Author Topic: What can music signify? Can it be political?  (Read 3987 times)

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Offline Maciek

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What can music signify? Can it be political?
« on: May 19, 2007, 11:16:28 PM »
Inspired by an off topic discussion on the 'Difficult' Mid 20th c. Composers - Where to Begin? thread, I've decided to start this new one. What are your thoughts about this? I admit ascribing any political meaning to music irritates me, reminding me of the absurd way some composers were accused of being subversive formalists under communist regimes (Prokofiev, Shostakovitch in 1948, Witold Lutosławski, Stefan Kisielewski, Artur Malawski, Zbigniew Turski in 1949, and many, many more of course).

Maciek
« Last Edit: May 20, 2007, 02:35:29 AM by MrOsa »

Offline david johnson

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #1 on: May 20, 2007, 12:46:59 AM »
if the composer claims an opus of his to be political i would believe him.  i might not get the intended connection, though.

woody guthrie, joan baez, etc. dabble(d) in political music.

dj

hornteacher

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #2 on: May 20, 2007, 04:57:27 AM »
The Eroica is dedicated to the spirit of the French Revolution which isn't directly political but, like any artistic venture, reflects events and ideals of the time.

DavidW

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #3 on: May 20, 2007, 05:03:50 AM »
The communist regime also considered jazz to be subversive.  I don't think that jazz has political meaning, at least as a whole.

I think that you have to take it on a case by case basis.  Does the composer himself assign political meaning to his works?  And also, are they still relevant today?  Do extra-musical associations exist if the listeners forget them or not realize their significance?  Kind of like if a tree falls in the woods. ;D

Scriptavolant

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #4 on: May 20, 2007, 05:08:03 AM »
My mentors have been Hanslick and Stravinsky, with some caution.
In my opinion music signifies music, there's no chance to find a "meaning" which is outside or beyond the musical world, able to assign a sense or a value to the music itself; infact even more indomitable idealist theorists have admitted that the aesthetical value of music is not linked to/dependent on its moral/ideological/political content.

Said that an ideological analysis is though always possible, maybe not always necessary.

Greta

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #5 on: May 20, 2007, 05:17:51 AM »
Political music? Well, the operas of John Adams. Poignant political satire and social commentary that absolutely is relevant to today.

Hot-button topics as communism, terrorism, and WMDs as his subjects so far. Intelligently dealt with, thought-provoking for sure, I find a lot of truths there.

I sure wish I could find DVD's of any/all of his operas, it would help "bring home" these works a lot more...

-Greta

Lilas Pastia

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #6 on: May 20, 2007, 05:18:32 AM »
Miaskovsky's 6th symphony was his favourite and is considered his best. It does have a political 'program' and in the last movement it's laid out in plain sight in the choral interventions. But one should not equate  "political", with "party line".

Rzewsky's set of variations 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated' is another example. Pure music, no text, but the chosen tune is a political rally cry.

Mikis Theodorakis' giant cantata 'Canto General' on poems by Pablo Neruda is overtly political. In this particular instance you can't really divorce the music from the political message. With the Miaskovsky and Rzewski works, you can.

Offline Maciek

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #7 on: May 20, 2007, 12:59:10 PM »
Well, I never for a minute doubted that a text used in a piece of music can have a political meaning. However, that is the meaning of the text. If you changed the text (to meaningless syllables, for example) you would still have the same music - but would it retain its meaning? (I know many of you will say you can't separate text from music in these cases, so maybe that's where we differ - while we would otherwise agree on the "politics in music" issue?)

So, my general view is exactly the same as yours, Andrea. I'm reminded here of one of Bernstein's young people's concerts where he performed parts of Strauss's Don Quixote making up a new program for it... Anyone else remember that?

Maciek

Offline Maciek

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #8 on: May 20, 2007, 01:02:05 PM »
I sure wish I could find DVD's of any/all of his operas, it would help "bring home" these works a lot more...

-Greta

I have his "Death of Klinghoffer" on DVD. But frankly, even though the subject matter itself is very interesting, I find the music so boring I was never I able to watch the whole thing through - I always give up about half an hour into it... :-\

Maciek

Lilas Pastia

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #9 on: May 20, 2007, 03:08:08 PM »
Actually, Miaskovsky did an orchestra-only version of his symphony, effectively castrating its political subtext. But it's a much less effective work.

