Politics and Music

Does anyone actually write about the interface between politics and music in this discussion group?

I guess, like a lot of political parties, it has been hijacked by those with vested interests. Apart from writing classical music I also write seriously, and quite politically, as an environmentalist/practical and theoretical philosopher. Perhaps a contentious argument that I put forward, as regards the ecological dilemma caused by and faced by mankind on this planet today, is that modern Western artists are, in a way, profoundly and collectively culpable:

In an age when the greatest beauty on earth, the whole living fabric of this planet, is being piecemeal devastated by 'corporation humanity' is it not rather perverse, mindless to be politely absorbed with creating endless secular realms of 'coffee-table aesthetics', or perpetual incantations to mythical deities also largely servicing human self-ingratiation?

The great revelation of Renaissance art, I would contend, was the first real invocation of a natural divinity, beauty, profundity invested freely in mankind and in living nature. Ultimately, this gave rise to the virtual credo of human affirmation - O what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason ... how like a god ...

But what sort of reason or faculty, what sort of god or angel, what creature so express or admirable would egoistically augment only its own numbers and expression, to the point of devastating, perhaps destroying the magnificent garden of its own genesis?

One might argue that the new Renaissance in art must forge the clear iconography of man, not as the epicenter of his own introverted, dismal, and doomed universe - but as the cultivator of symbiotic expression here on earth, allied to the collective desire for infinite expressive exploration?   

 

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  • Hi everyone,

    This is my 1st post here as I was admitted to this forum just last night.

    I think this is a perfectly good topic and I thank you Mark for starting it.

    Music is an extreamly powerful medium and whatever meaning (whether true or "hijacked") one really wants to attribute to it,

    they almost always can find a way (put they're spin on it).

    Even composers who attempt to keep they're music as absolute (music for music's sake) as possible need to make subjective decisions. For example, composer Tom Johnson still must make subjective decisions  as to what he will map his generated mathimatical sequences to...ie: instrumentation, track distribution, pitch (tonal space) ect...

    Back in graduate school (1984) it was suggested in our Composer's symposium by our Professor that we stay culturely and philosophically astute as possible. He recommended that we read Jeremy Rifkin's "Entropy". He told us that he trys to

    keep religion and politics out of his compositions as much as possible because he believed those subjects delude music's ability to transcend.

    "Apart from writing classical music I also write seriously"

    I think it's peculiar that you consider  classical music to be apart from what is serious.

    I consider a music that is built on centuries of intensive study and development to be quite serious.

    I understand that you believe it is the artist's duty to take a stand for the environment; fight " 'corporation humanity' ".

    As a pluralist I believe that making music that draws from different diverse cultures, eras, and poineers into new paradigms is what lifts us up as humans and affirms our humanity. Unfortunately, humans forget where they're abilities and sense of asthetics come from.

    It's quite clear as you have eliquently pionted out, man is not God.

    I'm going to venture into the impractical a little bit here to make a point.

    I see by your profile picture that you are not standing naked out in the forest with a handmade intrument.

    You evidently typed your post on a computer that uses elecricity that is primarily produced from coal.

    I've heard it said that the best thing we can do to save the environment is to kill ourselves.

    OK, pretty extreme right? So how do we determine what causes to allign ourselves/our music with??

    Politics is so blatantly convoluted and the muck is just getting deeper and deeper.

    You think that we are culpable as artists if we choose to not wade through all of that?

    Here, just as an example, google different pairings of these words and see if you can arrive at uncontradicted associations:

    rain forest/ Chevron/ Big oil/ Chavez/ Obama/ PetroBraz/ Joe Kennedy/ Democrats/ Republicans/ Alaskan pipeline//....and be sure to gather all tangents into one TRUE and CLEAR resolve to align with...

    ....Good Luck.....

    Mark, I absolutely love your finish -superb!!

