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

In recent decades the American avant-garde has nurtured a new range of approaches more closely fusing text and music, often speaking the words or intoning them in some way, rather than “setting them to music” in the traditional manner. There are several reasons for this:

  • To open up the possibility of amateur vocal performance and thus increase the range (and range of social class) of possible performers;
  • To heighten the drama of the text beyond the conventions of a traditional musical setting, making the meaning of the words more difficult to ignore;
  • To more intrinsically draw the music’s structure from the text, either as a way of further amplifying the words or in lieu of more traditional structuring devices;
  • To get away from the familiar sound of European bel canto singing, which can be a liability for reaching a wider audience that may dislike classical music or distrust its class associations.

The attention-getting opening salvo in this movement was a 1972 pair of minimalist process pieces by Frederic Rzewski, Coming Together and Attica. The former, in an angrily energetic D minor, uses as text a kind of angry-ecstatic letter by Sam Melville, a political prisoner and leader of the uprising at Attica prison:


I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now, and I can tell you truthfully, few periods of my life have passed more quickly…. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning….

The text for calmer, major-key Attica is the response of prisoner Richard X. Clark, a participant in the Attica prison uprising, when asked how it felt to leave Attica behind him: he replied, “Attica is in front of me.” As a way of opening up the possibility of performance by a wide array of groups (and Rzewski sometimes even performed them solo), the instrumentation is free—a long melody line is to be played, with some instruments sustaining selected pitches. Both the text and melody are subjected to minimalist additive process: “Attica… Attica is… Attica is in… Attica is in front…”, etc. Driving and seething with conviction, yet also pretty, Coming Together and Attica suddenly brought a political conscience into minimalism, even though Rzewski quickly abandoned the minimalist idiom (see Political Music via Quotation).

Also in 1972, Christian Wolff entered on the same track with Accompaniments, with texts by a Chinese veterinarian and a midwife in the Yenan province of northwest China, describing in quotidian detail the progress of Mao’s revolution:


The old way of giving birth to children was unhygienic. Dangerous both for mother and child. To begin with it was necessary to spread a great deal of information. But now… the women understand why hygiene is important….The old bad habits are deep-rooted, but we’re fighting them all the time, and things are getting better every year that goes by…. To study and apply Mao Tse-tung Thought is a good method….

Wolff wrote the piece for Rzewski, directing that the piano chords be spoken along with the syllables of the text—combining professionalism and amateurism, since Rzewski is an excellent pianist but had no particular experience as a speaker. Later, with the revelations of how brutal Mao’s revolution had been, Wolff admitted that the politics of Accompaniments had been discredited, and that he should withdraw the work. This is a danger of political music: it can be rendered invalid by subsequent events over which the composer has no control.

The most persuasive political-music figure of the 1980s was undoubtedly Diamanda Galás, whose amazingly powerful three-and-a-half-octave voice and frightening theatrical presence made her a rare crossover figure from the avant-garde. (I’m going to leave Laurie Anderson out of the discussion because, while she increasingly interspersed her musical performances with political commentary, her songs can rarely be called political in themselves.) Even before she was energized by the AIDS epidemic, Galás took on issues of power and tyranny. In her Tragouthia apo to Aima Exoun Fonos (Song from the Blood of Those Murdered, 1981) and Panoptikon (1982-3) she adopted and expanded on vocal techniques from the European tradition of Berio, Xenakis, and Dieter Schnebel—babbling, screeching, wailing, shouting, while Richard Zvonar‘s electronics allowed her to layer her voice over a background of slowly transforming noises. In Panoptikon she used two microphones with high and low pitch shifters (a Laurie Anderson technique) to turn herself into both interrogator and prisoner.

Then, in 1984, Galás began a trilogy based on Edgar Allen Poe‘s “Masque of the Red Death,” intending it as an allegory about AIDS. When her brother Philip—a well-known playwright and performance artist—died from the disease in 1986, she expanded the work to meet the growing crisis. She wrote her own text and dotted it with passages from the Bible and religious liturgy, creating in a dark rock and gospel context a direct assault on bigotry, and a counterattack against religion for its condemnation of homosexual AIDS victims. In section I, “The Divine Punishment,” Galás croaks laws from Leviticus over a darkly repetitive background of groans and slow drumbeats:


And if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him,
he is unclean.
Every garment, every skin whereon is the seed, is unclean.
And the woman with whom this man shall lie will be unclean.
And whosoever toucheth her will be unclean.
This is the law of the plague:
To teach when it is clean and when it is unclean.

A superb pianist as well as singer, Galás has often accompanied herself, and has been one of the most inventive avant-garde figures in appropriating rock, gospel, and even country and western styles for politically provocative large-scale songs. Part three of the Masque, “You Must Be Certain of the Devil,” opens with a tortuously slow rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that lasts six minutes and covers three octaves. Later, over a good old redneck beat, she sings her own words that many rednecks wouldn’t want to hear:


In Kentucky Harry buys a round of beer
to celebrate the death of Billy Smith, the queer,
whose mother still must hide her face in fear.
Let’s not chat about despair.

You who mix the words of torture, suicide, and death
with scotch and soda at the bar,
we’re all real decent people, aren’t we,
but there’s no time left for talk.
Let’s not chat about despair.

Galás is perhaps the only new-music composer whose impact has been visible and subversive enough to get her targeted by the Christian Right; Reel to Real Ministries has condemned her Litanies of Satan (1982) for its sacrilegious text—


To thee o Satan, glory be, and praise.
Grant that my soul, one day, beneath the Tree
Of Knowledge may rest near thee.

