Wednesday, February 25, 2015

John Luther Adams on Music and Politics

Pulitzer-prizewinning composer John Luther Adams has written a substantial essay for Slate, here. You should go read the whole thing. I suspect that my politics differs from Mr. Adams', but I very much appreciate his views on the relationship between politics and music:
As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself. If my work doesn’t function powerfully as music, then all the poetic program notes and extra-musical justifications in the world mean nothing. When I’m true to the music, when I let the music be whatever it wants to be, then everything else—including any social or political meaning—will follow.
From the titles of my works—songbirdsongsIn the White Silenceor Become Oceanit’s clear that I draw inspiration from the world around me. But when I enter my studio, I do so with the hope of leaving the world behind, at least for a while. Yet it’s impossible to sustain that state of grace for long. Inevitably, thoughts intrude: Sometimes I think about people, places, and experiences in my life. Sometimes I think about the larger state of the world, and the uncertain future of humanity. Even so, I’m not interested in sending messages or telling stories with music. And although I used to paint musical landscapes, that no longer interests me either. The truth is, I’m no longer interested in making music about anything.
These are very well-said and well thought-out sentiments about the nature of music and art. A rather cruder version of this view would be to say that a serious musician does not write musical propaganda. Or, when forced to by circumstances (as perhaps Shostakovich was under Stalin) he still tries to make it work as a piece of music, or make it ironic in some way. Music can be about something, but it doesn't need to be and the best music tends not to be.

Here is another fairly profound thought from the essay:
It’s only through the presence, awareness, and creative engagement of the listener that the music is complete.
This resonates with the Rilkian view that artists are witnesses to nature and the world and, in turn, listeners are witnesses to the beauty of art. A piece of music never played, never performed is like a poem unread or nature unseen and unfelt.

I read the essay to the end wondering if Mr. Adams' convictions about anthropogenic climate change might be stated clearly, but they only appear in one brief paragraph:
A plastic bottle among the rocks reminds me that there are vast islands of garbage drifting far out at sea. A strong gust of wind reminds me of the increasingly capricious weather, and of the storms that lash this and other shores with growing ferocity. The burning sunlight reminds me of melting tundra and expanding deserts, of diminishing polar ice and rising seas all over the earth.
As far as I can determine, all of these are half-truths (yes, seven billion people do throw a lot of plastic away, but no, polar ice is not diminishing and tundra does not actually "melt" and the weather is not increasingly capricious), held as true in a kind of religious manner by a large number of people. I am always reminded of that wonderful quote from Edward Gibbon:
“The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
But while our opinions on these matters may differ, I am deeply reassured by Mr. Adams' understanding of priorities and his true role. Art must indeed be itself and when it is, it will last far longer than music written as some passing piece of propaganda for whatever political purpose.

Let's listen to some music by Mr. Adams. Here is Dark Waves (2007) for orchestra and electronics:

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