     "as the cultivator of symbiotic expression here on earth, allied to the collective desire for infinite expressive exploration"  

    That - I can allign myself with!!

     

  • Thanks Bret,

    I am totally with you as regards the necessity of art to transcend the purely emotive/ephemeral etc., which of course encapsulates specific political causes. I'd hate to hear what would have happened to Beethoven's late string quartets if he had contrived to, or found it necessary to insert a politicized message (or even a calculated moral message.) What sort of travesty would it have been for Debussy or Chopin to directly infuse 'teleological/moral imperatives' into artistic expressions often celebrating the ephemeral as transcendentally evanescent, or as poetically tragic? But then Chopin's oft tragic art is much concerned with the deep remorse he felt for the plight of his Polish culture, its political freedom. And thus it is a shallow interpretation of his art that naively assumes that Chopin's romanticism is solely concerned with 'private matters of the heart'. 

    Similarly, Beethoven the strinq quartet writer was certainly elucidating an art residing in a spiritual world placed above all politics. But Beethoven the symphonist was an overt moral charger for certifiable moral/political causes - the Eroica and 9th. Symphonies certainly singing the case for democratic emancipation and egalitarian human empathy and solidarity. Even more so, Shostakovich, oft cryptically of necessity, and with far more grit/blood motivating his cause, was consistently grappling with questions of enormous and immediate moral and political momentum in his art. In fact, so focused is The Shos art on these gargantuan and very real moral struggles that he virtually found it impossible to write what many or most would consider to be 'civil, lyrical, and pretty' art. 

    I would certainly never wish to taint purist art with any political brush. But, when modern artists/musicians do make overt or oblique moral/political statements, I wish they could vaguely get into the 21st. Century - and, given a modicum of intellectual and moral depth, show themselves actually able to transcend pathetic populist mindsets - to grasp truly visionary causes. In this context, whilst I have greatly admired the music of both Messiaen and Penderecki - I find them, as moral agents, to be reprehensible agitators for ancient-world religious vision, and its conglomerated politics. In a different sense, when John Adams has written operas such as those concerned with Nixon, and with 9/1/11, I sense little more than an artist just latching onto topical issues as some contrived means to gain populist momentum for his art. But then Adams music, as a technical construct, really has no more depth or cogency than his moral presentations.

    It would be great to have one of the truly great composers of our age - say Lowell Liebermann, or one of the Finnish school - transcend coffee-table aesthetics, abstractions, and the eternal litanies of gratuitous anthropocentric expression. Not all, or most, just - one.

    Thanks for your post Bret.  



    Bret Saylor said:

    Hi everyone,

    This is my 1st post here as I was admitted to this forum just last night.

    I think this is a perfectly good topic and I thank you Mark for starting it.

    Music is an extreamly powerful medium and whatever meaning (whether true or "hijacked") one really wants to attribute to it,

    they almost always can find a way (put they're spin on it).

    Even composers who attempt to keep they're music as absolute (music for music's sake) as possible need to make subjective decisions. For example, composer Tom Johnson still must make subjective decisions  as to what he will map his generated mathimatical sequences to...ie: instrumentation, track distribution, pitch (tonal space) ect...

    Back in graduate school (1984) it was suggested in our Composer's symposium by our Professor that we stay culturely and philosophically astute as possible. He recommended that we read Jeremy Rifkin's "Entropy". He told us that he trys to

    keep religion and politics out of his compositions as much as possible because he believed those subjects delude music's ability to transcend.

    "Apart from writing classical music I also write seriously"

    I think it's peculiar that you consider  classical music to be apart from what is serious.

    I consider a music that is built on centuries of intensive study and development to be quite serious.

    I understand that you believe it is the artist's duty to take a stand for the environment; fight " 'corporation humanity' ".

    As a pluralist I believe that making music that draws from different diverse cultures, eras, and poineers into new paradigms is what lifts us up as humans and affirms our humanity. Unfortunately, humans forget where they're abilities and sense of asthetics come from.