—which is, alas, not her own, but by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). How many of the rest of us can say we’re truly doing all we can to piss off the Religious Right?

Many composers of my own generation have written the occasional political work, usually with text. Ben Neill, trumpet-playing composer of computerized ambient installations, collaborated with AIDS activist and visual artist David Wojnarowicz on ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion), an evening-length multimedia work full of texts attacking mainstream culture’s habit of blaming gay victims for the AIDS epidemic. (Wojnarowicz subsequently died of the disease.) Likewise, Bob Ostertag‘s All the Rage—a Kronos Quartet commission—uses recorded samples, voice, and string quartet to create a unified effect from a heterogenous group of political-music techniques. It partly takes over the rhythm-derived-from-text idea of Wolff’s Accompaniments, having the string players follow the rhythm of the speaking voice in exact, unmetered unison; but also uses recorded samples of a riot that occurred in California when Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a law meant to protect gays from discrimination. Meanwhile, the string quartet plays its own now-angry, now-sad commentary on the background sounds.

Dean Drummond‘s Congressional Record drew fire for using a National Endowment for the Arts grant to turn against the government itself. Drummond is the curator of the Harry Partch instruments, and his piece applied an eccentrically vernacular, Partchian vocal technique to four excerpts from the Congressional Record: a diatribe against the NEA and indecency by Senator Jesse Helms; the Senate bill attempting the abolish the NEA; a grimace-forcing account of President Clinton touching Monica Lewinsky‘s breasts from Kenneth Starr‘s Independent Counsel Report; and a speech introducing the Plumbing Improvement Act of 1999. It’s kind of wonderful to hear baritone Robert Osborne (on the Innova recording) apply Partch’s sarcastically truculent tones to Jesse Helms’ historic phrases:


Seven years ago I first reported to the senate some evidence that a war was then being waged against America’s standards of decency by some self-proclaimed artists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the know-it-all media have tried in vain to persuade the American people that such so-called art deserved the taxpayers’ money allocated to the arrogant artists whose minds belong in the sewer…. Performing their live sex acts, filthy homosexual photographs, bodies of dead men and women, to produce stomach-churning photographs, from burning the American flag to flouting their own bodies and those of others. Such depravity knows no bounds.

Much less sardonic and seemingly innocuous are the political works of Conrad Cummings, who has recently returned to composing after a hiatus of several years and whose Photo-Op parodies conservative sentiments in such a deadpan, Handel-meets-Philip Glass style that you almost wonder if he’s serious:


By keeping things exactly the way that they are
We’ll find truth in the smallest things
That are just as good as the big ones that keep
This country great.

My own text works have been influenced by the Wolffian idea of allowing the speech-rhythm of the text to determine the rhythm of the music. This technique is particularly evident in my Custer and Sitting Bull (1995-99). I chose texts from speeches, writings, interviews, and military transcripts of Custer and Sitting Bull based on rhythm, but also for ambiguity and self-contradictoriness. Although immersed with the political-music ideas of Cardew, Rzewski, and Wolff during my impressionable years in the 1970s, and very convinced by them, I have been reluctant to follow the dogmatic course they seem to prescribe. I’m a musician—I’ve spent literally my entire life in music. I’ve never studied economics, never taken a political science course, though in academia and in New York I’m surrounded by educated and politically aware people, and I get my news from Salon.com, NPR, and the Village Voice. Despite my strong and variously well-founded political views, for me to impose a particular political viewpoint on my audience would feel, to me, like a different kind of elitism. I can sympathize with the conviction that music should have a political impact, but not with the unshakeable confidence that I know what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it.

And so my occasional political-music strategies have been more ambiguous. In Custer and Sitting Bull I contrasted the white point of view with the Native American point of view—and also multiple white and Native American points of view with each other. I took passages from Custer in which he seemed sympathetic to and knowledgeable about the Indian’s plight—


If I were an Indian, I often think, I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipients of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in.

—and placed them alongside quotations in which he voiced a truculent bigotry that seemed forced and intended to play well to a right wing military audience:


My firm conviction based on analysis of the character traits of the Indian is that the Indian cannot be induced to adopt an unaccustomed mode of life by any teaching, argument, reasoning, or coaxing not followed closely by physical force!

And I ended Custer’s plea with an ambivalently effective apology (taken from his defense at his 1867 court martial) for the historical white man, “Judge me not by what is known now, but in the light of what I knew when these events transpired.” Similarly, I took statements from Sitting Bull in which he claimed to be chief of all the Indians, and other statements in which he denied having any special status. I wanted to present two warring enemies with some degree of complexity, and let each audience member come to his or her own conclusion about praise or blame. In particular, I wanted neither to exonerate Custer nor condemn him, but to vivify his best and worst motives by presenting them musically, repeating the phrases over and over so that their import couldn’t be glossed over.

And in purely technical terms, I derived almost the entire electronic microtonal accompaniment from the rhythmicized speech as I heard it, so closely that I have often been asked whether my voice is triggering the electronics in live performance. But I wouldn’t know how to achieve that; I’m barely smart enough to make MIDI work. My technique is to notate the speech rhythms as closely as possible, much like Steve Reich in Different Trains and The Cave, and his Come Out is perhaps as much a source for this idea as Wolff’s Accompaniments.

From Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics
by Kyle Gann
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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

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