01 July, 2009

Painting Yourself Into a Corner

Dan Johnson has an excellent account of the Ojai Festival over on his blog. Recently brought to my attention by the ever-observant (and also-excellent account giver!) Jeff Edelstein, the festival sounded utterly fantastic, with great performers and pieces. I am very envious that Dan was able to attend. (And Bravi to eighth blackbird for their deft curation!) But I have to say I have a slight beef with something he said.

In his review of Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, Dan says:
Now, "political" music is a funny thing—Andriessen's Marxist ideology paints him into a corner (...) Andriessen's a Marxist, so he wants to cast off decadent bourgeois concert-hall culture in favor of brash, vernacular idioms, but on the other hand he doesn't want to embrace popular/commercial culture. So he troubles his clear forms and pulses with épater-le-bourgeois dissonance, intensity and duration.

This statement is really interesting to me, but also a little confusing. I’m currently writing my dissertation on political music, and just wrote a few pages on Andriessen, so maybe this is not a fair debate—dissertation research versus well-done concert review—but I have a difficult time understanding how Andriessen’s Marxism has painted him into a corner.

Worker’s Union was written in 1975, in the middle of what was a sort of “early period” for Andriessen’s political work. During this period, Andriessen’s political music fell into two main categories. The first is a form of gebrauchmusik intended for use at political rallies. This included vocal music—Volkslied (1971) and Dat gebeurt in Vietnam (“This is happening in Vietnam”), both of which contained “collaborative chanting” intended to “express collective solidarity,”—as well as instrumental music, like De Volharding (1972) and Worker’s Union (1975), which present repetition and “collective unison” instrumental textures as a metaphor to encourage perseverance in pursuit of a political cause.

The second category of Andriessen’s political music—the techniques of which would follow him forward out of the 70s and into the 80s and beyond—explored deeper philosophical underpinnings associated with the struggle against fascism—including the dialectically-minded Il Duce (1973), Il Principie (1973-74), and De Staat (1973-76), a triptych. These works draw inspiration from Brecht’s notion of “a-social models,” presenting problematic texts by Machiavelli, Mussolini, and Plato to teach the audience (via example) now not to behave. These utilize a dialectic that is Marxian, rather than Hegelian, and so (as Everett tells us) “the opposing forces of the conflict are transformed into an aspect of a new contradiction.” This type of thinking—as well as the lessons learned from work on Brecht and Eisler’s Die Maßnahme in 1972—solidified issues for Andriessen that extended beyond the mere protest pieces he was writing in the early/mid-70s.

So, there’s that. But I also don’t understand Dan’s claim that Andriessen didn’t want to embrace popular/commercial culture, granted this could be a matter of semantics. (What is “embrace”? What is “popular”?) For me the Orkest de Volharding embodies Andriessen’s political ideal of this period. Among other things, this group closed the gap between high and low culture by integrating instruments and techniques used in rock and jazz music—like electric guitar, and jazz articulation. It brought its revolutionary music into alternative performance spaces, like factories, schools, political rallies, and community centers. It served as an evolutionary step in a lineage from Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, and Rzewski’s Musica Elletronica Viva, both important political ensembles from the late 1960s.

As for the notion of the épater-le-bourgeois, I think there is something to this, and I like the connection that Dan makes on this front. But I am less certain that the dissonance in Worker’s Union is a matter of merely wanting to shock the bourgeoisie—though that was probably part of it—as much as it is a by-product of the way the piece is constructed—i.e. as with the Scratch Orchestra: not necessarily intended to be played by “experts” but rather, by anyone who would be willing to put in the time and effort. That is, anyone with the courage and will to serve “the cause” can serve the cause.

Often, when people think of political music, they imagine a ranty obnoxious preaching-to-the-converted sort of drivel. And there is a certainly a lot of that out there. (Cardew alone could fill several concert programs worth of music that would tell you how awesome Mao is and why everything else is an atrocity.) But Andriessen isn’t really like that, and I wonder if as a result he sometimes gets a bad wrap—if, for example, people expect something more direct from him and if, when it's not delivered, these same people feel some odd sense of disappointment. (And I am not suggesting that this is the case for Dan, rather stating a broader observation.)

With the exception of the very early pieces—Reconstructie, Dat gebeurt in Vietnam, etc.—Andriessen’s music is political on a higher level than just a propagandistic message. Even within this early period we start to see this. Of De Staat, he says “I wrote De Staat as a contribution to the debate about the relationship of music to politics.” This is not smash-the-state propaganda. This is political philosophy. If one is expecting propaganda, or one wants to be served a composition that is easily digestible in one sitting, then one will probably be disappointed with Andriessen’s political work—or, in my opinion, with any political work worth its salt.

Dan cites an interesting book review by Gregory Bloch, who observes:

Adlington suggests that a fascinating study would be to compare Andriessen with another deeply political composer, whose politics play out not only in his works but also in his approach to performers and institutions: Cornelius Cardew. The comparison is particularly instructive here, since much of Cardew’s music (like Andriessen’s worst music) is characterized precisely by a lack of ambivalence, a univocality that is, in the end, both an aesthetic and political failing.
This univocality, which I think can be found in Andriessen's earlier works, is what ultimately makes that kind of preachy political music many have come to expect. But Andriessen, through his understanding of Marxist dialectics, has been able to escape this. So it just doesn’t make sense to me to say that Marxism has painted Andriessen into a corner. With all due respect to a fine review from an interesting writer, for my money, Marxism liberated Andriessen.


john k said...

I agree, David. For Andriessen, the “dissonance” of Worker’s Union is part of its political and social beauty, not a musical posture. The resulting harmonies, and any efforts of the performers to change and adapt their harmony is part of the political and social process of the work. It is totally akin to the Cardew pieces where one evolves harmonies in relation to the group, and where dissonance of all kinds is appreciated for its beauty.

I would be very interested to know more about your dissertation and how you define the scope of political music. Much of the most successful political music for me is among the most abstract, such as Wolff and late Cage, in which social construct is revealed metaphorically through music. My impression is that Cardew was very influential in this regard, in helping evolve the notion of “political music” past the Eisler construct, so that method and form, and less the overt message, imbues a work with political philosophy. We protest through our form.

ted said...

i like what you're saying.

it's interesting that you wonder if andriessen's works often leave audiences disappointed because they aren't ranty or because they lack univocality. i agree with you, in that these traits almost always turn me off to a piece of music too, but i never thought of audiences as clamoring for this kind of experience from andriessen's music. but maybe you're right - not that the music would be better liked if it peddled blunter political messages, only that it would be more digestible. the complexities of a piece like "de staat" do take time and effort to really think about, and maybe that's why it isn't performed that often. (or maybe it's because of the 4 oboes.) it's so hard to direct people's thoughts into the current world without gettin' preachy.

this post also made me look up andriessen's comments about de staat, which i totally love. not only that he wrote the piece as a contribution to the debate itself, but also that while "abstract musical material - pitch, duration, and rhythm - are beyond social conditioning... the moment the musical material is ordered it becomes culture and hence a social entity."

maximo nerd that i am, that quote gets me all fired up. it seems to go along with commenter John K's broad definition of the scope of "political music" - one i think people should entertain, and one that hopefully your diss will help foster. i think sometimes we close ourselves off from worlds of meaning when we believe music falls into hard categories of "political" or "not-political" (or "abstract"/"not-abstract" for that matter) - and there are endless cultural connections to be made if we accept music as part of a much more fluid spectrum.