Music and Politics

Contemporary Music and the Politics of Performance

This picture represents democracy because every member of this jazz orchestra must to listen to each other in order to effectively contribute in making the band sound great and function properly. Every player has a legitimate say in how the music should be conveyed and played. Each sections of the band has their own specific job in serving the band and the leadership between each section changes based on what music the band is playing. – Davis Reinhard, SMTD

It seems self-evident to suggest that music has been a tool in political discourse. Not only is there a long and well-known history of protest songs – popular music that advocates for a cause and/or becomes central to a social movement – but music, like all art, is always inherently built out of its political circumstances. The question, then, is whether or not it is consciously expressing a political sentiment.

Across all genres and styles, there is a long history of music becoming a part of political conversation. In these pages, I’ve assembled a collection of contemporary works that consciously engage with the political matters of their time. However, even this list would be too long, and impossibly wide-ranging, to showcase in it’s entirety. The works that follow – mostly from the field of contemporary classical music, but expanding outwards into other genres – serve not as an exhaustive collection of politically engaged music, but rather as an attempt to articulate the dimensions of music’s political engagement – the ways in which contemporary artists have used their work to take a political stance – and to point to pertinent questions about its impact or shortfalls in doing so.

Form as Political Allegory: Andriessen and Rzewski

Louis Andriessen and Frederic Rzewski were two composers that both aesthetically and ideologically had an outsize impact on the course of contemporary music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Stylistically, their music shared resonances with the contemporaneous trends of American minimalism. Andriessen, in particular, had a profound effect on the tides of American music given in that he taught the members of the Bang on a Can composers collective, who ushered in a significant stylistic turn in the late 20th century. In addition to pioneering a new style, however, both composers showed a fervent commitment to issuing statements of political support and solidarity through their music.

For Andriessen, this is exemplified by his seminal piece Workers Union (1975). In this piece, the musicians play short, rhythmic phrases in constant repetition, while the pitch remains unfixed – rather than specific notes, the musicians choose indeterminate pitches throughout the range of their instruments. For Andriessen, this formal structure serves as a political allegory: as he wrote in his composer’s note, “this piece is a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline: its rhythm is exactly fixed; the pitch, on the other hand, is indicated only approximately, on a single-lined stave. It is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step, sort of thing like organizing and carrying on political action.”

Similarly, Frederic Rzewski exercised musical form as a mode of political allegory in his 1969 work Les Moutons de Panurge. Here, players are directed to play an additive 65-note melody, adding one note each time before repeating from the beginning of the phrase: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, etc. Recognizing this to be a nearly impossible task, Rzewski instructs that one a musician gets lost, they stay lost, confidently playing the pattern from where they left off even in opposition to the rest of the group. As each musician gets lost, nothing stands to be “right,” resulting in a cacophonous canon. Rather than submitting to a collective unison, then, the piece allegorizes a community made of individuals forging their own path, a more symbiotic dichotomy of individual and collective.

This work is not as directly as political as some Rzewski’s other works – such as Coming Together, a work for speaker and small ensemble that draws text from the letters of Samuel Melville, one of the leaders of the prison rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, and The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a set of variations on the anthem of the Chilean socialist movement. Instead, both Les Moutons and Workers Union suggest an internal allegorization of political ideas rather than an explicit endorsement of a political cause.

Music as Advocacy

By contrast, there are countless examples of work that aim to project a definitive political stance – if not to endorse a particular side of political opinion (though this may sometimes implicitly or explicitly be the case,) then to address a social or political issue. For example, Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning work for choral and orchestra, Anthracite Fields. In this piece, Wolfe explores the dangerous realities – past and present – of American coal miners, a reality she uncovers through first hand research – she went into the coal mines herself, and also interviewed retired miners. The text of the composition is derived from oral histories, interviews, political speeches, and a mining accident index, among others. Wolfe states that her aim was “to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers. “

Wolfe pushed this concept of documentary musical work further in Fire in My Mouth, commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic (in partnership with the University Musical Society) in 2019. This piece explores the history of immigration and labor, focusing on the garment workers of New York City’s Lower East Side and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Like Anthracite Fields, the piece includes a recitation of the names of the 146 victims of the fire.

