Music and the Political Machine
I’m sure I’m not the only NewMusicBox reader who took in David T. Little’s recent New York Times piece, “Should Music be Political?”, with great interest. As one of those commentators who “assert[s] that all art is political, period”—in good company with George Orwell, who, as Little notes, famously declared that “the very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position”—I’d like to defend, in a modest fashion and in a more out-of-the-way venue, that position from Little’s accusation that it’s “driven by its own private ideological motor.”
One of the reasons why I was so keen to read Little’s article is that he emailed me some years ago to ask about the political dimension of an old and pretty awful piece of mine; in retrospect, this email may have been part of the information gathering that eventually gave birth to the dissertation he mentions, whose topic is the political in music. I can’t find that email now, so I can’t be sure what feeble explanation I gave him at the time. However, what I’d say if he asked me the same question today is that such a chunk of juvenilia falls squarely into the category of propangandistic music—a much larger category, I think, than Little recognizes, including pretty much everything written by Frederic Rzewski, whose music demonstrates that socialists can be bullies too (in particular, I was surprised to see that Little mentions Coming Together, a piece whose “message” is absolutely clear, in the context of critical, as opposed to propagandistic, music). My little piece was certainly driven by an ideological motor, but I’d like to think that the political music that I try to write now—and that the colleagues I admire most succeed in writing—strives to dismantle ideological motors rather than to rev them up.
Genuinely critical music—a broad, agnostic rubric that has no characteristic material or formal markings—is anti-ideological, which is to say that it shows ideology for what it really is: according to Louis Althusser, an imagined relationship to one’s material circumstances. Critical music pulls back a curtain; propandistic music, on the other hand, simply lowers a new and hopefully more egalitarian curtain in front of the old one. The entire point of critical music is to dissolve ideology. Orwell’s dictum isn’t ideology, it’s the rejection of ideology—namely, aestheticism: the ideology of art’s non-social-ness. I agree wholeheartedly with Little that this isn’t something to be afraid of. To my mind, though, the differentiation between propagandistic and critical musics has to be the real site of contestation, not the question—which isn’t really a question at all—of whether music should be political: To acknowledge that music is socially constructed (a fact, not an opinion) and that the topology of society is not symmetrical, that not all of us are afforded the same securities and freedoms (also a fact) is to acknowledge that music is necessarily political whether we want it to be or not.