SOURCE: music of the avant garde 6

Between 1967 and 1973, over the course of just eleven issues, multi-media magazine “SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde” established itself as a wellspring of information and inspiration for those engaged in the sound-oriented arts. Edited by a consortium of practitioners with ties to UC Davis, each issue – published in an edition of just 2,000 copies – consisted of an oversized spiral-bound bundle of graphic scores, vinyl records, articles, and artworks by pioneering musicians and composers of the day.

Original copies of SOURCE are rare, but its spirit lives on in many forms (including Leonardo Music Journal, in print since 1968). A SOURCE anthology edited by Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn was published in 2011. But a “live” encounter with an original issue of SOURCE is a multimedia phenomenon unto itself: Jon Hassell’s MAP2, a 6-inch square of recorded cassette tape to be “realized” with handheld magnetic playback head in Issue #5; John Cage’s PLEXIGRAM IV (“Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel”) consisting of word fragments silkscreened on 8 sheets of acetate in Issue #7; Nelson Howe’s “Fur Music”, a piece in four “movements” for finger tips on patterns of faux fur glued to the pages of Issue #9.

The cover of Issue #6 features a photograph of a machine gun resting atop a bucket stuffed with reams of staff paper shot through with bullet holes. The image is a still from the creation of Dick Higgins’ “Symphony #585”. A single page of the gunshot-riddled score, a one-of-a-kind artifact from that event, is bound-in as the first leaf in the magazine.

According to the introduction to the first article in #6, the editors of SOURCE had been struck by an overwhelming number of submissions influenced by the political and social conditions of the day, and decided to dedicate the July 1969 issue to explorations of the subject.

As a feature of SOURCE #6, twenty composers were invited to expound upon the question "Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?" Harold Budd, Robert Ashley, Robert Moran, Daniel Lentz, David Tudor, Jerry Hunt, Barney Childs, Dick Higgins, Phil Winsor, Roger Reynolds, Terry Riley, John Cage, David Behrman, Charlotte Moorman, Steve Reich, James Tenney, Andrew Stiller, and Lukas Foss answered by phone, with Morton Feldman and Frederic Rzewski responding by way of pre-written essays (Feldman’s “Neither/Nor” and Rzewski’s “Parma Manifesto”). Replies varied in length from a few sentences to several paragraphs, and fell into the spectrum between “no, not at all” (Barney Childs and David Tudor) and “yes, absolutely” (Daniel Lentz, Charlotte Moorman, James Tenney), with added elaboration.

The 1969 article has been reprinted below in its entirety with permission from Larry Austin, one of the original editors of SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde, which holds full copyright.

In 2015, I asked twenty composers working today (Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Kristin Norderval, Rinde Eckert, Billy Martin, Jon Hassell, Anne LeBaron, Elliot Sharp, Brenda Hutchinson, Stuart Dempster, John King, Rhys Chatham, Pamela Z, Ben Neill, Alvin Curran, Ben Barson, Christian Wolff, Laurie Spiegel...and Frederic Rzewski and Terry Riley who also responded in 1969) the same question for the Poltics of Sound Art Issue #25 of Leonardo Music Journal. These composers' responses can be found on this page below those of the original contributors (and as a PDF at Academia.edu).

 

From SOURCE #6, JULY 1969:

SOURCE music of the avant garde 6


MORTON FELDMAN

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Yes, I've collaborated on a film project; it was a film on Vietnam. Outside of that conscious collaboration, no.

Do you have any viewpoints on music that has social or political connotations?

Can you read Swedish?

No.

I have an article called "Neither/Nor." They (a Swedish magazine) asked me to send them an article on what I think about music in relation to social life. It covers the whole thing. It was about art vs. social life and the "netiher/nor" means neither art nor social life. That was the subject. In fact, I really should send it to you.

Yes, you should. Why don't you? We'd love that.

Neither/Nor

Recently in the Sunday papers an article about Messiaen appeared in which a great virtue was made of his political "disengagement." Reading this article, we learn how deeply religious this composer is, how much he looks forward to his vacations in Switzerland, how proud he is of Boulez, and how involved he is with bird calls. Can we say this man is really disengaged? His chief occupation seems to be this very disengagement. There is something curiously official in the way his interests and views are described – as though nothing could now disturb all this. Events do, after all, enter into our lives, often take over our lives in fact. The impression one gets from this article is that of a living obituary, or a diary written in advance.

In contrast, let's take a man like Thoreau. A small town boy, he never felt it necessary to categorize his retreat into the woods as a "disengagement." And actually, he had no trouble at all finding a path from Walden right into jail on the big-time issue of his day: slavery.

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I want to point out that when an American like Thoreau acts – and there have been thousands of Thoreaus – he acts out of moral indignation, not political indignation. That is, he acts humanly, without the mythology of a system.

What I am really trying to say here is only that I feel we have been victimized. For centuries we have been victimized by European civilization. And all it has given us – including Kierkegaard – is an Either/Or situation, both in politics and in art. But suppose what we want is Neither/Nor? Suppose we want neither politics nor art? Suppose we want a human action that doesn't have to be legitimized by some type of holy water gesture of baptism? Why must we give it a name? What's wrong with leaving it nameless?

Perhaps I can make my point clearer. Some years ago a good friend who was a painter asked me to write the Forward to his new show. One of the things I remember writing was that he was the kind of artist who was content just to "breathe on the canvas." Which actually means that he was a beautiful artist with a very modest statement. As a result of this remark, my relations with this friend cooled considerably, and, needless to say, my article did not appear in the catalog of his show.

There are two subjects everyone gets excited about. One of them is politics, and the other is art. Both present themselves as all-encompassing. Both range themselves as opposed to all other interests. Given this type of situation, how could my painter friend not resent the implication that his artistic statement was modest? It must have seemed like saying he was not an artist at all. Yet a modest statement can be totally original, where the "grand scale" is, more often than not, merely eclectic.

Pasternak tells us that something false came into every Russian home when a man and his wife, in the privacy of their own household, would talk about such large and important things. Art can inject the same kind of lie into one's life. Like politics, it is dangerous insofar as it is Messianic. Nono wants everyone to be indignant. John Cage wants everyone to be happy. Both are forms of tyranny, though naturally, we prefer Cage's. At least I do. But if art must be Messianic, then I prefer my way – the insistence on the right to the esoteric. I confess to the fact that whatever describable beauties may arise from this esoteric art have always been useless.

But is this what was asked of me on this occasion? Supposedly, I am contributing a paper on "Art and Social Life." So far as I understand it, the question before us is, to what extent do the two belong together. Before determining just how much art should or should not infringe on social life, let us remember that social life never infringes on art. In fact, social life doesn't give a damn about art. Social life, as I see it, is a sort of vast digestive system that chews up whatever finds its way into its mouth. This vast appetite can swallow a Botticelli at a gulp, with a voraciousness frightening to everyone but a zoo custodian. Why is art so masochistic, so looking for punishment? Why is it so anxious to find its way into this huge maw?

To speak more seriously, we do recognize that the trend for many gifted composers right now is toward more and more of this "infringement." There is, in fact, a movement afoot to make an art that "sabotages" its own complacency, or, rather, that sabotages its own service to a complacent society. This idea is attractive to the politically oriented or the socially oriented artist, whether it be a Nono or a John Cage, though it will naturally be seen from different angles by two such very divergent personalities. Nono, who finds the social situation intolerable, wants art to change it. John Cage, who finds art intolerable, wants the social situation to change it. Both are trying to bridge the gulf, the distance between the two. The modern artist, whose tendency is to use everything at his disposal without any truly personal contribution, naturally reaches for salvation toward whatever he feels is real. But how can you bridge what is real with what is only a metaphor? Art is only a metaphor. It is solely the personal contribution – that "nameless" sensation mentioned earlier – that can give the artist those rare moments when art becomes its own deliverance.

Among my contemporaries, who knows this?

* * *


HAROLD BUDD

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Not that I know of, no; however, I don't think that artists can stand around and scratch their nuts while people are being shot by police. I'm glad you're giving people the opportunity to express their views.

* * *

ROBERT ASHLEY

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Well, I think that since I started working with the ONCE Group, and since I've become totally involved in theater, that every piece of mine has been either political or social or both. I decided some time ago, a few years ago, that I was not in accord with the idea that music should be abstract. I decided that my music had to be about something. That either means that it has to be about music, which would make it involved with procedures (that was reflected in the very first pieces I sent to SOURCE [Ed. note: in memoriam, SOURCE, Vol. 1. No. 1], written in 1963), or about political or social ends. I think the pieces I have done since then –– especially the ones for the ONCE Group –– have been increasingly toward the end of making them usable socially or politically. The nice thing about making that decision is that the problem keeps changing; in other words, you don't reach an end. As you do each piece, you may find that the piece is more or less effective for that moment. The demands of that moment, or the conditions of that moment, or the problems of that moment, or the reasons you did the piece may become obsolete in a few years, in which case, the piece probably becomes obsolete. Well, you can look back, and you might say, "That was a terrific piece, it was right on the ball, it was just where it should have been." Or, you might look back and say, "That piece was probably not too good, there were more important things happening then than what that piece deals with." But in effect, you keep having new goals, I mean every day raises new issues, it makes your problem change; in other words, what the music is about keeps changing.

Do you think that this will go on for you in the future? This sort of attitude toward music?

I like it very much now.

* * *

ROBERT MORAN

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Yes. Some people have seen them as anti-war pieces, as a specific war thing –– like anti-Vietnam war, whereas I didn't plan them that way. An example is my orchestral theatre piece which was televised all over the country. One lady wrote me personally and said i twas an outrageous piece. It had been shown just two weeks after the Democratic Convention, and so that colored the whole thing. She saw it as coming directly out of the convention, with all the ideas, revolution, and destruction, and everything. Other people said that obviously I was affected and infected by the use of strong drugs. I knew the piece, simply from the materials I was using, would cause comment, but I tried to stay clear of deliberate anti-war statements because I wanted that to be up to the viewer. One woman came up after the premier in the Seattle Opera House, she told me she didn't understand it very well until the person sitting next to her explained all the sexual symbolism. That just wiped me out. I smiled and said, "Yes, yes, I'm glad you enjoyed it." But, again, it blew my mind. I deliberately stayed clear of attaching symbols, and yet that's the way the people were getting it.