    It's quite clear as you have eliquently pionted out, man is not God.

    I'm going to venture into the impractical a little bit here to make a point.

    I see by your profile picture that you are not standing naked out in the forest with a handmade intrument.

    You evidently typed your post on a computer that uses elecricity that is primarily produced from coal.

    I've heard it said that the best thing we can do to save the environment is to kill ourselves.

    OK, pretty extreme right? So how do we determine what causes to allign ourselves/our music with??

    Politics is so blatantly convoluted and the muck is just getting deeper and deeper.

    You think that we are culpable as artists if we choose to not wade through all of that?

    Here, just as an example, google different pairings of these words and see if you can arrive at uncontradicted associations:

    rain forest/ Chevron/ Big oil/ Chavez/ Obama/ PetroBraz/ Joe Kennedy/ Democrats/ Republicans/ Alaskan pipeline//....and be sure to gather all tangents into one TRUE and CLEAR resolve to align with...

    ....Good Luck.....

    Mark, I absolutely love your finish -superb!!

     "as the cultivator of symbiotic expression here on earth, allied to the collective desire for infinite expressive exploration"  

    That - I can allign myself with!!

     

    Politics and Music
    Does anyone actually write about the interface between politics and music in this discussion group? I guess, like a lot of political parties, it has…
  • Hi Fredrick,

    I see your point, but I am not perhaps as cynical. Rachmaninov seemed to give up on composition, later in life - not because he could no longer have profited, but rather because, even like Debussy, he felts the winds of harsh aesthetic change passing him by. Ravel feigned to be quite clinical as regards the process of composition - but does Ondine sound like anything other than an exquisite, passionate outpouring.

    And, as to Shostakovich - of course an implicit death threat will likely moderate 'revolutionary aesthetics'. Moreover, Shos vacillated a lot in his attitude and moral/political expression - I love the his agitrop Finale to Symphony 2, as well as the revolutionary 'formalism' of 4, but also see greater majesty in his 'moderated' 5th. and 11th. Symphonies, whilst the outpouring of post-Stalin furore in the first and second movements of the 10th. - well, I find that expression cathartic, overwhelming. It certainly wasn't about money, or politic abidance there.

    Nonetheless, I agree that a lot of great art is facilitated by financial inducement. Interestingly, Rach may have been plying a bit of facetiousness when asked about his C# Minor Prelude - rather a contrived crowd-pleaser compared to his truly great works. The Diagilev thing is really interesting - a lot of decadence there, but Stravinsky was running hot when he had the perfect, conducive forum in which to create his wild, kaleidoscopic art. And what happened when the forum disappeared, and Stravinsky felt he had exhausted the potential of an art that tantalisingly played deconstructive havoc with the whole developed syntax of the Western musical language? He never really wrote anything of such momentous import - again.

    Thanks for the ideological challenge Fredrick. I'm working on a rather modernist 5-part fugue at the moment, and wish I had a third of Shostakovich's aptitude - truly, truly scary. Amongst living composers, whom do you admire the most?

    Mark Nicol.


    Fredrick zinos said:

    On the other hand, I suppose it could be argued that what we now see as transcendent music, music that is so "lofty" that it slips the surly bonds of politics, commerce and the mundane were in fact brought into existence for reasons of politics,commerce and the mundane. The last three miraculous, from our point of view, symphonies of Mozart were written for a subscription series for the next season, as is true of just about everything he wrote. Perhaps the whole experience of this type of creative impetus is encapsulated by Rachmoninov's response to the question "what inspired you to compose the prelude in C# minor?" His response: "A $500.00 advance from my publisher."

    Even when money, which concentrates the mind so wonderfully, is not the primary muse, other factors may be. Possibly one of the better, or least most performed symphonies of the 20th century, Shostakovitch #5, is a bending of the knee, but not the will, to Stalin-style politics, though as is well known, Stalin does not win this argument. None the less the retrenching of Shostakovitchs' musical thought after the 4th symphony can not be ignored. 

