Thursday, October 13, 2011

Music and Politics

I have been accused of (complimented on?) being a classicist. Guilty! So I think I look at the intersection of music and politics in a rather old-fashioned way. I'm reading Alex Ross this morning and one item is on the cancellation of Huang Ruo's opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen in Beijing. He links us to this article that gives a full account. Ross' view is the conventional one about "a Chinese arts bureaucracy that is inclined to place limits on creative freedom." I think that all arts bureaucracies place limits on creative freedom. As a matter of fact, I think that the person that is the first to place the most severe limits on creative freedom is ... the composer! Have a look at this post. Some of the finest pieces I know are written with the most severe creative limits. Take The Art of Fugue for an example.

Politics, patronage and parsimony (aesthetic parsimony, that is) always limit composition. Let's take the last two first. In the Renaissance, which has produced an astonishing amount of great artworks, the patrons, whether they be sacred or secular, were very precise and demanding of the artists. We have accounts of commissions where the exact weight of gold leaf to be incorporated in the painting was specified. Music was commissioned on specific texts for specific occasions for an exact fee. Sometimes composers were compensated in indirect ways as well, such as when Guillaume Dufay was given a sinecure post in a cathedral he was never expected to even visit, but there was never any doubt about who was calling the shots and what they expected in return. Modern patronage is more subtle, perhaps, but no less demanding. If you are writing exactly the kind of music expected, for the right artists in the right venues, then you can expect funding from the arts bureaucrats. The irony nowadays is that the arts bureaucracy tends to expect that you write music that genuflects in the correct directions. This may be as true in New York as it is in China. Whereas in China, digging into unsavory aspects of the life of Sun Yat-sen seems to be anathema, in New York, as we see in this other item from Alex Ross which begins with a clip from a performance of Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together by Mos Def and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, it is welcomed that composers take up the causes of the day--in that case the Attica riots of 1971. Annoying the bourgeoisie seems to be required nowadays if you want the arts bureaucracy to consider you a 'serious' artist. The bottom line, now as ever, is that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Aesthetic parsimony, and I wonder if I am the first to use those two words together, is just the fundamental aesthetic principle that you use minimal resources for maximal effect. It is an aesthetic principle that is discovered early on, as soon as you start analyzing music by Bach or Beethoven and are astonished to discover that Bach can turn out any number of preludes, each one based on one simple theme. Beethoven can generate a whole symphony using little more than one interval--a falling third--and a simple rhythm. Not only CAN, but the power of the resulting work derives from the economy of means. Then this lesson is heavily underlined by student composers' first attempts when they discover that the more different ideas they throw into the piece, the more diffuse and confusing it becomes. So limits on creative freedom are important. We must be careful to notice, however, that these kinds of limits are self-imposed.

Politics has become more and more a factor in the arts. It didn't arise in earlier times because art was commissioned largely by individuals and artists were expected to flatter their patrons and not do the opposite. No mystery there. But since the French Revolution music has often been handed a truly political role. One thinks of the festivals of the revolution and the anthems and marches that accompanied them. Music can have a powerful effect in uniting large groups of people, something that totalitarian regimes, whether in France under the Terror, or in the Soviet Union or modern China, have not failed to notice. Shostakovich was required to write patriotic works of socialist realism such as his Second, Third, Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies. When he went outside the boundaries, as with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, he risked not only his career, but his life. My suspicion is that composers like Shostakovich really didn't have a single political conviction worth mentioning. He was nearly kicked out of the conservatory for satirizing the questions on a test having to do with Marxism. If he was required to write something political he did it. Pieces like the Fifth Symphony, written to rescue his career after a political ban, are immensely complex pieces of music and to interpret them as either Stalinist or anti-Stalinist is absurd. For a brilliant discussion of this whole question please see Richard Taruskin, "Public lies and unspeakable truth: Interpreting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony," in Shostakovich Studies ed. David Fanning.

The problem of politics and music becomes acute when music adopts a progressive ideology as it did in the 20th century. Composers who write music in the correct 'language' are acceptable, those who do not are not. I suspect that some composers did, idealistically, adopt the progressive ideology (for the official theorist, see Theodor Adorno), others, like Shostakovich, did what they had to, to survive, while others just held their finger to the wind and realized that if they did such and such, nice grants and commissions would come their way.

My view can be summarized succinctly: music and politics are quite different things and if you try and mix them together both of them suffer.


Anonymous said...

On the relation between modern American classical music and politics, I wouldn't go as far as Taruskin but it is undeniable that the Cold War played a significant role in promoting modernist music aimed at shedding the image of the US as a provincial musical backwater. Many of the (secretly CIA-sponsored) musical projects were rooted in America's inferiority complex toward the Soviet Union in musical matters: they had Shostakovitch, we had Elvis. Needless to say, that government effort flopped, and what became synonymous worldwide with American music, jazz, was never promoted through official channels (except for State Dept tours of well known jazz bands). Apparently, the CIA agreed with Adorno's take on "serious" music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm ashamed to say that I know more about the political pressures on Shostakovich than I do about the behind-the-scenes CIA promotion of American music. Have you got a good reference link? The really important modernist composers in the US, from Ives to Cowell to Cage, were largely ignored if I recall correctly. But was it not the case that jazz was welcomed all over the world and really wasn't in need of the CIA?

Anonymous said...

>> But was it not the case that jazz was welcomed all over the world and really wasn't in need of the CIA?

Absolutely. I'd go even further and add that nothing in this world is "in need of the CIA." Taruskin and Rosen have long pursued their mortal enmity by, in particular, addressing the subject of CIA sponsorship of culture in the US and Europe. I am not as negative as some and think some good came out of it, but on the whole it's distasteful (since it was secret), perhaps not so much in the arena of music (I don't understand how music can be political) but certainly in literature. The CIA used to cultivate its ties with the Ivy League (no longer apparently), and Taruskin even credits (or blames?) the CIA for sponsoring the creation of a music PhD program at Princeton for Babbitt. (Not sure I buy that.) Taruskin's last volume (of his music history) has some of the goods, but his numerous articles have more. F.S. Saunders has the classic account of this (rather comical) CIA link in her classic "Who Paid the Piper?"

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks. I will have a look.

liz garnett said...

Aesthetic parsimony, and I wonder if I am the first to use those two words together...

Heh. One of the things I love about the post-google age is that pretty much any question that starts 'I wonder...' can be answered. You're not the first, but it's not a commonly-used phrase. Earliest mention I found was 1963.

I seem to recall that Janet Levy critiqued the notion of thrift as an inherent artistic value in her article 'Covert and Casual Values in Recent Writings about Music' of 1987ish. There are plenty of examples that can be described in this fashion of course (Webern leaps to mind), but many others don't (Weber, to be orthographically parsimonious). Indeed, you could also construct a narrative of plenitude around either Bach or Beethoven without disrupting your alliterative schema: look how generously they develop their material.

One could argue that self-imposed technical or artistic programmes defined in terms of scale of ambition are as effective as those defined in terms of deliberate limitations for driving creative output. Mahler's notion of the symphony being 'like the world; it should include everything' is hardly frugal, but seemed to be quite effective.

I'm partly being tongue-in-cheek here of course, but I also think it's worth being careful about putting critical or evaluative terms like parsimony in the same class as extrinsic historical factors such as politics and patronage.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, a scholar enters the room! Thanks, Liz, for your thoughts. My post, wide-ranging as it was, probably itself violates the principle of parsimony. I guess the whole theme was 'limits' extrinsic or intrinsic. But yes, care is in order.