What about other pieces of yours? What about Titus? [Ed. note: Score appears in SOURCE, Vol. 2, No. 1]

The only thing I thought about when I wrote that piece –– it was a split-second occurance in my mind and something I've always had around me –– was my extreme dislike for automobiles. All of a sudden I changed this thing about coming to grips with something you don't like and thought that it would be a perfect sound source, and amplifier.

* * *

DANIEL LENTZ

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Yes, I have. I've done some anti-war pieces. The most recent is called Hydro-Geneva, Emergency Piece No. 3. [Ed. note: See page 44, this issue.] It's kind of an allegory on napalm gasses. It came out of the whole Berkeley and Vietnam thing. Another piece called Rice, Wax, and Narrative is a very large-scale allegory on the Oriental and Occidental methods of using rice, using wax, and of course, using speech. It can be construed or misconstrued, it doesn't matter –– it's politically oriented. It also has some relationship to napalm and similar atrocities.

* * *

DAVID TUDOR

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Political or social ends? No, not at all. Of course, you realize I have an advantage, because I don't often call myself a composer. No, I just don't think of it in those terms.

* * *

JERRY HUNT

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

I think that Sur (Doctor) John Dee [Ed. note: Score appears in SOURCE, Vol. 1, No. 2] was construed as an invitation to some kind of anarchic activity. I really don't think about it. I do sometimes, but only after the fact. Sometimes, ideas like that go through your mind, I guess they are there, but it's an unconscious thing, I don't start off that way. I've never sat down to organize something or work in a direction that you could say was political or social.

* * *

BARNEY CHILDS

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

My music is not so, and I hope it is not used as such and is not interpreted as such. I really don't think that music can be all that useful in that direction. I think music which is topical to this degree tends to destroy itself. I think it tends to become dated and its topicality turns to musicological curiosity.

* * *

DICK HIGGINS

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

I have thought of pieces which would be easily usable for these ends, but I've found myself falling into traps the moment I tried to make them. That's why I isolated them as one of my "Danger Musics." The problem with doing social pieces is one which I've tried to handle in my own work by making a work which was never made specifically to be a programmed piece.

Have any of these works been interpreted by others as being politically or socially connotative?

Yes. I was accused of standing for the negation of Western civilization by Harold Schonberg.

Have political or social characteristics been included in your work?

Oh, yes. That's a different question now. The fact is that a lot of my pieces specifically require from the beginning that the performers choose a leader, the idea being that this is the social structure and the context within which I want to work. Any other context would seem irrational and tend toward an extension of a power structure; i.e., the problem of imposing the will of the artist (composer) upon the performer –– a problem I avoid as much as I can. There are times when it has to come up, a decision has to be made, we need a responsible executive, but I prefer this to be dealt with democratically. Furthermore, all my most abstract pieces, whether for theater or concert, try to exemplify social structures which I would like to see realized on the practical plane. there's the problem of not having the piece tell the performers what is to be done, the problem of letting them discover it, or deciding it themselves. Secondly, there's the problem of having the performers fill in the blanks and do the work. That's just the way my work is, it tends to be blank, the performers and other people fill in the blanks with processes rather than predetermined, specific, explicit statements. There is a philosophical reason for doing things this way –– this is the kind of society I would like to see, I would like to have a society in which those in responsibility would say, "All right, this is what you can be, you can become any one of these things, or you can become something else, if you can create a new category."

* * *

PHIL WINSOR

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Not to my knowledge. I studied with Luigi Nono, whose recent music seems to be largely politically oriented. My experience has been of a dual nature. It can be very effective, but to base one's entire output or to aim one's entire effort in this direction can be musically defeating. There's nothing wrong with it, it can work, and it can not work, it all depends on the piece. I have nothing against it, and at the same time I wouldn't seek to devote myself entirely to it.

* * *

ROGER REYNOLDS

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

I would like my music to be very much more accessible to people, apart from those we usually call musicians. That does not mean that I want these things to be accessible to casual attention, it means that they should involve an intense kind of involvement for the player, the composers, the cooperator, the guests...and they should give him a sense of achievement which I believe comes from overcoming certain kinds of problematic conditions, inertia, and so on.

What about actual political implications?

I don't feel that my kind of abilities lend themselves well to effectively attacking, approaching, or making statements about my political position. I don not believe that this is a generally valid condition – aesthetic or moral. While I believe there are many composers that I know who can make marvelous kinds of political statements, it just doesn't strike me as being a forte of mine.

* * *

TERRY RILEY

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

You mean the big politics in the sky? No, I don't think so.

Well, in a case like IN C, which certainly is social, were the social elements of that piece a conscious part of its creation?

Yes, I was conscious of the fact that it was very democratic, no one had a lead part, everyone supposedly contributing an equal part. That was one of the main ideas. In that sense, I guess it's social. Everybody should have the same amount to say, if given a vehicle to say it, regardless of their background.

Is Cage's music all social?

That's probably pretty much true. The last thing I went to of his was at the Electric Circus, the reunion thing (Duchamp and Cage), and it was very much like a cocktail party without anything to eat or drink, except that people were performing.

* * *

JOHN CAGE

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

I am interested in social ends but not in political ends, because politics deals with power, and society deals with numbers of individuals; and I'm interested both in single individuals and large numbers or medium numbers of individuals. In other words, I'm interested in society, not for purposes of power, but for purposes of cooperation and enjoyment.

* * *

DAVID BEHRMAN

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

In 1959 we gave a little concert sponsored by the Communist Party at which there were seven old ladies in the audience. The admission was ten cents. There was the "Artists Against the War in Vietnam" festival in New York. I had a piece in that.

What about your recent music, you know, that press conference piece?

Yes, that's political. It's supposed to be about the absurdity of politicians. I did it, let's see, last year. I made it out of election campaign material, only using speeches by people I don't like. I have to do it over again this year, because it dated so quickly. So this year I'm using Nixon's material. I have a new title for it, A New Team Takes Over.

* * *

CHARLOTTE MOORMAN

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Well, first of all, I've used my own interpretations for political and social ends on various occasions, because I've wanted to reach people. There is one piece by Chiari that I do called Per Arco. The sounds of war are played for about five or six minutes, then I react with the cello, I hit the cello, I touch the cello, I go through very painful expriences, and then the piece is over. It touches the audience, it moves them it's relative to what's going on now, and it makes them thing – that is one of the reasons that I perform. Also, it helps me, it's an outlet for me. All the pieces I do, I hope, have social elements to them, and many, I hope, have political elements. In the piece that I do by John Cage, I play the cello, then I discard the cello and play Nam Jun Paik's back as a human cello, then I discard him, then I play a bomb as a cello, everything is highly amplified. I feel this has somewhat of a political message and definitely a social message. In the same piece I cook, I scream, I play films, records, and drink Coca-Cola. So just about every piece that I do, especially the pieces of Nam June Paik, have political or social overtones. The piece that I did in which I was arrested two years ago definitely has an important message, and that's what I feel that "social ends" means – that it has an important and relevant message. In that piece I started by playing in an electric bikini. The hall was totally dark, and I played a Massenet piece that's very beautiful...Zen...Buddha...gong in the background. In the second aria I played topless, but I had a gas mask on, if you can imagine anyone getting excitied about me being topless with a gas mask on. The I changed to various other masks and ended by playing the cello with flowers instead of a bow. I had propellors on my breasts at the end that aria, and that's supposed to show the beauty of womanhood with some of the falseness and ugliness of life. In this aria Paik and I played Brahm's Lullabye, but in conflicting keys. We'd play a fragment, then we'd stop, I would change and put on another mask, then we'd continue. Had the police allowed me to go on, the thrid aria would have been bottomless. I was to have been in a football jersey with the big shoulder pads and playing Bach. In Paik's version we play a few measures with sound, then with only motions through the next few measures, then with sound again – you see, the piece continues the whole time. And in the fourth aria I was to have been totally naked behind the bomb with records and all kinds of marvelous things going on. We weren't allowed to play this in New York, as you know, but we had premiered it in Germany the year before, played it in Philadelphia for the College of Art that year, and played it again in Germany this last fall. They seem to be terrified of it here in New York. I guess the music was too strong, I don't know.

Another very important piece that we do, especially very important to the audience, is called Cut Piece by Yoko Ono. The audience is invited to come cut my gown, but I'm careful to wear a gown that I've performed in the whole first half so they get the message of material, gown, money, everything. It's especially nice for these rich ladies sitting in the auditorium who spend so much money on their clothes and so much money on their hair. They come up and cut, and it really hurts them. But it's especially lovely when children are in the audience, they cut so beautifully, they cut little flowers and hearts and the nicest things. We played it at a Catholic college in Rochester, New York. The nuns there cut very beautiful patterns in very beautiful ways. We usually play it in every city because it is an important piece, and we've been doing it for four years now.

Paik's new piece that I just finished performing here in New York has a very interesting social message to it. It has a lot of humor. I'm sitting with a TV brassiere on, playing my cello, and he's connecting me by many, many wires through the cello. It's called TV Bra for Living Sculpture and its a culmination of a living sculpture (me), music, the cello, the TV, and the bra. Any note that I play can affect the images of a normal TV set. Actually, pictures are being transmitted. The right set I usually have on NBC and the left one on ABC. I play, and I can make gorgeous changes. Technical people would call them distortions, but they are beautiful. Everything is connected to my cellow through a little carbon microphone. I have a transformer on the left set and can turn all these connections on with flip switches. It's very nice. So, if I want to, I can play normal cello and not make any changes in the picture; but on the other hand, when I want to, I can make very, very nice things.

