I just caught this opinion piece by David T. Little in The New York Times. The line of inquiry is eminently fascinating and frustrating to me. After giving some background on himself, Little asks whether music should be political, divides political music into "revolutionary" and "critical" categories, names some historical and contemporary examples, and claims that our "historical moment" is no longer revolutionary. I should clarify he is writing within narrow confines for a series the NYT is running on "21st century classical music". I am still troubled by many of his conclusions, as are some of the commenters online.
I read it and thought "no, no, no". "Political" gets treated as a mannerism, or a device, or something from which to derive content. But music is a social phenomenon. What are the social implications of the way we make music? I don't see this addressed in the piece, and I think this is the most important political question we must ask ourselves as music makers.
We delude ourselves if we think we can walk into the halls of the establishment and decry them to any effect, let alone tear them down -- not to say we shouldn't try. There are repercussions for doing so, of course, and a sense of self-preservation often impels us to find some good in whatever stages we can get access to.
Still, "political" needs to be in the context of our music, not just the content. What are our allegiances? What devils do we make deals with to find an audience? That Thoreau quote I always bring up is relevant here: "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence." What's the use of writing a piece about the evils of war without calling out, before the concert, after the concert, the names of those who make war?
I imagine that as compensation for the things I say about American politicians I probably won't be invited to perform at the Kennedy Center anytime soon. That's OK. I just hope that by saying those things (like, for example, Obama is a fucking war criminal for the continued indiscriminate drone bombing and night raids perpetrated on civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan) other folks will be encouraged to live lives of political consequence -- to cast their whole influence. Imagine if I wrote my Elegy for the schoolboys at Ghazi Khan and left it at that! You might know about the atrocity at Ghazi Khan -- ten innocent people, nine of them boys, woken from their beds, handcuffed, and executed by US Special Forces in December 2009 -- but you wouldn't have that reminder from one more person, made at every opportunity I have, that such an action is a war crime and Obama bears culpability.
This is a paragraph in which I take a deep breath. (And parenthetically say that my work is not solely devoted to the trial of the current US president, whoever that may be. This is just an example.)
I suppose what I'm feeling at this moment is that the NYT piece that Little penned played it safe. We need to not do that. We can talk about political music, sure, but then let's talk about politicians. Inevitably, we're going to be talking about war criminals. Inevitably. In our music let's do whatever it is that moves and inspires us and moves and inspires our listeners. But when we write about it, about politics, let's get specific, name names, consider actionable offenses, ask how the Nuremburg laws apply, that stuff.
I imagine that, writing for the NYT, Little was not commissioned to think beyond certain self- and externally-imposed borders, specifically those of the economy and etiquette of classical music. Of course music will be politically benign if from the outset we accept the constraints that cause it to be so. "Political" needs to be context, not merely content. Little imagines that this "historical moment" is not revolutionary. But we are amidst many historical moments right now, making music in shiny concert halls and grungy basements and within and around various ideologies. And I think beyond the constraints and the borders imposed by convention, revolution certainly happens, needs to happen, is happening now.
PS: h/t to Dutch composer Samuel Vriezen.
PPS: this is a reaction to Little's opinion piece, not Little or his music.