Music as Politics

The connections between music and politics are making waves. In a time of much turmoil in the world, there are those in the music world that demand musicians take political stances. There are also those that believe music stands apart, as a message of peace, love, and hope, and should not enter specifically into politics.

Recently, this has come to the fore with the conflicts in Venezuela. A concert was given by the Youth Orchestra of Lara on February 12th, the same day that violent protests erupted. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the ensemble, and his decision to do so has caused heavy discussions in musical circles. Dudamel has been asked in an open letter by Gabriela Montero to stand with the Venezuelan people against the current regime. Dudamel responded that the concert was about "peace, love, and unity," and that the commemoration of February 12th as the beginning of the National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras was not about supporting a regime, but about supporting those ideas.

I leave the debate on the political implications to those with a finer knowledge of political science than myself. There are those that would say not protesting means tacit agreement, that silence is the same as agreeing. I have a feeling certain artists, including those that have lived through major persecution, would disagree. My thoughts turn to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, who lived in a time when Stalin threatened their very lives if they wrote pieces deemed improper. In Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, Ross spends an entire chapter on discussing the difficulties in creating music behind the iron curtain, and discusses how Prokofiev had friends in the theater and music world disappearing around him, and he feared for his very life. And yet Gabriel Prokofiev, in his incredibly skewed look at contemporary music, seemed to ignore those constraints placed upon his grandfather, and focused on all the beautiful, "traditional" music that Sergei Prokofiev created. Gabriel also ignored the amount of innovation that Sergei attempted to put in his compositions while working under serious constraints. 

 Many different examples of the coincidence of music and politics are available throughout history. Jennie Wood wrote a brief article outlining three different examples following the imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot--Verdi's Nabucco, the rise of punk music in politics in America and the creation of Rock the Vote, and the group Rage Against the Machine. These are just three examples, one from the Romantic period, and two from modern perspectives, of musicians using their art for political ends. Matthew Shaftel makes strong arguments throughout his paper on Stephen Foster, showing the changes Foster made over time as he became more aware of the horrors of slavery. His style changed from one of Irish/Anglo influenced songs performed in black-face, to more traditional minstrelsy songs, to more culturally aware music, and finally to the later period of anti-slavery songs. Another great American folk musician, sadly recently deceased, Pete Seeger, wrote many political songs, starting with his involvement with the Young Communist League, to anti-WWII songs, Vietnam protest songs, and continued activism through his entire life.

As art music musicians, there's sometimes a Romantic ideal that we should hold ourselves aloof from these conflicts, that somehow our music serves a higher purpose above such base political leanings. However, this ignores important aspects of who we are as humans. All our actions are defined by our experiences, past, present, and future. Our experiences are in part dictated by the society and environment in which we are a direct part. For me to claim my music has nothing to do with society is to say that I have nothing to do with society. At Opera Veritatis, Joseph Jones talks about the effects of musical snobbery. He points to the usual suspects, including conventions like concert halls, clapping, talking, etc. To me these arguments are base, nothing more than symptoms of Jones' first statements--classical musicians holding themselves aloof from society. Jones goes on to defend some ideas of snobbery, and shows the double edged sword that is the attack on the establishment--ideas I agree with. The concert hall isn't the problem. Neither is the idea of quiet during the music. The problem is instead linked to a perception, a preconception about classical music. It's an idea, held generally by society, that classical musician are not a part of society, but held above it. Some classical musicians believe this. Some believe that this is caused directly by the music, specifically by difficult, complex, atonal works. I could not disagree more. It's about this poisonous perception held by society, and perpetuated by the fear mongers. "Classical music is dying!" is the rallying cry for changing the music, but not the perception.

We are all linked to society, which is linked to political ideas and our environment. When Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko spoke on being Putin supporters, connections were made to specific policies of Putin's regime. Writer's asked Netrebko and co. to publicly state their ideas on those various policies, in particular Putin's deplorable positions on homosexuality. Gidon Kremer, Daniel Barenboim, and Martha Agerich performed a concert in protest of Putin, and those that showed support for him. There was a call to boycott the Metropolitan Opera's production of Eugene Onegin because of the participation of Gergiev and Netrebko. There was an online petition to dedicate the opening to the LGBT community. The Met of course stated that because their ideals are artistic, they wouldn't make political statements. Never mind the connections between the plot of Eugene Onegin and Tchaikovsky's own life, especially his homosexuality and all the possible dire repercussions his personal life could have had on his public life. Tatyana, a young woman, meets Eugene Onegin and falls madly in love. She writes a letter to him, and he comes to her and tells her he's a man that cannot easily love, he can only offer brotherly affection in return, and that Tatyana should not be so open about her feelings. Is Tchaikovsky Tatyana, wanting to scream his love only to be admonished? Or is he Onegin, pressing his male lovers that they cannot be together because of societal constraints?