    Whether its the roman or lutherian church, or Prince Esterhazy, or Louis XV and XVI, or Diagilev,  the fact is that a great deal of music that transports us beyond our own myopic view of the cosmos is simply the work product of a promised paycheck and the security that more may follow.

    Moreover, we see composition contests that while offering some monetary reward, pride themselves on trumpeting some cause or other. The compositions that result seem predictably and uniformly squalid.

     

      

  • Fredrick,

    certainly agreed as far as those latter works of Stravinsky are concerned, but, for me, apart from perhaps the Symphony of Winds, none of them really match up to  the aesthetic levels cumulatively raised in the Fireworks/Firebird/Petrushka/Rite set, where the guy was literally working white hot and then hotter. (Interestingly, by the end of the Rite you can hear the iconoclastic ideas starting to 'dry up', as the composer starts to rely much upon pure 'motor rhythms' to keep the whole thing going. I don't think the sudden shift to entirely new aesthetics was in any way coincidental, Stravinsky was extremely astute and new that the deconstructive game was up - perhaps?)

    Some of us are trying our best to write music of lasting substance, but part of the discernment process involved in improving the technical and aesthetic prowess of one's own works necessarily involves analayzing and critiquing the greatest works or works by the greatest composers. Therein, as much as I love Mahler, I have to critique as well as analyse his works - just in order to assimilate, where possible, the best from him - and not just the slavish style. Interestingly, in this context as regards analyzing and critiquing great composers go, I would say that as a symphonist Brahms never put a foot wrong - because he was essentially a classicist and technical perfectionist. Mahler, to me, produced a lot of pretty botchy canvases - like the 3rd. 1st. Movement, magnificent in raw aesthetic power and invention, but 'inefficient' in the use of the canvas - sometimes very wayward in harmonic architecture - something that Brahms never allowed to happen. But could Brahms have ever produced the 1st. Movement to Mahler's 9th., or Das Lied, or the 1st. Movement to the the 10th., when, in my opinion, Mahler finally got it all right? Still, I love a lot of the Brahms symphonic movements, am in awe of of his mastery over every domain of technical construction - especially harmonic architecture/footing. 

    Don't be so harsh on the guys in the forum here, Fredrick - so long they are earnestly trying, which I certainly am. When I was much younger I gave up on composing, only because I thought it was the right thing to do - I thought I had insufficient technical capacity, and, worse, nothing to say. Things changed dramatically some ten years ago, and a lot of it I attribute to 'constant critical listening'.

    Most of the modern composer names you have mentioned I have listened to, but will look up the others and see what I can learn, and appreciate. Please listen to Lowell Liebermann, (if you haven't). In technical terms, at least, he is 4 times the composer of a Glass, Adams, Reich, or Part. And he is one of your countrymen, unlike me, but one who deserves much, much more recognition. The Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg is a magnificent work, although that may have been his 'one day in the sun'. The Finnish school, to me stands high at the moment.

    Thanks for a challenging post Fredrick, ah Boulez - Pli Selon Pli - the most extravagantly ugly woman attired in the most voluptuously seductive dress. Great, great orchestrator Boulez - but he had/has almost a Taliban like addiction to serialism. I don't think Schoenberg ever took the theory that seriously. 

  • Bob,

    I suppose I am agitating for serious musicians to insinuate some truly serious philosophical thought, hopefully some visionary ideological iconography in their art - if, and when, the art is intended to be 'thought-provoking' rather than an end in itself. I am dismayed that I witness nothing of this coming from any of the various schools of modern composers. Generically speaking, they either latch on to the shallow ideological mainstream of modernist liberal thought - i.e. cultural egalitarianism and anthropocentric humanitarianism, or they delve back into the ideological ancient world to write a Mass, a Requiem - another witless ode to the political compact forged between the ancient priest and the autocrat.