* * *

STEVE REICH

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

I think someone else probably has. I've never done it for that purpose. Certainly any kind of work of art that gets out into the public will be interpreted politically, if there is any possibility of doing it. I think that the politics are more successful when the music comes first.

* * *

JAMES TENNEY

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

Yes, I have. I can think of two compositions where there were political connotations. In both cases it was integral enough to my idea of music for me to say that it was part of the whole thing. This is the way it should be used. One called Viet Flakes to go with a film, the other Fabric for Che.

* * *

ANDREW STILLER

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

No, not yet. I'm working on one now that might be...I don't want to talk about it, because it would make the performance difficult. This piece involves distrupting another performance, so revealing any of the details would make it difficult to arrange a performance.

* * *

LUKAS FOSS

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

I am afraid that my music can be used neither to make money, nor to make revolution. But some of my work has been interpreted in terms of social commentary. Echoi IV is, among other things, a commentary on total organization, an ode to frustration resulting from total organization. Baroque Variations can be interpreted as a form of dstruction of the past, of Bach, Handel, etc., more accurately destruction of my past (phoenix-from-the-askes syndrome). Part of Paradigm is a lecture I once gave, set to music, a lecture on safeness containing sentences such as: "To take refuge in the past is to play safe, avoidance of the truth. To burn the past is to play safe, avoidance of knowledge. Wherever we turn, safeness lurks. Give me dangerous music."

* * *

 

 

rzewski
Elliot Carter and Frederic Rzewski in Berlin, 1965

FREDERIC RZEWSKI

Statement from program notes for Festival Internationale del Teatro Universitario – Parma, 1968

In times of emergency men find it possible to perform operations necessary to survival without bureaucracy, police, money, and the other obstacles which normally obstruct the way to efficient behavior. In such moments the organism, acted upon by forces beyond its control, is able to act, to respond to reality in an efficient manner. It is forced to move, to create space for itself, in order to survive. When confronted with the possibility of destruction, it discovers the alternative of creation.

Seldom are men able to reap the fruits offered by such moments of crisis. The memory of the higher state fades as suddenly as the danger which brought it forth appeared. The greater part of the mind, called into action in moments of threat to physical survival, is content to relapse into a state of slumbering semi-awareness in the interim periods of tranquility. It re-acts the roles which it invented in moments of creativity, applying them to a new reality which the creative act caused to come forth. It drifts into dark, uncharted areas of the past, until tempestuous forces blow it back into the blinding light of now.

The organism is perpetually involved in a drunken balancing act, upon the high wire of the present, and over the abyss of the past, into which it rarely dares to glance. In this precarious enterprise, it extends itself uncontrollably, until some more or less painful contact with the force of gravity forces it to move creatively. The accuracy of this movement, the measure of its creativity, is determined by the awareness-level of the organism, the degree of its sensitivity to danger and salvation.

Normally human beings are open to the joyous pain of creation only in moments of immediate threat to individual survival. Civilization produces forms of behavior conditioned by such limited sensitivity to the larger organic process, and excludes others which tend to expand such sensitivity. In fact, the economy of minimum survival-efficiency on the level of the individual organism, which civilization by its competitive games systematically cultivates, is not sufficient to ensure survival. It results in the cancerous growth of the total life process.

In the last sixty years, 100,000,000 human beings have been murdered by other human beings. This number exceeds the sum of all who have been known to live and die in the course of human history up to that time. In order to survive at all, I must do more than merely survive. I must create.

To create means to be here and now: to be responsible to reality on the high highwire of the present.

To be responsible means to be able to communicate the presence of danger to others.

An artist is a person who lays claim to a heightened state of perception. His perceptions are acts of communication dictated by a sense of responsibility to the life process. He creates the sense of emergency in a state of tranquility, where there is no threat to individual survival, and where the spirit is free to e-merge, to extend its dimensions, to create space.

It is necessary now to create a new form of communication, through which human sensitivities can be awakened to the presence of danger on the highest level, and to the necessity for creation in order to avoid it efficiently. This form is not telephones, television, newspapers; nor is it theater, music, painting…

As Baudelaire said, true civilization is not gas, electricity, or machines, but rather the diminution of the traces of original sin.

The most direct and efficient form of communication is dialog. Dialog in its highest form is creation out of nothing: the only true creation.

An art form which aims for highest efficiency in times of highest urgency must be based on dialog. It must reject the possibility of the impartial observer, present but not involved in the communication process, as contradictory to the idea of communication itself.

Such an art form must be concerned with creation out of nothing. Its decisions cannot be governed by structures and formulas retained from moments of past inspiration, which it is content to re-arrange and re-interpret. They must be born from marrying the moment, the creative moment in which the organism approaches reality so immediately that it is blessed with the perception of the highest possible future, which is its natural course toward joy. Such an art form must be improvised, free to move in the present without burdening itself with the dead weight of the past.

Improvisation is the art of creating out of nothing: a lost art form. It is necessary to rediscover this form and re-invent its rules, now. It is necessary to embark upon a disciplined search for a new harmony. Harmony is a process in which speaker and listener agree to communicate. The responsibility for undertaking this voyage of discovery is everyone’s who may come into contact with these words.

©Frederic Rzewski

from SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde, Volume 6, July 1969, page 91
also published in Leonardo Music Journal, MIT Press,Volume 9, 1999, pp 77-78

* * *

______________________________

leonardo music journal #25

 

The following is from Return to SOURCE: Contemporary Composers Discuss the Sociopolitical Implications of Their Work in POLITICS & SOUND ART, ISSUE 25, LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, 2015

Twenty composers working today responded to the question Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

All responses were received via email, unless otherwise indicated.

* = Work or works included in SOURCE Magazine.
** = Contributed an answer to the original politics in sound art article in SOURCE Magazine #6, July 1969.

 

PAULINE OLIVEROS*

Have you, or has anyone ever used your work for political or social ends?

My Sonic Meditations (Smith Publications 1973) certainly stated a radical departure and social interest when I offered them to untrained musicians at the time. Sonic Meditations have been used by numerous people over the years inside and outside of conventional concert procedure.

In recent times Sonic Meditations, Deep Listening pieces and newly composed pieces have been used in the Occupy Movement on the West Coast and on Wall St.

My purpose with Sonic Meditations was to make music available to anyone that wanted to participate.

* * *

TERRY RILEY**

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

How can we as artists live in a world of such grave social injustice, racism, military dominance driven by dollar hungry corporations, climate destruction and war mongering and not be affected? We are supposed to be the sensitive antennae gathering the emotions and subtle undercurrents of all worlds to nurture and inspire our creations. What could we say if we are still alive and compassionate beings that could not possibly be driven by these forces? We have witnessed in our times some of the worst war crimes imaginable and yet the perpetrators not only walk free but profit enormously. Why should we artists not be in solidarity in any way we can with the underdogs of this world who are forgotten and their voices blocked out by the loud hyperbole and stink of politicians? It is an age of shocking hypocrisy. A president on his way to committing mindboggling war crimes picks up a Nobel Peace Prize??? Now there is a vibratory wing-dinger for you that could inspire an opera! An Israeli Prime Minister who launches massacres against civilians with a brutality that rivals those atrocities inflicted by the Nazis upon the Jews. The list goes on. Yes, I want my music to be for the downtrodden and forgotten, the victims of racism and social injustice, the poor and the sick and if it reaches a few of them and gives comfort or awakens some spiritual longing I would consider that a positive contribution. The utopian poem I wrote for the Rainbow in Curved Air album 56 years ago still has meaning for me today and the energy that drives a need to bend the world towards a better place stills fuels my creative ideas.

 

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ANNEA LOCKWOOD*

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

Yes, I have composed four pieces which are intended to convey implied political or social protest, three of which are vocal, the fourth is electroacoustic:

Night and Fog (1987), settings of poems by Osip Mandelstam and Carolyn Forché for Thomas Buckner, baritone, baritone sax and percussion – a protest against political brutality in both the early Soviet Union and El Salvador.

I Give You Back (1993), a setting of the poem by Joy Harjo – an exorcism of the fear created by violence against Native Americans, especially women – for soprano.

Thirst (2008), electroacoustic, four channels; the sculptor Simone Fattal’s memories of her family’s courtyard in Damascus in the ‘50s, a place of sensory richness and serenity, are counterpointed with recordings of rush hour in Grand Central station, New York and the security reminders now found in many public spaces. Such places of memory can be refuges from the pervasive noise of crisis.

In Our Name (2009-10), the most direct and explicit work, for Thomas Buckner, baritone, Theodore Mook, cello and prerecorded 4 channel sound files. In Our Name was commissioned by Thomas Buckner and is a setting of three poems written by prisoners while incarcerated in Guantánamo: Jumah al-Dossari (from Bahrain), Emad Abdullah Hassan (from Yemen) and Osama Abu Kabir (from Jordan). “The strongest impetus to make this work was that Tom Buckner and I felt that we were hearing so much information and especially disinformation about the prisoners, but the crucial voices, theirs, were unheard,” I wrote at the time. Obtaining writing materials was often impossible, so poems such as these were written with toothpaste or etched with pebbles onto Styrofoam drinking cups and, with great difficulty, passed to their lawyers. In 2007 twenty-two poems were published by the University of Iowa Press in an anthology, Poems from Guantánamo: the detainees speak, edited by Marc Falkof who is an attorney for seventeen of the prisoners.

 

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KRISTIN NORDERVAL (by phone)

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

How do you define political and social? For me, any live performance is always necessarily a social event – when we sit and watch and listen together, just being together in a common space is already a social and political act. When we operate in isolation, just interacting with our digital devices, we can easily be divided and controlled. But to sit in the same room together – to dance, make sound, read poetry, sing, discuss, dream – these are the things that will be the seeds for change.

Part of what I have looked at as a musician are the places where we are doing music, and who feels comfortable coming into these places? As a singer, I work with words. So then the question becomes what words? Whose voices? What stories? All of that is political. Even if you say you are not responding politically, that too is a political stance. To not articulate something is also an articulation.

