Unquiet Riot

Pussy Riot

Three of the members of Pussy Riot at the “scene of the crime.”

The trial of three members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot and their subsequent sentencing to two years in prison for performing a song calling for the ouster of Russian leader Vladimir Putin at an impromptu flash concert in Moscow’s largest Orthodox cathedral has garnered a tremendous amount of attention all over the world. Popular music luminaries ranging from Paul McCartney to Björk to Madonna have publicly spoken out in support of the group, though Norman LeBrecht has pointed out that the classical music community has pretty much remained silent on this topic. He has even suggested that some major Russian musicians actually tacitly support what happened.

While my own personal political views on all of this are beyond the scope of this particular publication, which is dedicated exclusively to music, specifically new American music, there might be important musical matters around this particular issue that are worthy of discussion and debate on these pages. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate musical issues from political ones in this case. Some people would argue that it is impossible to do so in any case and that all art is political, so I know I’m treading on shaky ground somewhat. Bear with me.

I have often argued that the inability to associate specific meanings with music in and of itself is its greatest strength in that it can cut through divisions between people (whether ideological, linguistic, geographical, or temporal). But that elusive aspect of music can also make it somehow seem less relevant to our daily lives. We may love music, but we don’t really know what it stands for. Since other forms of art allow for more precise communication and interpretation, artists in those disciplines have become cultural icons for their stands on very specific topics. For millennia, authors of poetry and prose have run afoul of governments all across the political spectrum for the views expressed in their writings. Visual artists have had their share of censorship problems as well. But music? Beethoven has long been raised as a role model for individuality and a force for social justice—after all, he wrote a symphony in honor of Napoleon when he viewed him as an agent of societal change but then tore up the dedication after Napoleon declared himself an emperor. You can listen for clues in the Eroica Symphony and find them once you know the biographical details, but would you really be able to hear it if you came to the music tabula rasa? Luigi Nono inferred into the equal distribution of pitches that serialism allows a metaphor for a communist social order in which members of the proletariat are all equal, but it is doubtful that anyone hearing his music on its own would make such an association.

This is probably why over the centuries music has been far less susceptible to specific censorial attacks, unless the music is accompanied by lyrics, in which case it could be reasonably argued that it is the lyrics and not the music that is being censored. Of course there are famous counterexamples. Plato suggested banning certain modes from music claiming they invoked moods in people which were contrary to the benefit of the state. The Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu went even further and called for a ban on all music. As far as specific instances of musical censorship in history, there’s the story of how the Vatican was on the verge of banning polyphony from music in churches until Palestrina persuaded them not to in his 1562 Missa Papae Marcelli. In the 20th century, Germany under the Third Reich vilified the work of a great many composers with the label “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music) and this epithet wasn’t exclusively limited to composers whose racial identity and political leanings were anathema to Nazi ideology. Any music that referenced jazz or explored atonality was a target. Music was also not immune from the proscribed dictates of conformity during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China. A day after Augusto Pinochet’s right wing coup in Chile, Victor Jara, the country’s most prominent singer-songwriter who had clear left-wing sympathies, was arrested and tortured; four days later, after his incarcerators told him to playing his guitar, they machine-gunned him to death mid-song. In more recent times, there have been Islamic theocratic leaders in Iran and Afghanistan who have sought to eradicate any secular music, instrumental as well as vocal, merely on the grounds that such music is a distraction from the contemplation of the divine. The Ansar Dine, who are attempting to impose strict sharia law on the regions of Mali they have recently gained control over, also want to restrict music.

