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

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

No one can doubt that music has a big role to play in the world of political protest. The controversial musicians we read about in the papers, though, are mostly from the pop and folk genres. It’s not only that those musicians are more visible, though that’s certainly true as well. Classical music and jazz seem to have a more long-term, measured, even sublimated approach to political protest, slower to react and more deeply embedded in the structure of the music itself.

Written By

Kyle Gann

Writing this survey has made me pessimistic about the possibility of political music in general, at least personally. If a necessary aim is to reach mass audiences, we composers are so far behind the pop musicians as to have little hope of ever becoming comparatively visible on the cultural landscape. Pop musicians encounter the public via a stage persona that lies outside the talents of many of us; however much I may agree with Diamanda Galás‘s politics, however effective I find her methods, I am unlikely (we all hope) to don heavy stage makeup and follow her in making a political statement which is, after all, as much theatrical as musical. The idea that only text can render music political is so ingrained, so apparently commonsensical, that the number of music lovers who could be convinced otherwise is probably statistically insignificant. It is possible that musics like those of Wolff and Cage have a subtle influence on the perceptions of listeners and performers, leading them in a saner direction, but the evidence is chimerical. It may be true only in the sense that chaos theorists will trace a connection between a butterfly flapping its wings in China to a resulting hurricane on the opposite side of the world. In any case, we have no guarantee that the result will be in accord with our intentions. As Cage wisely titled his diary: “How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).”

A more solvable problem, but one that would have to be consciously confronted, is that our writings about political music remain grounded in a Marxist vocabulary which, whatever truth it may contain, is so old-fashioned as to seem a specialist jargon. “Bourgeois,” “proletarian,” “hypostatized”—these are terms that no longer communicate our situation or our intentions. The failure and discrediting of communism in the Soviet Union and China has made any revival of socialist thought, however warranted and welcome, an uphill climb. We are indeed involved in a class war—a war wag
ed by the corporate class, who have obscured the fact by somehow making the very term “class warfare” a term of derision. It is, moreover, as Chomsky says, a “perfectly conscious” class war “against working people, the poor, the unemployed, minorities, even members of the middle class.” For it to succeed—and it is succeeding—it is equally necessary for the corporate/political class to understand that there is a war and to pretend to the rest of us that there isn’t. The vastly increased concentration of media in the 1980s and ’90s has made it well-nigh impossible to dispute corporate propaganda in any widespread way. And how are we going to make clear in music a situation that we have overwhelmingly failed to clarify in words?

So having begun with a grandiose statement from Mao, let me close with a more modest one (though from the same decade) by George Orwell, who wrestled with these issues all his short life, and who gave, in “Writers and Leviathan,” the most precise statement of the problem I’ve read. He’s writing specifically about novelists and essayists, who during World War II were sometimes pressed into writing government propaganda, so for “writer” you’ll have to substitute “artist” or “composer,” and for “literary,” “artistic”:

Do we have to conclude that it is the duty of every writer to “keep out of politics”? Certainly not!… I only suggest that we should draw a sharper distinction than we do at present between our political and our literary loyalties, and should recognize that a willingness to do certain distasteful but necessary things does not carry with it any obligation to swallow the beliefs that usually go with them. When a writer engages in politics he should do so as a citizen, as a human being, but not as a writer. I do not think that he has a right, merely on the score of his sensibilities, to shirk the ordinary work of politics. Just as much as anyone else, he should be prepared to deliver lectures in draughty halls, to chalk pavements, to canvass voters, to distribute leaflets, even to fight in civil wars if it seems necessary. But whatever else he does in the service of his party, he should never write for it. He should make it clear that his writing is a thing apart. And he should be able to act co-operatively while, if he chooses, completely rejecting the official ideology. He should never turn back from a train of thought because it may lead to a heresy, and he should not mind very much if his unorthodoxy is smelt out…

But does all this mean that a writer… should refrain from writing about politics? Once again, certainly not! There is no reason he should not write in the most crudely political way, if he wishes to. Only he should do so as an individual, an outsider, at the most an unwelcome guerrilla on the flank of a regular army…. Sometimes, if a writer is honest, his writings and his political activities may actually contradict one another. There are occasions when that is plainly undesirable: but then the remedy is not to falsify one’s impulses, but to remain silent.

Personally, I have plans to continue writing political music, with text. But I will keep in mind that music has its own inviolable truth—and that actions speak louder even than notes.