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

The idea that, not only through its emotional expression but through its very structure and methodology, instrumental music could have an effect on political thought, is a phenomenon of the 1960s and ’70s. Attempts during that time to address the political situation in wordless music took two forms:

  1. musical structure as an analogue of an ideal, or at least preferable, society

  2. musical performance as a model for ideal, or at least preferable, social interaction

The first idea was largely, though not entirely, the contribution of John Cage. From almost the beginning Cage had seen his music as a reflection of society, and more specifically as encouraging a different relationship to society; he preferred, as he put it, “acting in the gap between art and life.” As early as 1943 Cage defended his music for percussion orchestra in terms bemusedly but rather precisely restated by an anonymous Life magazine reviewer:


Cage believes that when people today get to understand and like his music, which is produced by banging one object with another, they will find new beauty in everyday modern life, which is full of noises made by objects banging against each other.

Cage spent much of the late 1940s writing uniformly quiet pieces like In a Landscape and Dream because, he wrote, “it did not seem to me that there was any good about anything big in society.” These examples reveal, though in opposite ways, a tendency to encourage the listener to appreciate specific kinds of things: positively, in encouraging an acceptance of noise and “unmusical” sounds, and negatively, in encouraging a distaste for large, bureaucratic ventures.

In the late 1940s a crisis came. Cage had been attempting to express in his music the nine Indian emotions (erotic, heroic, odiousness, anger, mirth, fear, sorrow, wondrousness, and tranquility), and, noticing that even an erotic or heroic piece might draw only laughter from the audience, decided that the attempt to communicate emotion in continually advancing musical styles was futile:


I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, and thus speaking only for themselves. The whole musical situation struck me more and more as a Tower of Babel.

Cage’s well-known ultimate response was to turn to using chance processes and forfeit any illusion of communication whatsoever. At the same time, his writings reveal a hope that the anarchy of his music would encourage an appreciation for anarchy among listeners. Cage disliked, he said, the exercise of power, preferred nonhierarchical types of organization, believed with Thoreau that “that government is best which governs not at all,” and refused to vote. Starting with Music of Changes for piano (1951), Cage’s music demonstrated the behavior of the kind of society he hoped would eventually arise in the world.

The idea of music as a model for society is a Cagean notion and an attractive one, but not without pitfalls. Certainly for myself and presumably for many musicians of my generation, Cage changed the connotative associations of the word “anarchy,” from the negative meaning of chaos and confusion to that of disciplined action without the top-down imposition of hierarchical structure. One could argue that it took Cage’s writings and lectures to accustom us to this view of anarchy, that the music couldn’t have done so on its own; yet as a music critic I would be loathe to disallow the power of words to teach us how to hear music differently. Enjoyment of Cage’s randomness-based works like Hymnkus, Four, and Europeras I-II has certainly increased my appreciation for the unintended patterns formed by random events. On the other hand, I still get as irritated as anyone else when I’m composing and the phone rings.

From a Marxist standpoint, Cardew criticizes Cage’s randomness for presenting “the surface dynamism of modern society; he ignores the underlying tensions and contradictions that produce that surface…. He does not represent it as an oppressive chaos resulting from the lack of planning that is characteristic of the capitalist system in decay (a riot of greed and exploitation).” Cage’s idea of sounds being “just sounds,” he continues, “reflects the conception of things as being isolated from one another, hence there is no point in investigating their interrelations, and if nobody investigates the relationships between things then the bourgeoisie will be able to maintain its rule. The ‘randomness’ idea is a familiar weapon of the bourgeois ideologists to divert the consciousness of the masses from the real laws (laws and randomness are counterposed) underlying the world and human society.” When New York Philharmonic musicians infamously revolted during a performance of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and destroyed some of the amplification equipment, Cardew could not fault them, seeing the action as a manifestation of class struggle, the “sharply antagonistic relationship between the avant-garde composer with all his electronic gadgetry and the working musician.” Taking a cue from Mao, Cardew points out that Cage could have studied the reasons for the musicians’ action and benefited from self-criticism. Instead, he went back to making music that “speaks only to a tiny band, a social intellectual elite.”

Inspired by Cage’s insights but disagreeing with his philosophy (in fact, so few people have accepted Cage’s philosophy that the cliché that he is “more important as a musical philosopher” is pretty ludicrous), other composers took from him the idea that music, through reordering perceptions, could influence political behavior. Whether this is what Karlheinz Stockhausen was after or not, Cardew took Stockhausen to task for the mysticism with which he surrounded himself and his performances, calling it a traditional tool to distract the masses from the fact of their oppression. “[T]he mystical idea is that the world is illusion, just an idea inside our heads. Then are the millions of oppressed and exploited people throughout the world just another aspect of that illusion in our minds? No, they aren’t…. Mysticism says ‘everything that lives is holy,’ so don’t walk on the grass and above all don’t harm a hair on the head of an imperialist.”