My very first professional commission was for a lesbian and gay chorus in San Francisco – three choral pieces with piano based on Emily Dickinson poems to commemorate all of the losses in the AIDS crisis. This past spring I was asked to write a new work for Joan La Barbara’s group Ne(x)tworks. That piece – Re-Play #4: Name Piece – is about drone attacks. There have been a number of US drone attacks on wedding parties. Can you imagine? I used the names of the 47 victims from a wedding party attacked in 2008 in Nangahar, Afghanistan. It was almost all woman and children, only 2 adult men. My most recent album Aural Histories is just voice and electronics – there are no words on it – but those pieces too have political context, the sounds have background stories that bring up things for people.

For me, the events of September 11, 2001 changed a lot of things because of how people started responding in fear. In the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq I was about to do a tour in Norway with a small chamber ensemble. The European media was picking up all the lies being broadcast in the US media about the imminent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the false argument that there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. I, as an American, had an opportunity to present a different picture. I asked my New York colleagues for materials, and performed works by these other composers and myself that were saying we don’t agree with the mainstream media. It was a really important tour for me. I got a lot of comments from people who were thankful to know there was some opposition.

After 9/11, I felt like I had to provide a counterweight to the mainstream propaganda, even though at times I wondered if there was much point in singing to people who might already agree with me…but to not do it felt like going along with things. As artists we have to project some image of what we wish for the world.

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RINDE ECKERT (by phone)

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

Well, yes. There’s a piece of mine called John Knows that got used in a video – no one told me about this – I just discovered it on YouTube. It’s a succession of images of soldiers in Iraq. I wouldn’t have put the two together myself, but it’s really gorgeous and moving and disturbing. There’s another piece of mine that is more overtly political…or, rather, political philosophy. It’s a video of me with a frame drum. To me A Question of Impeachment is about basic truth, about how power works, and the vanities of it. I hadn’t thought much about it, then all of a sudden the video showed up on YouTube, and lots of people have watched it.

With most of my stuff, the politics is certainly there, but I’m more interested in philosophy and truth than I am in particular political ends. As an artist, I want to find the truth in things. In my own work, I tend to do this through metaphor rather than by directly addressing specific situations. I don’t know if you could call it a spiritual or philosophical ambition for me…I’m interested in the unmasking of vanities.

As far as the potential of audience interaction in art – especially improvised dialog – is concerned, I think that sometimes, in a kind of desperation to feel effective, we invite participation on a superficial level that actually obscures a deeper level of dialog that might be possible. We can come away from a superficial encounter, or “dialog”, feeling good about it because we’ve expressed our anxiety, but we may have missed the larger question. I think one of the obligations of an artist is to put people in a world where the dialog is of a deeper nature, and where they don’t have to organize their thoughts on the spot. As a writer, I know how hard it is, and how long it takes, to get at something useful. It might take months to come up with one sentence that actually gets at something. I think there’s actually far too much dialog now, and not enough silence. There needs to be much more silence, and much more thinking.

I like to think that people coming to my performances experience something essential, something stripped, something that’s fundamental to our nature, and that they leave reinforced in their understanding of this nature…and, I hope, revived by it. I want people to go back out into the maelstrom knowing that the questions they are asking are the right ones, the deepest ones.

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BILLY MARTIN

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

I have to say that my answer is more NO than yes with regard to playing for any political ends.

The artist has always been one who is “allowed” to be creative. But, I think it should be available to everyone. Life is a creative project. We improvise our way through it, making decisions on the fly, waking up out of dreams with answers: housekeeping, childrearing, business decisions, political problems, engineering – we ALL need this creative approach to life. I think most of us live it – we just don't celebrate it because we want control of it most of the time.

Any creative act from the individual or group is a very powerful thing. We need to get everyone to understand that this is something we all have every minute at hand.

My Stridulations for the Good Luck Feast could be considered a collaborative game, played not by opponents to win or lose, but by a team of individuals whose primary challenge is collective improvisation. The object of Stridulations is the formation of a self-governing ensemble acting as one ‘organism’ that produces unique arrangements each performance.

I can't separate improvisation and creativity. This can happen out of solitude or in a collective situation. So, why not apply this to society? Why not teach improvisation in schools?

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JON HASSELL*

jon hassell

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

I'm for full-on pleasure in listening with no excuses necessary – "Les Baxter and Beyond". I'm lightyears away from any idea of "political" with regard to music. But that's my personal credo. This canonization of the chorus-verse form (and all the other conventions that come with it) is unstoppable. It's a colossal loop. (See Simon Reynolds - Retromania - Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past). What would Guy Debord have to say about iTunes and Spotify?

And here's the secret – Music is Invisible. It exists only as an interior experience in an individual. Who can say what this or that person is experiencing? We inevitably try to get close with word descriptions but that is essentially a language experience about a musical experience. In discussing a painting, one can actually touch an area and say, "This is quite Picasso-like" – it's visible – there's a common database for visual culture.

But the Entertainment Industrial Complex knows how to spot an opportunity to supply the "missing" visuals and descriptions to keep those clicks and dollars pouring in. "Political"? What is NOT political in the megamarket?

PS: To underline the fact that there is an area called "Music as Art" – I've proposed the idea of a SEMINAR around the question, "What is the musical equivalent of a Gaudi?" This question asks those with a visual sensibility refined enough to appreciate the surreal, storybook aspect of Gaudi's architecture to also think about what in their musical universe is conceivably equivalent? All of us, including those of visual literacy and refinement, have grown up with a corporate-supplied background track to our adolescent years that loops forever in movies and online. Without a real effort at broadening the experience of music, they (we) have no idea of what a Gaudi could sound like in the imagination. (Charles Ives? Ravel? Gamelan?) Again, highlighting the gap between visual and musical imagination and sophistication.

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ANNE LE BARON

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

Although my music was never designed to accomplish any specific political ends, and has been variously inspired by objects of fascination, personalities, events, visual art, science, and literary works, it has on occasion elicited controversy. Two specific pieces I’ve composed—one that is obviously political and the other, feminist—led to unanticipated reactions: walkouts by one or more audience members due to their mistaken assumptions, and hate mail directed toward the presenting organizations. The politically-oriented composition, I am an American…My Government Will Reward You, was inspired by a blood chit: a piece of silk cloth carried by military flight crew members, with the American flag in one corner. A blood chit bears the following inscription written in several languages:

“I am a citizen of the United States of America. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. My government will reward you.”

I found the message on this blood chit to be chilling, yet I didn’t ‘take sides’ when composing the music for this piece. However, while researching the use of blood chits, I learned that people who attempted to assist downed American military personnel in escaping enemy territory were sometimes tortured or killed, a fact which had a bearing on the composition.

For electric or amplified harp with live effects such as distortion, and an electronic accompaniment of sirens, a Sacred Harp hymn, raw beating of chopper blades, a crash, a train, and other sounds woven in, I am an American pits the harp against an assault of sonorities associated with combat. Although far from hawkish, my composition evidently struck some listeners at one concert as being too far to the ‘right,’ and they departed in protest. This was a surprise to me, as my personal politics have always leaned to the left. On the CD liner notes, I dedicate I am an American to “the many selfless and compassionate souls on foreign soil, who suffered as a result of helping Americans escape from hostile territory.”

Moving on to the hate mail episode: when commissioned to compose a piece for a new music ensemble and a dance company, I wrote a dance opera inspired by the contentious legend of the only female who served as pope (earning that distinction disguised as a man), known as Papessa Joanna, or, Pope Joan. She gave birth during a papal procession in the year 848 and was stoned to death for her deception. Following the premiere of Pope Joan, an audience member sent a letter to the director of the dance company, full of outrage that a performance depicting a female pope had taken place, and asking to be removed as a subscriber to the concert series.

A number of my compositions address environmental issues, beginning with Concerto for Active Frogs, for humans and a collage of frog and toad vocalizations. The most heartbreaking post-concert comments began about ten years after the premiere (1975), when people would tell me that they used to hear so many more frogs when they were younger, but the sounds had been disappearing. This piece was like a nostalgic experience. I followed that with an opera, Croak (The Last Frog), inspired by the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, which became extinct almost overnight. Some years later, another opera, Wet, focused on flooding caused by the deforestation and rampant and unnecessary bottling of water. My most recent opera, Crescent City, lays bare the consequences of the final looming natural disaster hovering over the city of New Orleans. In the opera, the threat of complete destruction is so powerful that it lures the infamous Vodou Queen, Marie Laveau, from her tomb, in a final doomed effort to save her beloved city.

Political and social issues will be embedded throughout the opera I’m now writing. LSD: The Opera charts the powerful historical ramifications—cultural, political, and spiritual—set into motion by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide in 1943. Before LSD jump-started the counterculture movement, it was appropriated for nefarious uses by government agencies such as the CIA, and was ostracized, demonized, and feared. Practically half a century had to pass before the value of LSD as a therapeutic agent in medical and psychiatric settings began to once again gain traction and respect. The panorama of dramatic events initiated by the appearance of LSD encompasses scientific discoveries, murders, CIA classified experiments, festivities, and extraordinary meetings of minds among iconic figures such as Aldous Huxley, Albert Hofmann, and Timothy Leary. My hope is that performances of the opera, or even excerpts and scenes performed separately, will help to defuse the negativity associated with LSD, and to communicate its valuable therapeutic potential.

