organizations, and appeared at the 1949 World Peace Conference to meet Shostakovich. Within months, Senator Joseph McCarthy called Copland to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a fate that also eventually befell fellow composers Elie Siegmeister, Wallingford Riegger, David Diamond, and the German émigré Hanns Eisler, who was subsequently deported.

A similar situation recurred in 1973, when Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, also based on words of the Great Emancipator, was to be premiered as part of Richard Nixon’s inauguration. Lincoln, however, had denounced “the mighty scourge of war,” which threatened to look like a reflection on Nixon’s pet venture, the Vietnam War. Persichetti was asked to make changes. He declined. The performance did not take place. Apparently the words of Abraham Lincoln are too inflammatory for today’s politicians. More recently, John Adams and Alice Goodman had the choruses of their opera The Death of Klinghoffer canceled by the Boston Symphony in the wake of 9-11 for their arguably pro-Arab (or in Adams’ view, even-handed) stance. The words of that opera, such as—


“My father’s house was razed
In nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis
Passed over our street”

—were to some listeners, it has been charged, “not a simple statement of fact, but rather provocation.” Nevertheless, despite these isolated headline-grabbers, by and large—aside from the perennial attacks on Wagner’s anti-Semitism that constitute a cottage industry—the world rarely takes classical music seriously enough to protest it.

As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeois epoch has simplified the structure of the world’s class antagonisms into two camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat. (In recent years, the [s]election of former CEOs like Bush and Cheney has eroded even the slim, traditional distinction between politicians and the corporate class.) Virtually by definition, “political music” is understood as music that supports the interests of the working classes, and exposes the corporate/governing class as thieves and oppressors. As Christian Wolff—one of the central composers in this area—has pointed out, almost all composers called political are leftist: there have been virtually no composers whose music was explicitly associated with conservative causes, notwithstanding a number of patriotic symphonies and tone poems penned during World War II. In Marxist terms, composers who write for the delectation of the rich and for their fellow professionals are giving aid and comfort to the bourgeoisie, and are by definition counter-revolutionary, no matter what their conscious personal politics. Most non-pop music of the past century that we think of as political has come from a Marxist, communist, or socialist viewpoint—the composers who come to mind are Hanns Eisler, Marc Blitzstein, Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, Luigi Nono. Even for composers who write from a feminist or gay or pro-Native American or Save the Whales viewpoint, Marxist conditions for political music tend to be assumed: simplicity, relation to some musical vernacular, non-elitist performance situations.

For many people, music can only be political when it has a text, and for certain composers, the style is immaterial as long as the text makes its point. The latter group, however, seem to be a minority; most political composers feel that music should be understandable not only by musical connoisseurs, but by the working classes whose interest it represents, whereas writing music for new-music specialists and the upper class is regarded as being of little value or point. Therefore, political music tends to be widely accessible, non-abstract, familiar in its basic idiom, tending towards simplicity rather than complexity. There are exceptions; Nono wrote political music in a serialist and rather forbidding idiom, and Wallingford Riegger was a curiously complacent 12-tone Communist. Leftist composers of the Depression Era believed in using folk tunes to represent, and reach out to, “The People.” Analogously, some more recent composers have believed in starting from a pop or rock idiom, as being the “folk” music to which today’s mass audiences are attuned.

However, as Wolff has written, the conditions through which popular music develops are themselves corrupt and exploitative. Those who take pop music as a stylistic basis may already be, by implication, playing into the hands of the corporate world—unless, somehow, they engage to subvert it. Swerve toward popular music and you may be letting corporations dictate your personal expression; swerve too far away, even in the direction of simplicity and accessibility, and you run the danger, as Wolff says, of seeming merely “eccentric.” As he further spells out the paradox, parsing German social thinker Theodor W. Adorno: if music “lets go of (its) autonomy, it sells out to the established (social) order, whereas, if it tries to stay strictly within its autonomous confines, it becomes equally co-optable, living a harmless life in its appointed niche.” The road from classical composition to the working classes is riddled with pitfalls and chasms.

