| | MR Online Noted folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of America, Congress of Industrial Organizations. Washington DC, 1944.

On Music and Politics

Over the past fourteen years, I have had the peculiar good fortune of being able to teach about politics in a music school.

I call it good fortune because very few such opportunities exist. What makes this peculiar is the universality of both constituent topics: music and politics.

Music and politics are alike in belonging, in principle, to everyone. We all have tunes running through our heads, we all sway to certain rhythms, and, in times not long past, it was common for almost everyone to sing.

Politics is no less omnipresent than music, and no less varied in the ways that different people experience it. In both cases, one can note their passage—across millennia—from communities in which all such forms of expression were participatory, to much vaster entities in which a seemingly permanent division has emerged between protagonists and audiences.

The gulf between active shapers and passive consumers can never be complete, but it nonetheless is powerfully encouraged by the class polarization of capitalist society, which entails not just the appropriation by some people of the toil of others—a practice common to many precapitalist social orders—but also the concentration of technological and organizational expertise in the hands of the appropriators.

And what has this highly qualified class of appropriators done with its power? As a reader of this journal, you may know the answer, in which case you will agree that our collective survival—as a species capable of assuring a decent life to each of its members—has come to depend on dissipating that concentration of power and dispersing its resources to the whole (organized) population.

All forms of artistic expression are pertinent to the many-sided sensibilities in people that need to be cultivated and revitalized if we are to fulfill such an agenda, that is, if we are to develop entire communities of activists. Music performance, however, has a sociality and an immediacy that can give it a distinctive role in this process.

We need to caution against reducing our conception of music to a single model. The diversity of musical forms reflects the diversity of social formations. The process of developing a unified communal expression that can evolve into a political force must therefore include the cross-fertilization of a wide array of traditions—not only those of different parts of the world, but also those of distinct cultures existing side by side within any given locality.

In addressing this challenge, we come up against the effects of class polarization within one of the very forms of artistic expression that we will need to draw on if we are to overcome it. Music itself embraces a continuum of styles and influences. Although some have a greater immediacy and accessibility than others, their fullest expressions are mutually dependent. On the one hand, as Sidney Finkelstein brilliantly showed in his landmark work Composer and Nation (1960), compositions of lasting and universal resonance are inconceivable without the popular cultures that nourished their creators. On the other hand, as I have been pleasantly and repeatedly reminded by my musician-colleagues, the most widely acclaimed practitioners of the various popular genres have routinely drawn inspiration—some more directly than others—from “classical” sources.

The conditions for sustaining this cross-fertilization are rather fragile, given the degree to which the diffusion of various musical expressions has become dependent on the capitalist market. The market has a segmenting effect; it tends to perpetuate niche audiences. Individual artists strive to resist this impact. The struggle appears particularly dramatic for musicians trained in the classical repertoire, who face—at least in the United States—the steady aging and attrition of those who purportedly make up their “natural” audience.

But the stereotype of a frozen canon of works destined for narrow and privileged strata of listeners is belied by the example of present-day Venezuela, where young people from poor communities are able, via multiple local orchestras with socially conscious conductors, to collectively embrace and reinvigorate music that has crossed barriers of space and time. Such is the power of revolution.

Given that such models flow nowadays “from South to North,” one is tempted to draw out the parallels. Capital depends on labor. The most lasting artistic expressions draw their lifeblood from the continuously evolving manifestations of popular culture. And, at present, the South’s revitalization of radical politics carries lessons in many dimensions for our societies of the Global North. Most decisive is the growth of a popular constituency—as at Bolivia’s recent [2010] Earth Summit—for responding in a socially transformative way to the environmental crisis.

Music has always infused popular movements. This principally reflects the fact that any deep commitment draws on a person’s entire being. Studying politics in a purely academic way—uninformed by the drive to act politically—is superficial. But studying music without developing one’s social awareness can feed into the corruption of music—its deployment for distraction, pacification, commercial promotion, and star-spangled profit.

Music used in those senses is no more than a device or an instrumentality. The deeper value of music emerges as one comes better to know and respect its taproots. This is made easier if one hears or performs it directly, especially with audiences that reflect the many layers of a community. Such experience enhances one’s political as well as one’s musical sensibility. It is part of what is involved in both broadening and deepening the movement toward a better world.


*This piece was originally published in And Then 16 (2011), 79–80.