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?