One of the largest fissures, plaguing politically conscious composers for the last eight or nine decades, is that musical progressivism and political progressivism do not go hand in hand, and often are felt to be diametrically opposed. For music to be abstract, complex, difficult to understand—so the argument runs—supports the power structure of the bourgeoisie, since it provides a harmless distraction from the real conflicts of class oppression. This belief has resulted in the seeming paradox of some of the most advanced and forward-looking musicians—most famously Hanns Eisler in 1926 and Cornelius Cardew in 1971—turning their backs on the continuation of what seemed at the time an inevitable musico-historical trajectory.

Thanks to such paradoxes, unanswerable questions run through the background of the present survey:

  1. Can music (without text) express political truths?

  2. Does “concert hall” music with political texts achieve any useful end?

  3. Can political music made by composers in the classical tradition, no matter how simplified or accessible, do anything besides preach to the converted?

  4. Do composers have a social responsibility to attract or address certain audiences?

  5. Does who you get your money from affect your art? Should it?

  6. Is politics the business of only pop music, while experimental music is already too much of an elitist pastime?

  7. Given that the music the working classes are familiar with is exploitatively limited and controlled by commercial and sometimes even right wing corporations, to what extent can the more musically aware composer build on that foundation to reach a wider audience? Is pop music the only possible basis for communication, a contaminated anathema, both, or neither?

There can be no attempt in a survey such as this to definitively answer most of these questions; nor, however, will they be, as they so often are, pessimistically dismissed. For some, answers will forever depend on the consciences of individual composers; others may be clarified as time goes by and our experience of music in differing contexts accumulates. It may be worth keeping them in mind as we discuss individual cases, because I have so often heard composer discussion groups run circles around these questions and get nowhere. If we are to eventually arrive at more compelling answers, the base level of our collective questioning needs to be raised.

The present HyperHistory divides into not historical periods, for the most part, but into strategies for politicizing music. These strategies fall into two clearly differentiated areas: political music with words, and political music without words. Across those two categories does run a rough historical divide: before the 1960s, one’s political views sometimes determined what kind of music one should write, but in the 1960s there was born the relatively new idea of making music a political statement in itself. Of course, this divide does not apply to opera, which has famously been making political statements for most of its history. Hatred of tyranny is implicit in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and an entire economic critique of European society in Wagner’s Ring, albeit one perhaps interrupted and unfulfilled—to accept for a moment Shaw’s view of the case. Interestingly, what seems lacking in today’s operas is political statement, even despite the current trend of historical operas drawn from recent politics. As exceptions one could point to Anthony Braxton’s little-heralded 1996 opera Shala Fears for the Poor, which painted a bitter satire of corporate America—and Conrad Cummings’ Vietnam opera, Tonkin.

In the case of texted political music, there has been a new approach in the last 30 years that scorns the earlier convention of “setting text to music,” speaking or intoning it instead. One political composer closely connected with text, Luigi Nono, can be considered separately as an exception to all rules. The case of non-texted political music diffracts into a rainbow of related concepts, ranging from the denotative technique of direct quotation, to the culturally conditioned but commonsensical reading of music as Social Realism, to the more rarefied approach to musical structure as political analogy. Independently of all this, we should consider the extreme case of Cornelius Cardew, a composer who not only most sharply defined the role of political music by turning his back on the avant-garde, but who also was the clearest and most passionate writer about what was politically wrong with new music.

Inner Pages:

Certainly this survey will be far from complete—by its very nature, political music is typically likely to be, if not censored outright, at least unsupported by the existing power structures, and frequently lost to history, or at least difficult to obtain documentation on. I only hope that I can give a well-rounded list of the various ways in which composers have found to give their music political impact, and bring out the most often-encountered advantages and problems of each. As a movement, political music flourished most during the 1930s and 1970s, the periods of greatest Marxist sympathy in the West, the first spurred by sympathy for Russia, the second by that for China, and both ending in disillusion; the influence of the latter period, though, has convinced a number of younger composers, myself included, to write the occasional politically motivated work. And as the world continues to change in more ominous directions, it becomes harder and harder for the thinking artist to keep silent—as the Dixie Chicks have realized to their everlasting credit.

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2 thoughts on “Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

  1. Pingback: Kyle Gann on “political music” | Phil Thomson, Composer

  2. Pingback: Cartoon Trumpets and Horseshit: Marx Estranged | My Website

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