So never mind that, when the opera is taken in context of the composer and the time it was written, that it has political ideals attached to it. Never mind that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual and could not even begin to have even fulfilling private relationships for fear of the repercussions. By keeping to this Romantic ideal, holding classical music aloof, we lose possible interpretations of a work that can add depth.


My own music is marked by the influence of society and my views of the world around me. Whether or not I am seeking to make a direct political statement, which I often do, or whether I am writing a piece of "absolute music," from a completely formalist approach, my experiences influence the work. Every piece of music I hear, every article, scholarly journal, book, or blog I read, and every movie, tv show, cartoon, or live stream influences me, and therefore my music.

Yesterday, Independence Square in Kyiv was attacked by police and pro-government forces. There had been a long standing protest in the square, led by Euromnaida, formed by the minority coalition of the government. The original conflict was between a pro-EU stance vs. a pro-Russia stance, an economic fight over which trade union to join. However, as time went on, it became more apparent that the fight had become about general rights, freedom, and a group of people feeling their voices and views were not being heard. What started as peaceful protests grew in size. The Ukrainian government's ties to Russia were strengthened, and the actions of the government and police are undoubtedly being, at the very least, influenced by Putin's ideas, if not Putin's regime. Police cracked down on the protests, leading to violence from the protesters (though there is, of course, debate on who started the violence). All this exploded yesterday as the protesters refused to leave the square, military forces began throwing incendiaries into the tents, lighting many on fire, and police and pro-government thugs moved into the square. There have been multiple deaths, mainly in the protesters, and also major targeting of journalists, even those outside the direct conflict. Security operations have begun cracking down all over the Ukraine (in Ukrainian, so you'll have to translate). I watched the live feed as the crackdown happened, horrified by what I saw. Just before the crackdown began, Ukrainian clergy sung a chant of peace. There are various songs written for, adapted, and used by the Euromaidan movement.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies stated
A composer’s job is to bear witness...their contact with music has made them react, think, and development them with a potential which is something much much greater than becoming a mere consumer. In this respect serious music of all kinds is dangerous. It persuades people to not be a mere consumer. And therefore under present circumstances, it must be castrated, it if isn’t already tending that way.-- LINK
This is a view I hold to as well. Music, as all art, exists not in isolation, but as a series of mirrors. The quote adapted from Shakespeare is that "Art holds a mirror to nature." The real quote is from Hamlet, spoken by Hamlet to the troupe about to perform the play in front of his step-father. The purpose of the play was to get his uncle/step-father to react, to prove that he had, in fact, killed his father and usurped the throne:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
Joseph Campbell expounds on the quote in his book The Power of Myth:
Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.

The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novalis said, 'The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.--Power of Myth, pg. 68
And that  is the truth of the matter. Art exists as not a single mirror to nature, but as a series of mirrors, reflecting the creator, society, the observer, the observers view of society, and on and on through various repetitions, recursions, refraction, and rarefaction.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies stated in the above linked talk that his Third String Quartet (in the Naxos Series) directly shows his rage toward the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He himself was in the forefront of protests in London, leading the march. A political stance by a sometimes controversial composer, a man who anecdotes say was eating a swan when the messengers from the Queen came to tell him he had been placed as The Queen's Composer (eating swan is illegal in England, as they are owned by the crown).

Are these political and social actions those of a man sitting in an Ivory Tower, working on music that is apart from society? Or is the music just what Davies proposes at the end of his talk: dangerous. Dangerous to the established commercial enterprises, dangerous because difficult music requires thought, and thought is exactly what some people do not want from the masses.


In Seth Godin's manifesto on education in America, Stop Stealing Dreams, he breaks down the history of the American school system well, dating from Horace Mann going to Prussia and adapting the system, and the idea that commercial enterprises were all for the common school because it taught (teaches) students to listen and respond to orders. The same can be said in the hierarchical structures of the large performing bodies--orchestras, bands, and choirs essentially must work together and under a unified artistic vision, normally the conductor's, to create a piece. As such musicians are taught to follow orders in those situations. At the same time, musicians are constantly asked to flex their muscles, make creative interpretations, and pursue their own artistic merits. This manifests itself particularly in chamber and solo performance. Music all at once serves the grand purpose--teaching students to follow orders--and fights against it, giving autonomy and creativity to the students. Because instrumental music is not as straight-forward as a pop song in its interpretation, it also does the same for the audience--following directions in the formal aspects of the experience in the concert hall, but stimulating the brain to make its own cognitive and artistic leaps, sometimes with guidance provided by a talk or program notes, sometimes without it.