Steve

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #10 on: May 20, 2007, 06:45:46 PM »
I generally like to view Art, in the style of New Criticism, as entirely seperate from the non-artistic motivations or proclivities of the artist. Of couse, from time to time, it is important to make distinctions, but in general I don't feel that political cause can be apart of the intrinsic compostition of art. Generally, when the artist is making a political statement, it is his voice that is tunneled through the art, not that the work itself is taking on his convictions. The artist can make a statement through art, but the two can generally be seperated.

Mark G. Simon

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #11 on: May 20, 2007, 07:55:05 PM »
In general, I think meaning in music is something assigned to it by its listeners. Usually the meaning is comes in the form of mood or emotional response. Political meaning is the sort of thing which generally requires words to convey. But associations can give political weight to abstract sounds. Marching rhythms with drums can signify armies and war. Folk tunes from a certain ethnicity can connote sympathy for a politically sensitive ethnic group. For instance Shostakovich used a Jewish folk theme in his Piano Trio at a time when the Soviets were following an antisemitic policy. Shostakovich is going to come up often in this discussion because of his uneasy relationship with the Soviet government. His works can be, and often are, subject to pro- and anti-Soviet interpretations.

There's the story, given on page 279 of Rostislav Dubinsky's Stormy Applause of the Borodin Quartet playing the Shostakovich 4th Quartet for Soviet authorities in hopes of having it allowed to be performed. They play it one way, the right way, and get stony faces from the committee. Then they ask to play it again, and this time play it the "Soviet way", and get smiles. Dubinsky writes of it "It was not just music: something else was there, a truthful account of our existence, narrated to us by musical sounds instead of words" and when they played it the first time "we emphasized everything that socialist realism requires to be concealed. We spoke the truth!" In the second performance "the tempi were faster, the sound lighter. We removed all possible 'anti-Soviet' insinuations from the music. Even our faces tried to look optimistic. We lied!" The factual existence of political content in Shostakovich's 4th quartet is less important to me than the fact that these musicians believed it to be there. This is what the music meant to them.




Offline Maciek

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #12 on: May 21, 2007, 12:30:34 AM »
Great story! Thanks.

Offline val

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #13 on: May 21, 2007, 02:41:16 AM »
To me, music doesn't signify anything except music itself.

If a composer hates the US and uses the national anthem and changes it in a can-can, the political meaning is not in the music. It is only in the meaning people associate to some melody that has become a national anthem. Musically it would be nothing but a theme and a strange variation on its rhythm.

All political musical works I know, use the word. After all, the music that Prokofiev uses in Alexander Nevski to characterize the Germans is very impressive, and even noble. And the use of the theme of the Lustige Witwe in Shostakovitch's 7th Symphony is a sarcasm towards the nazis? But why? It is a very agreable melody. And it has nothing to do with nazism or war.
And regarding most of the works of Luigi Nono I don't see anything political in his music. In the words perhaps. In the titles, sure. But that is something external to the music itself.

Mark G. Simon

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #14 on: May 21, 2007, 04:24:41 AM »
To me, music doesn't signify anything except music itself.

... the political meaning is not in the music. It is only in the meaning people associate to some melody that has become a national anthem.

I would go farther and say that emotion or meaning of any kind is not in the music, but rather is brought to the music by those who listen to it. If it were otherwise we wouldn't have such a divergence of opinion on what music is emotional or meaningful, and what music isn't. And yet the fact remains that people feel emotion in music and find the experience of listening to it meaningful. We can't really tell them they're wrong, can we?

Offline Maciek

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #15 on: May 21, 2007, 05:01:46 AM »
Excellent point, Mark. Rationally speaking there cannot really be any "meaning" in music. OTOH, it seems obvious that music does communicate... something. ::)

karlhenning

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #16 on: May 21, 2007, 05:02:59 AM »
Well done, Mark.

Scriptavolant

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Re: What can music signify? Can it be political?
« Reply #17 on: May 21, 2007, 06:28:30 AM »
I think that considering music only (merely) as a form of depiction, a tool to express something else (feelings, ideals, nature), is..well..very reductive and utilitarian, and most of all it is a sort of popular cliché which very often initiate listeners to classical music but has to be deepened somehow; even Schumann, one of the most convinced Romantic souls, rejected the common idea by which a composer is pushed to write music with the only aim of "expressing" feelings.

There is, of course, political music, nevertheless I think we judge such thing as political music again on the basis of its aesthetical values; so strictly political or ideological aims must be tranfigured in a work of art, otherwise we couldn't even speak of Art.

More, the idea by which music has always a speakable rational sense, when taken to the limit by some critic or listener, often causes a sort of ideological embezzlement of meaning which personally I find very disturbing.