    Mark.



    Bob Porter said:

    I, also, admire the extreme knowledge base that is evident here. Fortunately for them, I will never be confused with those folks.

    For the most part I don't see how a composer can avoid being influenced by their environment. If you have strong nationalistic leanings, you will write accordingly. And as for a paycheck? I suppose a commission might make you be more deliberate in your work. It could also make you do things you might not like to do, just to satisfy the employer. How much do you compromise yourself just for the money?

    Can you afford not to?

    Or are you good enough to write great music no matter what the constraints?

    Politics and Music
    Does anyone actually write about the interface between politics and music in this discussion group? I guess, like a lot of political parties, it has…
  • Bob,

    we seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent. Good composers invariably analyse and analyse what other good composers do/have done. It is essential to the process of learning - acquiring technical and, indeed, aesthetic skills.(The extreme studiousness of Bach is the greatest example). There are no real exceptions to this rule. Generically speaking, only vain and inept 'composers' fail to, or refuse to analyse other music, and/or fail to make the distinction between technical and aesthetic pedigrees. And the generically vain and inept composer does this for obvious reasons.

    I am earnestly trying to be the best composer I can, not just for reasons of vanity - but, primarily, so that I can write music that I would listen to - if I were not me. And, necessarily, this means learning from composers who have written, in my estimation, great works. But, and this is the point that is critical, learning from masters cannot involve the slavish idolatry that leads to the apprentice assuming the status of the perennial student, producing only the art of pastiche.

    In earnest conversations with some good composers/conductors whom I respect, there is an ability and necessity to actually recognize faults in the works of masters, even inasmuch as the fault may constitute a simple 'running out of ideas', a failure of intellectual or of moral energy. Whilst doing Honors studies in composition under Graeme Koehne in Adelaide, Graeme pointed out that the difference between my compositions, and those of his other students, was essentially that one where I didn't run out of ideas, whereas they did. Not that one would want to rest upon those small laurels.

    In analysis of my own works I have a consistent problem with 'linear development', certainly not as a result of lack of ideas, but because of the problem I have with sticking to the development of a continuous motivic/polyphonic thread, without resorting to 'sectional composition'. This fault becomes obvious where I write massive works, whereas it does not present in miniatures. But we have to work with our positives, make the least of our negatives - or improve as best we can. Stravinsky's best art is very much sectional, built upon contrast and juxtapositions not upon linear polyphonic development. But, to be successful at that aesthetic, and at that level, one has to command true inspirational genius.

    In my analysis of Tallis, Monteverdi, Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven etc., etc., I never, ever think - 'I wish they had done this instead', even if I feel that the 'canvas is imperfect'. Those imperfections in the 'ideal abstract' are, indeed, the very things that make that canvas, idiosyncratically speaking, true Tallis, Moteverdi, or Messiaen, or Ligeti. But if one cannot discern faults in the canvas, (and sometimes there are truly, arguably none - just as Ravel said of Debussy's L'Apres Midi D'un Faun), then one is simply not a discerning and intelligent listener, and unlikely to become an intelligent composer.

    In the final analysis the notion of a 'competition to assert pedigree' is pointless, ugly, but so is the egalitarian notion that we should accept all expressions as equal, and thus create an actual disincentive for aspirational expression.

    Mark.

  • I've heard it said that the best thing we can do to save the environment is to kill ourselves

    Whoever said that is a fool!

    The environment was here long before us and will be here long after us. Those who are worried about the environment are really worried about the future of intelligent life forms, ie. themselves.

    This is not to say that we shouldn't be careful and wise in managing the planet's resources. But let's not pretend we're worried about anything but our own skins.