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ELLIOTT SHARP

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

"Social" and "political": both are loaded words used when defining particular types of musical interaction between humans. The load becomes heavier when the message is the primary reason for the musicmaking. There is music designed specifically to deliver such a message: anthems, military and workers' marches, the historical ballad, symphonic program music, punk-rock rage, gangster rap – all made to effect the viewpoint of the listener. Perhaps all musicmaking is meant to catalyze psycho-acoustic chemical change in the listener accomplished by the embedding of various types of information. Formal music may be filled with pointers, references, and even abstract symbolic systems that may be translated, whether consciously or subconsciously, into the functional aspects of the social matrix. When the piece demands it, I do not shy away from using such techniques though I would not call myself a "political composer". I've long felt that music, while working on an esthetic and emotionally transformative level, may also provide information and inspiration as part of its inner structure and content. The question remains how to accomplish such actions without resorting to didacticism, sloganeering, or easy pandering to knee-jerk responses.

Coming of age in the 1960's and drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as Bob Dylan, Julius Lester, and other neo-folk musics; urban and country blues; free jazz; and psychedelic rock, it seemed completely natural to have an element of social commentary integral to the music. During my time at SUNY Buffalo in 1974-76 studying composition with Lejaren Hiller and Morton Feldman and ethnomusicology with Charles Keil, the issue of politics and music was often discussed. Feldman's views as expressed in the SOURCE article were well-known and I was not in disagreement with their essence. However, many of us felt that we were living in extraordinary times and special responses were sometimes necessary. I had been involved in support activities at the University around the Attica prison riots and their aftermath and for the 1975 Composers Forum concert, I composed a piece titled "Attica Brothers/Life Cycle". Written for violin, cello, electric guitar, contrabass, orchestral percussionist, rock drummer, and conga drummer; the piece was structured in two parts over a continuous pulse played by the conga using both through-composed elements, graphic notation, and improvisation. The conga drummer had no score though everyone else was reading. As we were poised to commence the piece, Feldman stood up in the packed hall and, pointing to the conga player, asked me: "Where's his music?" I explained that he was cued by the conductor and did not have a score. Feldman mounted the stage, grabbed a music stand and plunked it down, empty, in front of the conga player saying "Now you can play the piece." Morty called me into his office the next morning: "You know, you put too much sociology in your music. Music should be listened to sitting in red plush seats, but your music, you have to sit on the floor." During this same period of time, I was playing in Keil's Afro/Latin/funk group Outer Circle Orchestra. This group was absolutely made for dancing but with a subtext of politics, sometimes overt in the lyrics, but usually more subtle: the collective groove, the interlocked clave, the free playing of the soloists.

More recent forays into the explicitly political have taken varied turns. After the Tompkins Park police riots of 1989, video-artist Paul Garrin asked me to compose a soundtrack to his video about the event, "Free Society". Using a sample taken from a television speech by Fundamentalist Christian loudmouth Pat Robertson stating "In a free society, the police and the military are God's special envoys..." I built up a funk-rock-noise track triggering the samples from my MIDI'd guitar over a heavy groove. The piece was performed live on national television in 1990 on David Sanborn's show Night Music. Not long after the broadcast, I ran into poet Allen Ginsberg on a flight to Toronto who asked me why I would want to disseminate Robertson's words. I referenced William Burroughs in my discussion with Allen with Burroughs positing that recorded cut-ups of the words of politicians and other reprehensible personalities could be beamed back at them to reveal and negate them.

In 1991, I was asked to compose a piece for a festival of so-called Radical Jewish Culture, The result, "Intifada", was written for string quartet plus myself on clarinet and guitar. The music was not programmatic nor were there any texts or slogans. I prefaced the premiere performance at the Knitting Factory with the words that Judaism, whether cultural, religious, or historical, was not synonymous with Zionism, and that I, as a son of a Holocaust survivor, was offended that Zionists could act like Nazis with their use of ethnic cleansing in Palestine. I was excoriated by some members of the audience and the music itself was both cheered and booed. Shortly after the event, my name and image and address turned up on such websites as "Masada 2000" where I was labeled an "anti-Semitic and self-hating Jew".

Currently, my band Terraplane is a contemporary blues band in existence since 1994 performing a wide variety of originals and blues classics, both instrumental and with vocals. Some of the original material has explicit social-political content including songs such as "Tell Me Why", "Please Don't", "Stop That Thing", "Lost Souls", "Oil Blues", "Katrina Blues", "Banking Blues", and "They Say We Is" with lyrics by Tracie Morris, Eric Mingus, Joe Mardin, and myself. Even when instrumental, the music may point to current events both in title and in emotional states as in "Work Or Leave" and "Diallo Blues".

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BRENDA HUTCHINSON (by phone)

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

Not all of my pieces are as overtly political as the West 4th Street Quintet and the Star Strangled Banner…that one, for me, is the perfect piece. When I perform it I am struggling, singing through a tube…struggling to do something which is basically impossible. It sounds like this distressed, anguished kind of thing even though I might not be in that state of mind. People have used it on radio broadcasts along with protest music and Fourth of July patriotic music, a choreographer used it in a dance performance, and someone narrated something over the top of it, which was really beautiful. The piece was made in direct response to the George Bush giveaway back in 2000…I still perform it at every possible opportunity.

 

I’ve always been very conscious of working in the political realm through the way that I engage with society: society as the stand-in for the political. Whatever’s going on with politics determines the distribution of wealth and assets…and everything sort of falls out from that. Our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness belong to every being on this planet. The other rights that we should have – food, shelter, clothing, education, medicine – these are things that are within the province of society to grant. Civil rights, abortion rights…the idea that these are “rights” that are legislated means that they can be taken away…I don’t even know what the right word for such things should be.

Most of my work is not specifically about social justice or any particular issue per say…but there is this underlying belief that we can recognize the ways in which we are all connected. I felt that, for me, the way to change things was through direct engagement, connection, recognition…recognizing the things that we share…our families, our triumphs, our failures, our fears, our struggles. I do that by talking with people, and by listening. It’s exhilarating to get a team of people together to do these things with. People often come into it feeling fearful, and come out of it feeling like they’ve had an amazing experience. Maybe it only works for that minute…but that’s something.

Rzewski said in his “Parma Manifesto” that the way to move forward is through improvisation and dialog. My work is very much about dialog…which is not just talking…it’s also listening and being present. As a privileged person…by which I mean at the very least a white person in America with an education…I have always felt compelled to serve as a conduit…initially it was to use whatever advantages I may have had to listen and to collect what other people have to say, and to broadcast these messages through radio, performance, other media. My focus has gradually shifted to the encounters themselves as the opportunities for exchange and transformation.

If, through our work, we can help to create a more just and compassionate world, perhaps everything else will follow. Maybe that’s a little pie-in-the-sky, but I’m willing to spend my life doing that.

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STUART DEMPSTER

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

The following is an excerpt from "StuArt of Listening: A Planetary Pleanote", Keynote Address presented at Deep Listening Art/Science Conference, 11 July 2014, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy NY):

Along with my growing recognition of environmental respect and deep listening practice cultivated by my family, I became aware of environmental degradation. In the 1950s, from Yosemite, one could look west and see the evergreens turning brown. One could also see a brownish haze in the air. It didn’t seem like much of anything at the time but by the time the 1960s rolled around there was beginning to be serious appreciation of and sensitivity to the environment. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a major springboard to a more and more aware population as to what was going on. Visiting Mt. Rainier over a few decades confirmed to me all too well how bad things were. The Nisqually Glacier was quite visible on both side of the road to Paradise in 1951, and even in 1962 it could be seen above the road. By 1969, a year after we moved to Seattle however, it had receded far enough that one could no longer see it from the road.

Fast forward to early this century when there was beginning to be talk of “global warming” and what that might mean. “Talk” was the operative; there was little action. And there was less serious recognition of the problem let alone what might be done about it. Skip ahead a decade or so to the present and there is recognition of this situation by a larger amount of people, but not enough to confront it in any dynamic way. The best we seem to be able to do for now is to document and measure the degradation, and search for more environmentally friendly ways to do what we are doing now. However, we seem to have more interest in making small modifications to an already broken system and much less interest in actually changing fundamental approaches toward the environment and deep underlying causes that would lead us towards better solutions.

The EARth’s aura is “hurtin’” and it is time for some serious planetary Deep Listening. We can begin with some kind of a sonic massage, or “smoothing” of this aura – perhaps through meditation. MyTimepiece is intended to serve this purpose. We also need to more deeply recognize that our environment is inextricable from us, and observe and listen to the EARth for what it needs. Listen in a way that honors our closeness to other creatures, our shared flesh and blood with wolves and panthers, and our dependence on the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the animals and plants we ingest that determine our health and survival.

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JOHN KING (by phone)

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

Many of my pieces, going back to the 1980s, have been based around political and social issues. One that comes to mind is a set of pieces called Immediate Music for looped and processed electric guitar, violin, and voice. One piece called Move was about a series of events. There was a black activist group in Philadelphia called MOVE, all the members lived in a house together…they’d come out of the Black Panther Movement. They played political messages over loudspeakers, neighbors complained and the cops didn’t like it…the cops surrounded the house, fired into the house, MOVE members returned fire, then the cops dropped 2 bombs, which started a fire, burned the MOVE house plus about 60 other buildings in the neighborhood, firefighters let the blaze go until it was out of control. Eleven people including 5 children died in the fire. And around the same time, there was a New York Times editor named Joseph Lelyveld who came out with a book called Move Your Shadow about South African Apartheid. The title came from something he overheard a golfer say to his black caddy while taking a putting shot. Then there were a bunch of racial killings in New York both by police and by racist citizens in different neighborhoods. At the end of the piece, I listed all of the people who had been killed: Willie Turks, Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith. Because of recent events, I’ve been thinking…how long would that list be now? The piece premiered at the first Bang On A Can Marathon in 1987. At the end of the concert, someone came up to me and thanked me for remembering these people, for keeping them from disappearing from our consciousness.

Another piece called Corn was about an incident that happened during the farm crisis in Minnesota, which is where I’m from. Farms were being repossessed by banks…the farm community was being devastated…everything was on the auction block. One farmer and his son pretended to be buyers…they asked a banker to come out to their farm, where they shot him. They went on the lam. The father committed suicide and the son was arrested and charged with being an accomplice. The piece was like a country fiddle tune, like a hoedown. The chorus was “swing your partner, swing your banker, shoot your banker, shoot yourself” all done with a do-si-do kind of a groove.

