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Politics and Music

Written: November 21, 2005

About a week ago, I attended the second of a now-annual concert called National Insecurity, a concert of music written, more or less, in protest of the Bush administration. Despite some kickass music, this concert brought to the fore my discomfort with/misgivings about politically motivated music, from standpoints personal, practical, and aesthetic.

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First of all, the personal. I am constitutionally hostile to anybody or anything that tells me what I should think. By the same token, I feel extremely uncomfortable telling somebody else what they should think. Yes, there are a lot of things I’m angry about with today’s political climate. But it feels both arrogant and juvenile to tell you that you should feel the same way I do about some issue.

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Then the practical. I feel that, as a vehicle for protest, purely instrumental music is completely ineffective, as, without a comprehensible text, any political element is provided only by context the composer provides. To illustrate, let’s say I write a piece, call it Music for four cellos, and in the program notes I provide purely technical information, the minutiae of the piece’s musical structure. A few years later I can take that same piece, rename it Toilet Bowl Bible, and in the program notes I claim that the piece is a condemnation of torture. Yet, I would argue, the people who hear it as Music for four cellos and those who hear it as Toilet Bowl Bible will come away with completely different impressions of what the music means(1).

If that’s true, then whatever element of protest there is is not present in the music, but in the lens through which I tell you to interpret it, a completely untenable position. How can I say that Toilet Bowl Bible is about something that wasn’t apprehendable when it was named Music for Four Cellos?

Obviously, if text is involved, some element of protest can be made fairly evident, in which case my issue becomes personal (as above).

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Aesthetically, I feel that a piece of art that is only about one thing is…well…kinda boring. I’m reminded of Tolkien’s hatred of interpretations of LOTR as allegory; it is a disservice and demeaning to assume that a work of art has only one meaning. I would argue that, as well, it is shallow to create a work of art that has only one meaning.

As well, assigning making a political statement out of a piece of art makes said art really about its creator(2), which is fairly presumptuous.

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I feel that best chance a politically motivated piece of art has at being worthwhile is as an extension of a historical document, a means of bearing witness rather than an expression of outrage.

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That said, I have begun work on a fairly politically charged piece. I hope to avoid these pitfalls by using texts that are as emotionally neutral and clinical in tone as possible, whose vehemence is provided only by a context from which I will have almost completely divorced them, and by providing no insight into my intentions in the notes I provide to the audience, other than the texts themselves. We’ll see how well it works when Cocktail is performed, and go from there.

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(1) Depending on your definition of ‘means'(a).

(a) Assuming that music can mean anything at all, whatever your definition.

(2) One can claim this about all art, but I would argue there’s a difference between a work being infused with some aspect/spirit of its creator and a work being about its creator.