Cardew and his Marxist associates sought for ways to break down, within the music, the elitism they saw in Cage and Stockhausen. One of the simplest strategies they arrived at was to write a piece that anyone can play, that doesn’t require large and established organizations for a public airing. There is a minimalist tradition of such works, including first of all Terry Riley‘s In C (1964) and later Frederic Rzewski‘s Les Moutons des Panurge, a 1968 “process piece” in which all of the musicians try to build up a melody by playing first the first note, then the first two, then the first three, etc. Mistakes are entirely acceptable—the music becomes more interestingly canonic, in fact, once everyone is no longer in unison, and thus the performer who cannot achieve perfection need not be ashamed. Further, Pauline Oliveros has gone so far as to make many pieces that involve audience participation, and for which musical training is neither required nor necessarily an asset. Such works remove music from what many people see as the elitism of the classical music world.



Christian Wolff

Wolff, during the 1970s especially, pioneered the concept of pieces in which the process of rehearsal and performance becomes a model of social interaction, a way of revealing to the performers what kind of power struggles erupt in interactive situations, and how to avoid them. His early pieces such as For One, Two, or Three People (1964) had placed performers in the situation of reacting to each other according to rules, with some leeway. Wolff says that he was later made aware of the political implications of the “democratic interdependence” required by such pieces, but hadn’t thought about that at the time, since this was before his and Cardew’s political awakening in 1971-72. Later pieces such as Burdocks (1971), Changing the System (1972-3), and Exercises (1973-5) offered performers choices about what sections to play when, as well as parts that could be played in any clef by any instrument.

In 1975, I remember performing, as a student among many others, in Exercises at the June in Buffalo festival. Afterwards the performers engaged in a discussion to examine how the piece went. Those who had taken an aggressive leadership role during rehearsals and made decisions for the group declared that the process had indeed been a model of democracy and cooperation. Those of us who had been quieter and held back pointed out that the others had been rather dictatorial, and that we felt like we had been railroaded. The performance had been a model for the problems of a democratic cooperative, but not necessarily for the solutions. The other issue for such pieces, of course, is that in a sense they seem to be performed for the benefit of the performers, with little regard for what the audience will experience. In this way one could say they assume a non-European performance practice, such as Native American dances in which every member of a village participates either as musician or dancer.

Somewhat more effective at times is the use of theater to illustrate underlying political realities. Notable in this respect is the group that formed at Champaign-Urbana under Herbert Brun‘s mentorship, the Performers’ Workshop Ensemble consisting of composer/actors Susan Parenti, Lisa Fay, Jeff Glassman, and others. Consistent with their aims, this group largely avoids the usual avant-garde circuit, performing instead in malls and public spaces to reach a local and unsuspecting public. The group’s pieces, musically structured even when theatrical, reveal the psychological workings of power relationships. One of the more describable examples is Parenti’s tape piece, No, Honey, I Can Do It!, in which her speech melodies uncomfortably delineate the vocal nuances people use as they debase themselves in favor of others. The Performers’ Workshop Ensemble is the most effective group of political musicians I know of in recent decades. The fact that their work remains localized and obscure is emblematic of the condition of political music at its purest.

One more word might be said about the practice of drawing analogies between musical structure and social organization, which arose with Cage’s explorations of musical and social anarchy. Second to that, the most common comparison has been between communism and 12-tone music, an analogy which seems to rest on the following three points:

  1. Both represented the attempt to order, by rational means and a relatively small number of principles, phenomena that had traditionally been ordered by more heterogeneous and intuitive means;

  2. A presumption of historical inevitability on the part of each movement’s adherents, with a resulting disdain for those who didn’t get with the program; and

  3. The fact that the 12-tone period, dated from Schoenberg‘s first 12-tone row in 1921 to the rather sudden decline in the style’s prestige in the late 1980s, coincides almost exactly with the period of Soviet Union communism.

But that’s all. It would be historically ludicrous, I think, to argue that 12-tone music could potentially lead to a greater tendency toward communist thought, or that 12-tone music would be a particularly appropriate means of expression for communist political ideas. Clearly Stalin thought the opposite. To pursue this train of thought, one could begin analyzing why the European aristocracy loved the stately, orderly musics of Lully and Haydn, and why the rising bourgeoisie preferred the voluptuous, emotionally volatile piano concerti of Grieg and Tchaikovsky—and the answer would not lie, I suspect, in the underlying tonal or rhythmic structure of the musical language, but in terms of what kinds of perceived entities are created on the surface of the music, and what happens to them in terms of tension and resolution. Art is not about reality, but about appearances, and the road to a music that would bring about desired changes in society may well not be the straightest or most literal.

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

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

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