Music Will Keep You Free

Music Will Keep You Free

BY Frank J. Oteri
Folks who do not believe in an open and tolerant society have always been wary of music.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Think things are bad for music here? According to a news article that appeared in the Guardian yesterday and was linked from ArtsJournal today, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in the past has made comments discouraging music, though rarely in public, has now officially stated that music “should not be practised or taught in the country.” In what sounds strangely resonant with the ideals of some folks in this part of the world, Khamenei further claimed that it’s “better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music.” And since everything he says is interpreted as absolute law, the fate of musicians in that country is quite precarious right now.

People who do not believe in an open and tolerant society have always been wary of music. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu advised rulers that in order to maintain a firm upper hand, they must forbid music. And strictures limiting musical possibilities have been a favorite form of oppression from the days of the Council of Trent to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Ironically the people who dislike music the most are the ones who are most aware of how powerful a force it is.

Last week I remarked in passing that music’s greatest asset is that if you truly listen to it, you are allowing the input of someone other than yourself into your consciousness. For leaders who don’t want their citizens to challenge them, this is extremely subversive. If you really want to be open to other ideas and other points of view, and you don’t want to unquestioningly do what someone else tells you to do, listen to music. For even if the act of listening is in some sense an act of submission to someone else, it is an open-ended submission that ultimately leaves you with a new perspective. Since it is impossible in the process of listening to completely lose your memory of everything you have listened to before, everything you listen to adds to that memory rather than negates it—so it is never a monolithic experience. Plus if you make music as well as listen to it, you have the opportunity to share that perspective with someone else.

I’ve never been particularly attuned to sports—the competitive paradigm seems a problematic model for human interaction and therefore not always a “healthy recreation.” But I know that having devoted my life to music, whatever its challenges, I will always be free.