Therefore, the very creation of classical music is, in some fashion, political. It functions outside commercial norms, and can be seen as dangerous to some schools of thought on the purpose of education, and the freedom of society. It also functions within the framework, particularly in the 6th-12th grade setting in America where the majority of music education is in large groups led by a single conductor. Students learn to work together and function as a societal subgroup, but ownership of the interpretation is normally reserved for the conductor--thus a struggle between an idealized socialistic interpretation (workers joining together for a common goal) vs. the capitalistic ideal of ownership (only one person can "own" the interpretation for the group--the "workers," in this case the musicians, do not define the interpretation). Even in solo and chamber interpretations, young students can fall into the habit of copying a recording, taking someone else's interpretation of the music rather than their own. How many young trombonists grow up thinking the proper interpretation of the Grondahl Concerto is the one performed by Christian Lindberg? Fights erupt over the definitive recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas--is it Schnabel, Barenboim, or Brendel?

Or, is the best interpretation your own?


Popular music and politics can be traced through so many avenues. Some have been mentioned above--minstrelsy and folk movements in Stephen Foster and Pete Seeger; the punk movement; and Pussy Riot. The metal genres of Scandinavia also have a rich political history, most famously coming to the fore in the black metal scene in Norway. There are numerous documentaries of the groups involved--specifically Burzum and Mayhem. This documentary on Burzum is one of my favourites as it shows how the music itself, which was grounded basically in a youth culture, lashing out against societal norms by using the most shocking lyrics and imagery possible, got turned into a mass media frenzy on Satanism and destruction. It also documents the influence of one person, Varge Vikernes, and how he was able to influence fans, and even cause a string of copy-cat church burnings by people that were not truly Satanists, and only fans of Burzum because of the anti-establishment stances.

When I pitched by Fulbright, I went in knowing these facts, but I had a major question--was it really the influence of just a couple people that changed the history of metal in Norway? Sweden didn't have the same outbreak of violence. Remember, first, that this happened before the internet information age--bands became well known in their small scene through the trading of demo tapes, fanzines, and local music stores and clubs. Burzum was known in Sweden, but not embraced the same way, while Swedish groups such as At The Gates, In Flames, and Meshuggah were formed in the late 80s and early 90s, and had more popularity in Sweden. Norwegian and Swedish groups could trace common ancestry, to the English group Venom, the Swedish group Bathory, and of course to early metal group such as Black Sabbath. The lyric characteristics are similar, focusing on occult and Satanic imagery, death, pestilence, and metaphors for what the groups saw as corrupt groups (often Christianity, the government, and commercial society).

Yet Sweden kept it all in their music. My interview with Anders Björler was particularly enlightening. As a member of At The Gates, an early Swedish Death Metal group, he had been a part of the scene from the beginning. He spoke with some disdain about Varge Vikernes, and viewed the outward show of violence toward society as deplorable. As I've gone to shows, and met more death metal musicians here in Stockholm, I see the same ideas. There's an angst, an anti-establishment feeling, and yet the shows are full of happiness, head banging, and some of the best mosh-pit etiquette I've ever seen. There's a respect for each other, a communal experience of an obvious niche crowd, somewhat alienated from society, that warms my heart. The concerts remind me so much of classical concerts, with their specific traditions, rules, behaviors, and even dress. Metal musicians are also snobs, able to rattle off band after band, since songs from local groups I've never encountered, and even give the oddly dressed fellow a bit of a sideways glance--I don't own the standard accoutrement of metal, the leather jacket with band patches, the chains, or the the tight pants, so I go to concerts in my standard dress of jeans, a tshirt, and a plain hoody. I do, however, have the obligatory long hair and beard.

And yet, after just a couple concerts, I started having conversations with audience members. They're a welcoming group, understanding that if you've wandered into the club, and you're obviously paying attention to the music, drinking, and enjoying yourself, than you are one of them. There is, after all, nothing wrong with a bit of elitism. When I ask questions about metal, they assume I know the history, that if they reference Bathory, I will know the reference. Or when various audience members in the know start calling for covers of obscure songs by bands I've never heard of, that I'll accept that cover as readily as I'd accept a new song. The traditions can be a barrier, but only to those that are afraid of different traditions, refuse traditions, refuse change, and generally refuse to be met on any ground but their own.

The music is politically charged, the musicians have their own opinions, spouting what commercial companies and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would both term as "dangerous" music; music that doesn't fit within the societal norms. Even if the lyrics weren't anti-establishment, it'd be inherently political by standing musically apart from what is deemed acceptable by society. Even through inaction, a group is political, just by creating music that is individualistic.


By now, I hope all of you reading this post have seen my viewpoint on music and politics as being linked, in the same way that all people are included in society, even if that inclusion is by exclusion. A stance is a stance; for, against, abstaining, redirecting, true, or false.