Even before this, I was very much into Bertolt Brecht. I chose a radio play of his called The Trial of Lucullus. It’s an anti-war play. Lucullus was a Roman general who was known both for his cooking as well as for his rather brutal campaigns. I turned it into a solo piece using projected slides of Oliver North, General Secord, George Shultz, and Ronald Reagan with their eyes kind of blacked out like a porno film might have. Interwoven with my own music, I projected as much of the original text as I could. The hour-long piece went back and forth between Roman historical times and modern times in Central America…El Salvador, Nicaragua…

When these pieces came out, I got more critical response from the left, claiming that my work was too elitist, that I should have been playing music like Woody Guthrie. I was making avant-garde, experimental music because I felt like the politics were avant-garde…of this time.

I think art and music can make people realize that some things haven’t gone away, that someone is still talking about it now. Under certain circumstances I believe it can have a great deal of immediate impact. On some level, I believe it’s about just making people aware, and bringing issues to their attention…and then they can decide whether they want to act, or to look into things a little bit more. People might hear a piece of mine, and next time something crosses their field of media vision, they might look at it a little more carefully. James Joyce said he wrote Finnegan’s Wake to encourage people to think…he did it with incredibly dense language, referencing the names of every single river in the world, completely wild writing…it encourages people to think, and to move into the future. We can use this same kind of mindset to move forward culturally, musically and politically as well.

I also recently finished a series of string quartets titled Free Palestine. The music uses the Arabic pitch and rhythmic modes as its starting materials. It also asks the players to combine their material in different, non-traditional, improvised, chance-determined ways – exercising “freedom” in their interpretations. It caused (the “title” caused) some controversy at its premiere, some people boycotting the concert, the title needing explanation, etc….so it goes, though I see no need for explanation – all one need do is SPEAK the title and it somehow feels right, to me anyway.

I’m working on a piece right now that is designed around a large ensemble and the idea of the conductor, the person who usually controls that large ensemble. In this piece, I make sure that the musicians are given the opportunity to follow or not follow, sometimes based on chance operations and sometimes because of the way the music is laid out. I would like to see the conductor making a big gesture for a downbeat, and no one following that “order”. That, I think, is a kind of political statement, too – we don’t have to look to one person and think that that is the one person we need to follow. Maybe look to the people around you…make your own alliances. Time and sound can be organized around different kinds of egalitarian processes – putting them into practice. To me these kinds of endeavors can be really interesting, both socially for the people involved in making the music, as well as for the listeners – they get to experience new possibilities, new imaginations, new viewpoints.

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RHYS CHATHAM

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

Among the living or recently living composers that I think of whose music and thinking has political or social ends are Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski. I was honoured to work with Frederic in the early seventies in New York, where he was living at the time. He had started a New York edition of Musica Elettronica Viva, which he called the MEV orchestra, which I took part in as a flutist. Frederic was a Marxist, and I remember having hot political discussions with him over coffee after the rehearsals. Some of the composer/performers in the group – I’m thinking in particular of the composer Garrett List – followed in Frederic’s footsteps. While interested in the way that they combined music and social issues, I didn’t follow this course myself. My participation was limited to playing in their pieces. Julius Eastman was another composer working around the same time who also often incorporated social issues into his music.

My father was a Trotskyist, so I grew up in a leftist family and was often on demonstrations. I remember in the 60s going to “Hands off Cuba” demonstrations in front of the United Nations. The FBI was taking pictures of everybody; I’m probably still on file with them! During the 70s it was demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. During the 80s, a coalition of leftist groups were staging demonstrations against United States involvement in San Salvador. So my involvement with these issues consisted of participating in the demonstrations. However, there were a couple of times when my music was involved. Maggie Smith, the owner of the Tin Pan Alley was a leftist. The Tin Pan Alley was a located in midtown Manhattan, a bar where interesting music was played. I played a concert in 1984 at Maggie’s bar in support of these demonstrations. The various leftie groups had their tables there, handing out their literature at the concert. I also remember doing a performance piece where I wore a Ronald Reagan mask protesting these policies, I think it took place at the Club 8BC, located in the East Village.

A more recent event that was really close to my heart was when the organisers of the “1 percent” demonstrations in the Wall Street area asked if I would write a piece for 100 iPhones in support of the demonstrations. I had just done A Crimson Grail, for 200 electric guitars and 16 electric basses at Lincoln Center, so the idea of a piece for 100 iPhones seemed like an amusing reaction to that, and it was something that anyone who owned an iPhone could do! I volunteered gladly, however, it unfortunately never happened. I’ve always been kind of sad about that.

To sum up, while I’m always open to supporting political or social events that I believe in with my music, as a rule my music doesn’t deal with these issues, the way, say, protest folk songs did in the 60s. It’s not because I have anything against mixing social issues with music, I suppose it has been so because I felt my talents lay elsewhere.

* * *

PAMELA Z

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

My answer would have to be “no and yes”. I suppose one could argue that everything is political. Even choosing not to be political could be seen as a political act. So, in view of that, perhaps my work is in some way political. But I don’t think of my work in those terms. Certainly my experiences of the world around me affect me, and my observations of and reactions to the world must flavor my artistic choices. But I never use my work to try to deliver a message or convince anyone of a particular point of view. The work is never intended to be political in nature and certainly not meant as a tool for any political means. People are bound to find things in it that might seem to address something political to them, but that is not my intention.

I have, however, received commissions to make work for people who do tend to fuse their activism with their art-making. One such artist is the choreographer Jo Kreiter, who has made a career of creating works that address specific socio-political issues – things like labor, poverty, homelessness, gender equity, etc. When she asks me to compose scores for her danceworks, I find it an interesting challenge, because the social content of the piece needs to be addressed through my music. It is often through literal, audible language in my composition that her concerns are most clearly addressed and contextualized. So, for those pieces, I create speech collages that carry very clear and pointed information about the issue at hand. The work almost takes the form of a kind of poetic audio-documentary, as I create and collage sampled text from interviews with people involved in whatever issue the piece is addressing. It’s a technique I also use in my own personal works but, for Jo’s dance scores, I have to put more attention toward the delivery of the social content whereas, in my own works, I generally concern myself more with the poetic and musical nature of the speech sounds.

Outside of my commissioned scores for Jo Kreiter’s dances, I’m unaware of any examples of my work being used for political or social ends. My feeling is that, in general, it is not the job of art to engender specific social or political change. I feel that art is meant to touch people on some other, less easily defined level. I think of it as a kind of human nourishment and, like food itself, its intended to provide humanity with sustenance.

* * *

BEN NEILL

Have you, or has anyone else ever used your music for political or social ends?

Political and social concerns played a strong part in several of my compositions from the 1980’s and early 1990’s. ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion), a music/text/video collaboration with artist David Wojnarowicz, is the best example of a piece with strong political components in my compositional output. I became familiar with Wojnarowicz’s art in the early 1980’s, and felt that it in many ways exemplified what I wanted to do with music. David’s pieces combined the visceral energy of street and graffiti art with a strong sense of mystery and timelessness, relating current events and imagery to a broader sense of history. He always seemed to give voice to individuals and groups who existed outside of societal norms. The elements in his works, while disparate, never felt arbitrary or cynical; there was a sense of architecture that held the parts together in a profound way. This was precisely what I hoped to do in my early works for the mutantrumpet, which I was developing at that time.

I initially approached him about doing artwork for my first album Mainspring, which he did, and subsequently we began discussing creating a collaborative work involving music, video and spoken text. ITSOFOMO was the result of over a year of regular meetings at Disco Donut on the corner of 14th Street and 3rd Avenue in which we created a structural form for an hour-long performance piece. At the time we were both very interested in the writings of Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, particularly the book Pure War, which was concerned with the phenomenon of speed and acceleration in contemporary culture. Simultaneously, David was becoming a more and more outspoken voice in the AIDS crisis, and was diagnosed with AIDS during the time we were developing ITSOFOMO.

In ITSOFOMO various elements of music, text and video are integrated in accordance with a multi-dimensional form scheme based on the idea of acceleration and its respective manifestations in our senses. Acceleration is implemented on many different levels within the piece, from upward glissandi and accelerating rhythmic figures to nearly imperceptible increases of tempo over long stretches of time and diminishing patterns of justly tuned intervals. Within this framework the acceleration of the AIDS virus and the politics of AIDS in the USA are confronted head on in Wojnarowicz's texts. David delivered his words in an angry and immediate tone, spat out against the backdrop of ominously measured music for mutantrumpet, percussion and live electronics, but also expressed tender emotions for his dying lover Peter Hujar in several parts of the work. Four videos run simultaneously for the duration, incorporating a wide range of imagery typical of Wojnarowicz’ visual style. A chorus is provided by samples from the National Hollerin’ Contest, whose strangulated wails and earthly yodels provide a strange counterpoint to Wojnarowicz’ passionate readings. This choice of samples from rural North Carolina was meant to reflect back on the culture wars led by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who brought an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 because of a catalog from Artists’ Space in New York which strongly featured David’s work. The piece ends with an explosive, angry barrage in which David’s rage is set within the screams of the hollering voices, auctioneers, and a densely chaotic instrumental musical texture. Audience reaction has always been strong to the piece, and there has been a renewed interest in it over the past several years. ITSOFOMO is a unique work in my artistic output, but also strongly influenced Downwind, a music theater work that I composed in the early 1990’s which dealt with environmental issues, specifically the cover up of a nuclear waste facility in southern Ohio.

ITSOFOMO was premiered at The Kitchen in 1989, with numerous performances and screenings in museums and galleries around the world since. A new wide-screen video version was produced in 2013 by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

* * *

ALVIN CURRAN*

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

I open my Fake Book, light a cigar and begin a loose disengaged improv.