In her work Dear Abby, composer (and Michigan alum) Nina Shekhar also uses sources from the historical records to draw contrasts and comparisons to today’s society. In this case, excerpts from the infamous Dear Abby column – in which readers ask for advice on a variety of life topics – which include misogynistic stances paint a portrait of the historical gender roles and norms deeply embedded in society.

While these works use archival and documentary sources to explore political issues – historical ones, though ones with apparent modern resonances – Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands is rooted in both the qualitative and quantitative realities of our contemporary world. Composed as a response to 17th-century composer Dieterich Buxtehude’s seven-part cantata cycle Membra Jesu Nostri, in which each cantata is addressed to a different part of the crucified body of Christ, To the Hands extends the possibilities of the phrase “ad manus” to explore contemporary themes of migration and displacement – incorporating text from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” the poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, as well as numerical figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, which the chorus recites in a painful elegy.

Shaw’s work stops short of explicitly advocating for a solution to the crisis of international human displacement – though she does instruct that any performance of the work should be paired with solicitation of donations towards organizations that support unhoused people in one’s local community – but rather sharpens the listener’s attention to the matter. I see this hesitation to explicitly advocate for a stance not as a shortfall of the piece, but one of its strengths – for, to be realistic and perhaps cynical, a composition performed in a concert hall may well be inadequate to the task of addressing the immediate need of a crisis of displacement. Instead, Shaw turns something as mundane as a series of ever-increasing numbers into a more meaningful figure, drawing our attention, perhaps, to the crises that we too often ignore in the mundanity of daily life. In their beautiful string quartet Neutral Objects, yaz lancaster exercises a similar intention. “In times of violence,” they write, “neutral objects come to stand in the place of events, effectively “de-neutralizing” them as they become situated in new contexts. These objects on their own, decontextualized, represent the everyday.” For yaz, these objects include things which have become commonplace in our everyday, but loaded with an outsize political meaning – milk, red hats, masks, toilet paper, soap, fireworks, straws, stamps & mailboxes. By bringing attention to how all of our interactions – with objects as with people – are infused with political meaning, the piece ask the listener to reflect on both those political relations that we readily perceive – objects that have been de-neutralized – and to attend to those that are unseen to us in the present, the everyday state of emergencies we too readily ignore.

Contemporary Music and the Black Lives Matter movement

Like Shaw’s To the Hands is both inspired by and, in large part, modeled on the classical form of the mass, Joel Thompson’s evocative and powerful Seven Last Words of the Unarmed – originally performed in 2015 by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Eugene Rogers – appropriates a work from the classical canon – Haydn’s mass The Seven Last Words of Chris – to resonate with one of the most pressing issues of our contemporary moment: the ongoing state violence against black lives. In this piece, also for choir and orchestra, each movement sets the final words of seven black men killed at the hands of the police. Originally composed and performed – to acclaim and controversy – in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, the piece had a resurgence in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, which, among its many effects, prompted a widespread reckoning within the classical music industry of both the field’s contemporary lack of representation and historical propagation of white supremacy. By using a form that itself carries the baggage of classical music’s white supremacist history – and using that form to address the modern political crisis of white supremacist violence – at a moment of reckoning within the world of classical music itself, Thompson’s interventions in both the classical music field and the contemporary discourse of the Black Lives Matter movement are multivalent.

Indeed, the Seven Last Words has become one in a number of recent contemporary classical works that directly align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and address violence and injustice against Black people. Another example is Michigan alum Carlos Simon’s Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, a string quartet which he dedicates to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and others “wrongfully murdered by an oppressive power.”

As discussed above, these pieces resonate not just with the overarching cultural movement for Black Lives, but specifically intervene in classical music’s own history and the contemporary state of the industry. Indeed, the fight for racial justice has, in recent years, forced classical music institutions to examine their own biases while more consciously engaging with the issues at the forefront of our cultural moment.