Russia, however, has had the longest history of government intervention into musical matters over the course of the last century. In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich was officially denounced in the Soviet Union’s government-controlled main media outlet, Pravda, in a chilling anonymous editorial with the title “Muddle Instead of Music” which specifically criticized the music for his second (and what was to be his last) opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; no one came to his defense and he feared for his life. But others fared worse. Nikolai Roslavets, who has been described as the Russian Schoenberg, was denied all official positions and not even allowed to join the Composers’ Union. Alexander Mosolov, whose Lenin-era avant-garde proto-minimalist Iron Foundry celebrated the triumph of the working class, got sent to a gulag because of the music he composed under Stalin. Both were officially written out of music history and have only been rediscovered in recent years. Through all of this, Shostakovich figured out a way to toe the line in order for his music to continue to be performed, but even after recanting the more experimental tendencies in his music in works like his patriotic Symphony No. 5 (which he actually publicly described as “an artist’s creative response to just criticism”), he was lumped together with other leading Soviet composers including Prokofiev and Khachaturian in the 1948 campaign against bourgeois formalism in music. And long after Stalin’s reign of terror, Shostakovich continued to anger government authorities when he set texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that exposed Soviet anti-semitism. But here one could contend that it was Yevtushenko’s poetry and not Shostakovich’s music which drew their ire; however, as biting as Yevtushenko’s critical words are, it is through the power of Shostakovich’s setting that their message becomes so visceral.

The fate of jazz and rock musicians in Russia has been quite different from that of so-called classical composers who created in a medium which was officially revered, even if the specific content of individual composers’ music sometimes was not. While jazz was mostly never banned per se, the music was frequently criticized since the genre originated in a Western capitalist society and was therefore completely identified with it. Rock was even more restricted. Early rock groups in Russia could not officially record since the state-owned record label did not acknowledge its existence. As a result, rock evolved as an underground music so the very act of performing rock music, regardless of the lyrics, was a subversive act. Since the days of Glasnost and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, rock has flourished in Russia but it is never lost its aura of rebellion.

So it could perhaps be claimed that Pussy Riot are being persecuted, at least in part, on musical grounds since the kind of music they play goes against the official mold endorsed by the government. Such an aesthetic purge is clearly against freedom of artistic expression and artists of any stylistic inclination should view it as an affront to the very core of the creative process. But this is a much more complicated issue. The members of the band were specifically charged with “hooliganism” for their uninvited performance, and hence, desecration of a space that is viewed as sacred by many people in Russia and it should be pointed out that the majority of people in Russia support the verdict of the trial. Of course, the source of this majority statistic is from the Russian media and there seems to be a great disparity of opinion between the younger and older generations in Russia, although this is only anecdotally verifiable. Outside of Russia, however, opinion seems completely tilted in support of the actions of Pussy Riot. As the only mega news story in the mainstream media that has any connection to music, how can we channel this broad range of public support into overall support for creative expression and ensuring that it is properly respected and nurtured all over the world?

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8 thoughts on “Unquiet Riot

  1. Beth Denisch

    Thank you Frank, excellent! Music is a cultural statement, whether it claims to be absolute or programme. Music brings us together and incites riots. However, it was interesting that while the inspiration for the article was Pussy Riot there was no other mention of women composers.

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Thank you, Beth, for the extremely astute observation regarding women composers herein.

      As far as I am aware, historically no women were excoriated for their music by a government. This is, however, not necessarily a good thing, since in earlier centuries no woman was allowed to attain the kind of prominence that would have put her music in such jeopardy. Potentially great women composers in the past like Fanny Mendelssohn and Alma Maria Schindler (who later married Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel) were discouraged from pursuing musical composition (perceived as exclusively a male domain) by family members and spouses. And the few women who attained a significant degree of recognition for their music were completely embraced by government leaders; they had to be–some who immediate come to mind are: Hildegard of Bingen, who came from a noble family and who was respected by the Pope; Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, who was encouraged by Louis XIV; and a group of now largely forgotten Russian women composers who composed music for the court of Catherine the Great (e.g. Varvara Dolgorouky, Varvara Niklaevna Golovine, Natalia Ivanovna Kurakina, Catherine de Licoschin, Maria Naryshkina, Ekaterina Alexeievna Siniavina, and Maria Zubova, all of whose music–to the best of my knowledge–has only appeared in recent times on a disc issued by Dorian ten years ago). In 20th century Russia, the extraordinary Galina Ustvolskaya actually censored her own most interesting music which she assumed would be too avant-garde for the Soviet authorities and put forward lesser work which she later disavowed.

      As for precedents for the incarceration of women composers, Anne Boleyn is rumored to have composed a song (which still survives) while she was awaiting her death sentence in the Tower of London, but her music was not the reason that Henry VIII had her tried and executed.