And, perhaps one of the biggest problems we're having in classical music today is that we try, try ever so hard, to not have a stance, to remain aloof, to take this Romantic ideal that we are somehow above society. This is not reflected in the music. It is only somewhat reflected in the traditions--I do not hold to beliefs that a raised stage is a physical symbol of a separation between performers and audience. It is a practical matter of sight lines. I do not believe that the idea of having a traditional garb to go to the symphony is the issue, though the social contexts of that garb being of the upper class is a problem. I do take issue with the perception that one must dress a certain way to attend any event--I've been to the NY Phil in a tux, and to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a t-shirt. I still don't own a band t-shirt nor a leather jacket, yet still go to metal shows.

Are we going to let common (mis)conceptions rule our decisions to change tradition? Or, perhaps, we could instead fight against the (mis)conception? Or is it just easier to change ourselves to what society thinks it wants, than to provide society what we believe it needs?

I asked the same question in regards to post-secondary education. The troubles I see in academia--bloating of administration; loss of full-time positions; the push for low-paid, part-time, unprotected workers (adjuncts) to take over teaching--as symptoms of a fundamental switch in the philosophy of post-secondary education. The students are now consumers, which means they dictate what is being provided. A student survey can get an adjunct fired, even if the student lied on the survey. University sanctioned social events demand more money the expanding classrooms. Larger classes are ok, as long as there is more study space for students to socialize.

What is the purpose, then, of post-secondary education?

And do the consumers know what they're buying?

Curators serve a valuable purpose in examining not just what the target group may want, but also providing what the curator believes needs to be included. Professors and administrators are curators in academia--but, to my mind, only one of those two groups is actively curating; the other is pandering, hoping to stay relevant with the new, hip generation, by giving them what they want. It's a symptom of another deep issue; the commercialization of education. When education becomes not about the mission, but about money, the where does the mission fall?

So, two questions: what is the mission?; and how does the mission related to the current commercialized environment?

These two questions are also important in classical musical establishments.


Those two questions are inherently political. As soon as we delve into the domain of human values, we move directly into politics. Political parties are manifestations of the ideals of various groups. In a democracy, these groups vie for power based on popular opinion. In the American two party system, we see groups moving back and forth, pandering to different bases, changing their views, and telling people what they want to here. In Kansas, a recent bill was pushed that would have enabled discrimination of public and private services to homosexual couples by people who held a religious belief against homosexuality. The bill, of course, stalled and was thrown out. It was not written by anyone in Kansas, but by a think-tank group that is proposing similar bills all over the US. Even if the bill would have been enacted, it never would have stood against an appeal, as similar cases have lost throughout the US. But, by proposing the vote, certain politicians from conservative areas have solidified their standing with their conservative constituents. They fought the good fight, and lost. This is the essence of pandering--the officials didn't know what was in it before sending it off, they didn't really care, all they cared about was the fact that they knew it would please a base group, which would lead to re-election, and continuing to have their place of power.


Classical music, and its representative organizations, are inherently political. This is because the music is tied to society, affects specific individuals, who place the music within their own frame of context, influenced by their knowledge and past experiences, and then experience the music as a personal event based upon their own ideas, ideals, and morals. The same is true of groups--whether or not the Met dedicated their opening to the LGBT community or not, or even if they had refused to answer, their reaction would have been political in nature. Their answer as it stands, is political in nature--by saying you're not political, you're taking a political stance.

Saying you're outside society, does not mean that you are.

And, perhaps, that leads to some of the deepest issues some classical music groups are having. I've said often and repeatedly that I write music based in society. I've stated that my audience, the final critic of my piece, is me. That is 100% true. As I write music, I can only hope to show myself in my music, my place in society, and the ideas I wish to expound upon. By focusing on the Other, an outside personage, I can only hope to portray a partial picture--complete understanding of another person is something that is nearly impossible.

But even though my work is mediated always through myself, it does not mean that I somehow hold it outside society. My music is inherently a part of society because I am a part of society. My music is inherently political because I have specific ideals and morals that can enter my work either consciously or subconsciously. I am not the titular anti-protaganist in [Untitled] at the beginning, saying my music is about nothing. I'm the composer who, by the end, has realized that even by striving to be absolute, he is influenced by his environment, surroundings, and society. Just because I do not set out to write a piece of music that has a distinct story, does not mean the music will not tell a story.

Because, for each individual, the music will have a slightly different meaning, as understood through their experiences and knowledge.

That is my ultimate philosophy on music-there is no inherent story in instrumental music, but something constructed through experiences, some shared throughout societies (local and global), traditions, and personal ideals. All music can be political, all arts groups are political, and the greatest transgression we're making isn't in the music itself, but in the preconception that, somehow, the arts are outside society. It's not the concert that alienates people, it's our own minds.


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