My first incognizant, nay clueless act of musical politics, age five, was to learn Three Little Indians in the John Thompson beginners’ piano book, then go out in our backyard, shoot a BB gun, and accidentally hit the arm of my close friend Louis Royal, making me an instant pacifist. The second was to try to play W. A. Mozart’s Turkish Rondo in a children's recital at the renowned Music Mansion in Providence, RI (emulating the culture of the wealthy has remained unproductive for me ever since). The third, to teach myself to play my father's trombone (against his wishes), which led to my disastrous solo in middle-school assembly hall, when I played Celito Lindo perfectly but in the wrong key – a proto anarchist chance operation. Fourth was to improvise freely at age 12, me on piano Clark Coolidge on drums, imagining in 1951 that music could be made based on nothing! Without a score, charts, changes or any structural idea or any authority whatsoever within the limits of our provincial American middle-class culture, our Jewish/Presbyterian origins, our personal DNA, and our total ignorance of just about everything in human history. Fifth, as a teenage kid, was to drink a four-dollar Coke (the price of a good meal) while listening to landmark performances of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk live between Storyville in Boston and the Five Spot in NYC. Later I played in a college Dixieland Band (the Brunotes) in the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, indifferently brushing shoulders with the avant-garde as embodied by the legendary Philip's Pavilion by Le Corbusier, where Xenakis and Varese's terrifying amplified music spatialized-out into the future. And from there to Spacecraft with the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) group in a small gutted-out iron workshop in Rome's Trastevere (the wrong side of the Tiber) where this fierce group of Ivy-League hippies were subversively bent on transporting themselves and audience on flying carpets of sound to the nearest revolution. The sublime innocence of my charmed youth ended here. The nasty word "politics" now came to mean the challenging task of changing the system, the rules, the world. The MEV experience in those liberating years of the mid-late 1960s was like a permanent Bar Mitzvah without the fountain pens, it was not only becoming a mindful responsible adult, but becoming a "mensch" in an imaginary utopia.

All of these vignettes do not make a political animal, but their sum led me out of the American immigrant working classes toward an elite intelligentsia - a global family that lives in a permanent state of alarm, aware that an individual's birthright to be a free human being can be revoked at any moment. The “avant-garde” became my new local 198 union hall. I became an artist committed to spreading social justice and equality through audible sounds – musically unifying people.

More precisely, I dedicated myself to making a widespread form of "unpopular music", a kind of sonic virus which like its biological counterparts has no known utility except to test the resistance of the healthiest of listeners, producers, and critics in any given population. From the political tumult of 1848 through the Great War and the storming of the Winter Palace right up to the gates of Arbeit Macht Frei and to our own late 20th/early 21st century time, the acquiesced politeness and refinements surrounding the “high” musical arts (listeners devoured whole roasted boars with their bare hands in Mozart's presence), the genteel music myths of the Western nobility, the aristocracy, and the gilded Churches have disintegrated, allowing a few adventurous musicians to explore the dark, ugly undersides of this virtuous world as well as their own repressed and unsanctioned thoughts and actions. Some went nuts, some went Freudian, Fascist, Socialist, Twelve-Tone, Theosophic, Sufi, queer, or all the above. All spiritual and material laws and beliefs came into question… such as the unquestionable rights of birth, class and ownership and sexual orientation, and their cultural derivatives. In short the commissioners, producers and fans of exclusive Western art-music were largely not very nice, especially toward those of us who were living as their servants or on the other side of the tracks.

I was born into a rebellious, searching, experimental culture of troublemaking. From Charles Ives to Bessie Smith to Spike Jones to Fats Waller, from Anton Webern to Thelonius Monk to John Cage to Billie Holiday to Lamonte Young to Giuseppe Chiari and Fluxus, from Elliott Carter to Pauline Oliveros to Frankie Hi NRG to Maryanne Amacher to Jerry Hunt to Snoop Dog to the Living Theater. In the MEV Volkswagen Bus we drove up and down the European map like a gang of desperado Minnesingers, doing gigs and eating bread and soup. The Revolution was everywhere in every back street. When an audience was ready to perform with us, we let it. Our egos were put on hold and gradually purged out of our collective music making. Terror: inviting an anonymous inexperienced ticket-paying mass of people to join us, to transform themselves into musical instruments, was the most fruitful suicidal act MEV ever made; it brought professionals face to face with visionaries, dreamers, idiots and ordinary people – it forever changed the way I was to compose music.

The explicit aims of the European avant-garde were to reset and revise the old program with in-your-face strategies – music made from dust, blank paper, spit, junk, wind, noise, wheels, food, farts, laughs, and asyntactical vocalized nonsense. What this chaotic but harmless arts-and-entertainment game really meant: class differences were neither biological nor decreed by any higher power; the arts – whether popular or un-popular – belonged to everyone; the awareness of class differences leads to some kind of transformative action; above all, there are innumerable avenues and unknown destinations to be explored socially and artistically, where instability, unpredictability, garbage, gold, revolution, boredom, failure, sweat and illumination can be found and recycled – zones bursting with enhanced sounding pleasures both sensual and intellectual…parks full of odes to joy, the weirder the better, there for the taking.

Late 20th century musical politics were not so much about heroically overthrowing a social and political order and replacing it with a new one, as Dada, Futurism, Anarchism, Lettrism/Situationism, and Gutai often preached, more about making quiet but powerful little revolutions in the basement, like Fluxus. Despite continual institutional attempts to eliminate this creative "noise", the century-long hybridization of the 'isms continues to produce abundant flower and seed in rebellious landscapes everywhere. The art of sound is especially dangerous because unlike language it has no linguistic semantics. Music can mean anything, but the great European masters, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Shostakovich were all telling stories, often narratives of heroism and transcendence – some with purely abstract form, others more literal, some very politically motivated. Fortunately a composer can always hide behind the purity of musical sound and claim to relate nothing.

The key to recent radical music politics has been, literally, appropriating the means of production by abandoning the established institutions and their gentlemanly cultures – their concert halls, orchestras, opera houses, publishers, boards of directors and even recording companies. These vibrant and revolutionary do-it-yourself western musical times since the late 1950s are a textbook of spontaneous social political and economic reconstruction of music making, lately in digital start-up form everywhere. From MEV in Rome to the more politically focused group improvisations of AMM in London, Sonic Arts Union, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, the New Phonic Arts (Portal and Globokar), Larry Austin's New Music Ensemble, Davis CA, the life-giving publications of SOURCE Magazine and Peter Garland’s Soudings, Nuova Consonanza in Rome, Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Senders’ open-door San Francisco Tape Center, the AACM in Chicago's South Side, Globe Unity Orchestra, Mengelberg’s Instant Composers Pool, the brilliant rise of the Lamonte Young, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, Sun Ra ensembles dedicated exclusively to those composers works, and the remarkable emergence dedicated venues, groups, and the renewed form of economically viable music – from solo performance by extraordinarily creative people such as Joan LaBarbara, Meredith Monk, Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Steve Lacy, Diamanda Galas, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Ashley, Zorn, Joseph Celli, Charlemagne Palestine, Malcolm Goldstein, Phill Niblock, Frederic Rzewski and the rest to collectives like the Jazz Composers Orchestra to Karl Bergers Creative Music Studio to Bang On a Can.

Aesthetically all over the map, but nonetheless a community of artists who have proved the efficacy and success of an alternative philharmonic, true lovers of true harmony. The alternative culture of the 1960s and 70s was de facto a world-wide social movement for justice, equality and all forms of self-determining liberation from any real or imagined societal barrier. In music, pop, rock, jazz, European classical, electronics, and free improv began to interact, freely producing an infinity of dialects and some occasional successful fusions: Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, Teitelbaum’s World Band, George Lewis, Rhys Chatham, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, etc., etc. Informed by Cage's all-points curiosity, we too threw away the rule books and accepted all sounding things as potential musics. The high-versus-low music debate became ridiculous even as it continued mindlessly to noodle on in well-lit salons.

MEV was my personal political awakening as an artist, composer, and human being. Rzewski’s theorem of occupying space had great poetic and practical consequences. The overwhelming experience of disappearing into sound – made by yourself and others – which had no other way of coming into being except by collective will and mutual trust, was a utopian trip of immense promise. The group's renovation of its own rehearsal space, the procuring of gigs, equipment, publicity and money were a genuine collective effort. To this day neither the promise nor the consequences have disappointed me.

Sound art strictly speaking, Klangkunst or Arte Sonoro, is a vast creative territory for visual artists, composers, poets, and video-makers as well as a generic safe-house for seekers who do not know yet who they are or what they can do… it is essentially the current form and practice of the primordial Gesamtkunstwerk. Sound-Art as a rapidly evolving form of inter-media crowns 100 years of subversive liberational directions in the musical arts that recognize the potential of any space as a "concert hall" and any kind of sounding visual event as a new form of theater. By now chance, in the form of probabilistic and random events, is all but universally accepted in musical syntax, as is the extension of traditional playing techniques to include the mysteries of raw unstable noise. A planetary movement for real-time composition (improvisation), the most inclusive musical practice of any time and place, means anyone anywhere can make music with anything in any way any time. These ur-political musical developments are, in my opinion, in wide circulation due to the liberational work of experimental artists of the 1950s-80s who set out to expand their own consciousness and their poetics and their political (societal) engagement.

Which takes us at last to the Internet, and the grand larceny of what used to be called artistic property. What is digital is anybody’s, like gold coins found in a shipwreck. I personally cannot subscribe to this, because my music is my labor and I expect that this labor of artistic creation should in varied forms of exchange be able to pay for my basic needs in life on this planet. To consider my work an object that belongs to everyone is conceptually understandable; to deprive me of my way of earning a living is neither understandable nor acceptable.

We have all been Google-ized, as if stung by a benign poison dart. The idealized democracy of the Internet is as grand a fantasy as the idealized communal life in revolutionary Russia or 1960s hippiedom. The Internet has become a planetary shopping mall where everything imaginable can be bought and sold…it could yet become a new music theater, bursting with new forms of musical interactions and expressions. As a natural neo-primitive, I still do not trust electricity 100% and always sleep with my shofar and a couple of moo-cow toys next to my bed.