  • Dear Fredrick,

    I am so glad that someone who deserves so much respect in this forum as a composer has spoken up for the glaring, greater moral issue challenging the modern human conscience. Here, in Australia, we have literally or virtually lost the great bulk of our marvelous marsupial life - just in the short two centuries since white settlement, with the concomitant advent of massive land clearance, and the unwitting introduction of devastating feral predators - cats, foxes, dogs.

    For 10 years I owned a beautiful 400 acre patch of land in south-eastern South Australia, and I had some of the most exquisite thrills of my life there, mainly at night - when the wildlife really comes out. I watched a family of 7 sugar gliders glide straight towards me, had one very wet night where hundreds, thousands of large frogs came out of the ground, was swooped by an owl a night after scaring him off preying upon the endangered gliders, had emus laying giant blue-green eggs in my scrub, had swans set up nests, was kicked in the stomach by a wallaby whom I carefully disentangled from under my car, saw a giant owl having a go at two galahs, and was serenaded by a cacophony of frogs in the swamp, and on another day by a huge flock of swallows flying thousands of feet up. 

    Yes, I write music, very seriously - and art is very precious to me. But the beauty of life on earth is far, far more. The pain of watching it being piecemeal devastated has infused my life with pain, and anger, ever since I was 10 years old. I don't instill environmentalist messages directly in my music at all. I have written 3 books on environmentalism/human cultural evolution/political philosophy - there I do my most important work, foul as politicking may be. 

    This initial post, though, was started with the view to prompting perhaps some serious artists to get off the putrid pap of anthropocentric moral concerns, viz a viz the focus of artistic expression. The moral consciousness of mankind certainly doesn't 'need' another theist Mass, or endless opuses of indulgent coffee-table muzak. Sure, in both instances the market is surely there, religious mythologism and secular hedonism being two of the great repasts of the egocentric human being. But, perhaps if the profound artist sought to, in a new-Renaissance way, celebrate and cherish the innate divinity of life on earth then we would be producing an art of far greater moral momentum, and an art infused with real moral intelligence, dignity, integrity, and hope.

    Mark Nicol.

  • Fredrick, I am not against conservation or 'greeness', of course not. But the planet will change constantly over the ages.

    The ice caps have been melting for 14,000 years I believe. Once there was so much ice tied up in the northern cap that there was much dry land between England and France for example.

    The issue is not climate change per se, but how nations deal with it. Our ancestors were hunter gatherers and if their environment became inhospitable, they moved. Now we cannot move because there is already somebody there. The danger we face is war. War over resources and war over territory. We cannot halt the planet's natural cycles but we can (in principal) try to manage the distribution of land and resources. 

    Fredrick zinos said:

    Michael, I used to hold that same view that you expressed so well, above. However, I now have grand children and that colors my view about why we should exercise more than self-interest stewardship over the environment. We also have a second home up in the Sierra mountains where things like global warming are not an abstraction announced by a newscaster on a 55" television set. Environmental impact out in the woods is real, and with discernable features. Trees die. Streams dry up. There are no squirrles. The deer poopulation is way down. Some species of birds are notable by their absence and even the coyotes are gone. I grew up with these critters and I miss them.

     While I am now of an age when I beleive that the negative effects of environmental neglegance   will not directly affect me any more than it has already, I am quite sure that when my grand daughters are may age their lives may not be as pleasant.

  • Hey Raymond,

    a classic existentialist/nihilistic attitude - perfectly accommodating to lazy and egocentric habits. And hey, in my 'environmentalist politicking' I personally have no interest, nor time to waste in saving or enlightening the happily lazy and egocentric. My preference is just to realign the trajectory of the bulldozer. Nonetheless, if you write some nice music - that is a real gift that you bestow. And I wouldn't enjoy it any the less at all, just because you may be an actual political enemy.

    An ugly business politics, and getting necessarily uglier every day. So, true, we can use art/music as a sedative, an intoxicant, a pure hedonist indulgence if we want. But, hey, that's called entertainment - not art.

    Mark. 

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