      The story of British composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), however, is an interesting exception to the above history and it does in fact share some interesting parallels with the recent Pussy Riot case. Like them, she was also jailed. And the events that led to her imprisonment did in fact involve a performance of one of her compositions, The March of the Women, which had become an anthem for the British suffragette movement. But it must be pointed out that the assembled performers, which included her, were mostly shouting the words rather than singing her music and that she along with the rest of them were subsequently jailed, not for the performance, but for their breaking of windows of the homes of anti-suffragist politicians. But, of course, the members of Pussy Riot were officially not punished for their musical composition or performance but rather for their alleged “hooliganism” for violating a sacred space.

      In our own time, the list of women composers who have created music that challenges authority and the accepted political order is staggering so I won’t even begin to enumerate them here (though others might want to). But I’m racking my brain to think of others women composers in our time who have actually been arrested or jailed as a result of the music they have created and performed. Maybe others can chime in if they know of anyone I might have overlooked.

      Reply
  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    Great Article, Frank!

    It immediately reminded me of a particular piece: Frank Zappa’s opera “Joe’s Garage”, which depicts a totalitarian dystopic society where music becomes illegal.

    In the libretto preface, Zappa wrote: “just be glad you don’t live in one of the cheerful little countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted…or as it is Iran, totally illegal”.

    And in Pinochet’s Chile, not only Jara was executed, but a whole style of music (Nueva Canción) was forbidden!

    PS: Peter Hammill was one of the many artists that sent his support to these Russian girls.

    Reply
  3. Phil Fried

    But I’m racking my brain to think of others women composers in our time who have actually been arrested or jailed as a result of the music they have created and performed

    Charlotte Moorman comes to mind.

    Popular music luminaries ranging from Paul McCartney to Björk to Madonna have publicly spoken out in support of the group, though Norman LeBrecht has pointed out that the classical music community has pretty much remained silent

    Well we live in a time of celebrity and I’m afraid that popular culture celebrities trump all. I support the right of all to free speech and think this is a travesty of justice, yet for some reason Madonna gets the press coverage. Go figure. Also I’m not sure that its strictly a musical issue rather it is the content of their words that seem to be the trouble. The classical music world is no sacred cow for me,yet I would expect the artistic response to be continue pressure for release and testimony by related works of art and performances.

    Lets see what happens.

    Reply
  4. Harold Gotthelf

    I believe that what Lorenzo says in Act V of “The Merchant of Venice” holds for states and political movements as well:

    “The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
    The motions of his spirit are dull as night
    And his affections dark as Erebus:
    Let no such man be trusted.”

    Reply
  5. Sabrina

    Do you know what I am sick of? How people are making this into a freedom of speech issue, when it is not! The reason they were convicted was because they entered a church in order to blaspheme and disrespect it! That church is private property, and as those women grew up in Russia, they know full well what the conduct expected in when one enters an Orthodox Church. As an Orthodox Christian, I am deeply offended that they chose to violate that protocol. That band could’ve had their protest “concert” anyplace else, why did they choose to enter into the sanctuary of an Orthodox Church in order to do it? I’ll tell you why. To call attention to themselves. Well, that band wanted attention, and oh boy did they get it! I have absolutely no sympathy for them. They ought to be happy they didn’t get a longer sentence than the two years. Why does it seem that people think it’s perfectly acceptable to go INSIDE OF A CHURCH to do things like this? Whatever happened to basic respect and courtesy? If that bad has a problem with their political leaders, they should’ve went to the Kremlin to stage their protest, and kept it out of the church.

    Reply
  6. A. Sonaslon

    I could not agree with you more! What would beatle paul do if i hijacked his performance with my own , which i belive to be more relevant, albeit just to me? Who would come to my defense for jumping on stage and trespassing and any other charges i may face?

    Reply
    1. Hoseph Holbrooke

      “What would beatle paul do if i hijacked his performance with my own?”

      You might want to answer your own question and then compare it to what has happened to these young women. I think you’ll find that this comparison is precisely why this case demands attention.

      Reply

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