* * *

FREDERIC RZEWSKI**

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

The political use of music (there is no other use for it, really, except that it can make you feel good): Music is used all the time for political purposes. What is significantly absent is the inverse: some kind of musical influence on politics. Wagner, you might say (but it really isn't clear, in this case, who is influencing whom). One could imagine a politics in which music was not merely "used", but was a basic element: a "jazz politics", for example. A politics in which art, music, and poetry were given priority because they brought enormous savings to the economy, as spiritual activities which reduced violence and hastened the coming to adulthood of the species.

But it is true that, before this can happen, there must be a fundamental change in the common perception of what is necessary for the survival of the species: individuals, or communities?

Music must become conscious of its powers. At the moment it is roving amok, not knowing where it is going and why. If music does find a direction, it could have enormous consequences. Already its power to influence behavior has been demonstrated in history: it played a huge role in influencing public opinion towards the Vietnam War, for example. It seems strangely absent now, when war threatens to become the permanent state of the society. There is nothing now to compare with Dylan's "Masters of War".

Music may or may not be able to change the world. Probably not. But it would be nice if it could. So I think we musicians should act as if it could, even though we know it probably won't. We should not act as if we didn't care. Because, in fact, we do care. Music could really have a significant influence on the course taken by humanity in the next few decades. We are really are living through a critical period in our evolution; and, like it or not, the inevitable revolution has already begun. Will it be musical? Or will it be like all the others? (As Mark Twain remarked: "Prophecy is really hard, especially when it's about the future.") But there are grounds for optimism, since the stakes are so high and the dangers so great. Therefore (with Gramsci): pessimism in thought, optimism in action. The revolution will not be televised, but it might well be musical.

As for improvisation: after fifty years of blather, we have finally come to realize that, when we talk about it, we don't really know what we are talking about, any more than we did fifty years ago. We improvise when we cross the street, and although it is necessary for survival, it is not sufficient to change the world. We can't cross the street without a plan either. We need both of these things; and that's precisely what we don't have.

(The last time I saw Elliott Carter, just a few months before his death, we talked, as we always did when we met, of serious issues facing the world. At one point he said, "The real problem in this country is that there is no communist party." Carter was not a communist, but he was a highly cultured man, and in this case he was right on the button.)

Musicians, like most artists, are frequently refuseniks, in whatever political system. But equally frequently they are collaborators, all too ready to collaborate with the system that feeds them. Some become famous and use their fame to exert political influence, sometimes admirable, sometimes questionable. Others remain in obscurity, although their work is no less important. The great composers are not solitary geniuses creating out of nothing, but simply those who put their names on the collective products of traditions which may be hundreds, even thousands of years old.

The way musicians relate to each other in the production of music can be a model for the way people relate to each other in any social situation. In this way, music is the revolution. The more we can develop it to a higher stage, the more we will be helping the revolutionary cause. As for what the final consequences may be, refer to Mark Twain.

 

* * *

BEN BARSON (by phone)

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

I’m different from a lot of musicians I know in that I think it’s essential that all of our work contain political imagery and messaging. I don’t think that has to be reductionist in the sense that music has to be a protest song in 4/4 meter with a simple chord progression that everyone can sing along to. I do think that we live in a social and cultural matrix that has a reductionist orientation in terms of cultural production.

The musics of people of the African Diaspora, which has had so much influence on the development of American music and music globally, has been particularly affected. Hip-hop, for instance. It originated as a really innovative and brilliant fusion of spoken word, poetry, social protest, samples, funk…not just cross-referencing previous modes of cultural production. The form, the aesthetic, and the message were all completely revolutionary. Fast forward to 30 years later…of course there’s still a really potent grassroots community that is intense and drawing from the same energy, consciousness, and issues…but as far as the hip-hop that’s produced by this matrix, it’s all in 4/4, and in its worst manifestations it also has a very consumerist, patriarchal ideology, which was not built into the core of the music as it was originally understood.

That same process happened with jazz, not so much in terms of it’s lyrical content because it didn’t necessarily have that as a foundational element in the same way that that hip-hop does. But in terms of its relationship to, say, swing, what made New Orleans music so amazing is that you had this polymeter, 4 and 3 intersecting. Is it in 6/8 or 4/4? Actually, it’s in both at the same time. This is a profound statement on the multiple identities and consciousnesses of black people in the United States as human beings living in a white supremacist state. Fast-forward from this kind of protean jazz expression to Benny Goodman…swing is now systematized. It’s just do-da-do-da-do-da-da-da. The spirit of innovation is reduced. The forces of marketing and cultural appropriation become hegemonic.

Folk music in this country becomes reductionist when you want to create a protest anthem and you think you need to make it as simple as possible. That’s a very condescending view of people. But if you don’t compromise on the artistic integrity of the work, and if, in fact, you understand that breaking boundaries and opening up new forms of expression is part of the same revolutionary consciousness that the song explicitly references – questioning our assumptions about industrial society, racism, or patriarchy – those are the same processes. There has to be an innovative movement in aesthetics as well as in the messaging and topic.

It’s our responsibility as artists to make our music in opposition to the false tranquility and conformity that art for art’s sake promotes; that’s neither a socially responsible nor an honest relationship to reality. I think political and social consciousness gives power, meaning, and purpose to the music. People can hear that and relate to it – it’s something people are looking for.

Art and music have always pushed history forward. Plato said in The Republic that kings should be aware that when the music changes, the people change, and then the laws change. So a king should prevent changes to the music. Culture prefigures political and social change, in consciousness and in culture and in values. Music has always changed the world. The question is how will it change the world in the 21st Century? Will it be used to promote conformity, tranquility, and consumerism on a planet with increasingly finite resources, or is it going to create an eco-socialist aesthetic and revolution in values?

* * *

CHRISTIAN WOLFF*

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

I am tempted to answer the old question as Barney Childs and David Tudor did in 1969: “no, not at all”. Which may seem paradoxical, because I’ve written quite a lot of pieces with explicit political content, though I didn’t start till the early 1970s. Did I use the music I wrote “for political or social ends”? Well not as such (well, sort of, once, and it failed). I didn’t “use” the music at all, I just made/composed it. But I did make it with the hope that it might have some political use, at least in the sense that, because the music included reference to political events and issues, listeners (and performers) might learn something about these when engaging with the music. But then “political” and “social” are not the same. The first (as John Cage used to remark) has to do with the exercise of power, the second with the relationships of people within groups, where power may or may not be a factor. The latter may involve things like reciprocity, cooperation and non-hierarchical arrangements, ideals that might be found in political systems like socialism and anarchism, in their “pure” forms, which are almost never actually realized, though occasional, informal instances might turn up. These are ideals I believe in, and they have affected how my music works and how it is best prepared and performed. In that way my music could be said to be usable for a social (and perhaps political) end, though only by analogy or metaphor, for example, by showing non-hierarchical relations within the musical material and its performers. Music-making is a social activity but it’s not politics. I don’t know of any instances of music being a politically determining factor. Political music supports and reinforces an already existing political direction or position. Have others made “political” use of my music? I don’t know, but have trouble imagining it; social use, yes.

* * *

LAURIE SPIEGEL

Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

My first political musical involvements were simply carrying and playing my banjo or guitar during the anti-nuke & civil rights protests I was in during the 1960s.

I was also in the futile but idealistic group MAC ("Musicians Activist Collective") during its short life, early 1980s I think that was.

With my Social Sciences degree, fresh from high academia and my first job after moving to New York City having been for American Documentary Films while they were making their documentary on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, I was truly shocked at the level of political ignorance and apathy amongst the students at Juilliard when I started studying music there. By the end of the ‘60s, after considerable involvement in them, I had given up in frustration on the political sociological approaches to trying to “make the world a better place” due to various experiences and situations of that era, figuring that my best bet might be to try, through my music, to make it just feel better to be alive to whoever my music might be able to do that for. I realized later, though, that by specializing in music, instead of narrowing my focus to the exclusion of other fields that I cared about, I had only altered the vantage point from which I was viewing and approaching them.

As to others using my music, Robert Knight used my piece “Appalachian Grove 1” for theme music for WBAI’s weekend evening news for a couple of years. Also quite a few of the soundtracks I've done have social and political content: Tom DeWitt (a.k.a. Tom Ditto)'s "War Mime" and others of his early 1970s videos, Nam June Paik's "Guadalcanal Requiem", Kyle Henry's "University Inc.", "The Avenue of the Just” and other documentaries for the ADL back in the ‘70s, music for WBAI's "Arming the Heavens" radio documentary and others.

Avenue of the Just" for the ADL back in the '70s, music for WBAI's "Arming the Heavens" radio documentary etc. Avenue of the Just" for the ADL back in ts,

Those are the only instances I can think of offhand of my music being “used” in the ways you ask about, versus my making it intentionally with some kind of content in the range you ask about.

As to intentional social or political concerns, the ones I concentrate on the most in my life and my work have been environmental and animal welfare related. Although climate change, human overpopulation and habitat destruction are overriding concerns, individual works of mine have focused on the plight of feral domesticated and usually disparaged animals such as pigeons and mice.[i]

I don’t know if it is too far afield that Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan’s team used the realization of Kepler’s “Hamonices Mundi” I made for, as they put it when they first contacted me, the purpose of communicating with extraterrestrial life. The ulterior motive for that project, the Voyager Spacecraft’s golden record, I suspect though, was the hope that that project would actually function as a unifier for the people of earth, as the likelihood of interstellar communication is statistically quite low. We humans could certainly use such a sense of unity.

 

[i] For more on animal welfare concerns in Laurie Spiegel’s work, please see “Animal ecologies: Laurie Spiegel's musical explorations of urban wildlife” by Sabine Feisst, Social Alternatives, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2014: 16-22.