Friday, May 12, 2006

GUEST POST://Classical music still burns with the radical spirit of the 1960s

Political cacophony

By Ivan Hewett
From the Telegraph - 11/05/2006

Pop and classical music are often thought to live in separate worlds, but they connect in some surprising ways. I was reminded of that last week, when I read my colleague Neil McCormick's lament on the lack of political fire among young pop musicians.
It seems that, these days, they're all fixated on their private lives, or on their girlfriends'. If you want protest songs, or just an awareness that there's a world beyond the front door, you have to turn to oldsters such as Patti Smith.
I was struck by how similar things are in classical music. Back in the 1960s and '70s, everything seemed charged with political energy, but it wasn't shown in obvious ways, such as protest songs. It was to do with changing our perception. The effort to create new languages of music felt like part of a bigger enterprise for a better world.
Sometimes, the connection became overt. The Italian composer Luigi Nono tried to raise the consciousness of the proletariat with his car-factory concerts in Turin. Another Italian, Luciano Berio, wrote memorial pieces for Martin Luther King. The German composer Hans Werner Henze had a sudden flush of revolutionary fervour when he met student leader Rudi Dutschke, and then went off to Cuba. Even someone as purist as Pierre Boulez was rumoured to have been communist in his youth.
The trouble with this middle-class political music was that it floated far above the world it was meant to change. You can't whistle Nono's electronic tape piece La fabbrica illuminata while manning the barricades.
The British radical Cornelius Cardew realised this, and tried to create a real proletarian revolutionary music, writing simple, pugnaciously optimistic songs with texts by Chairman Mao. But these went too far the other way: the feelings expressed seemed as fake as those heroic statues of Socialist Man and Woman that came tumbling down with the fall of communism.
The experience of the 1960s and '70s seemed to show that political music is caught in a dilemma. If it uses radical language to say radical things, it can't connect with real political and social life. If it says simple things in a simple way, it loses all emotional subtlety and turns into propaganda. If the choice is that stark, then it's a lost cause, and we shouldn't be sad about the disappearance of the ideological strain in new music.
But I am sad, because we seem so much poorer without it. The retreat to the purely aesthetic in the past 30 years has led to a depressing lowering of the emotional and intellectual temperature of new music. We hear so many safe, high-gloss pieces that seem to have no urgent reason for existing.
However, the good news is that the radical spirit hasn't gone. It's just that, as in pop music, you find it in people who might be old in years, but are marvellously young in spirit. One of them is the American composer Frederic Rzewski, who's in London this month for a retrospective of his music.
He declines the title of political composer, saying that, unlike Cardew, he is not a provocateur. But he also says he is not into abstractions: "I am interested in life and the relationship of music to life." He's written pieces about the Iraq war, about union-breaking in American cotton mills, about the Attica prison riot in New York state in 1971. His best-known piece is stirringly entitled The People United Will Never Be Defeated.
That sounds as if it could be a tub-thumping piece of propaganda, but Rzewski never stoops to that. His music keeps the subtlety of art, and all the freedoms gained by Modernism. What it junks is the Modernist obsession with purity.
Rzewski's music is wonderfully impure. His piano pieces ask the player to rap on the wood, blow whistles, stick things in the strings, grunt and hiss rhythmically, even recite poetry. The notes themselves are full of references to folk song, protest song, art music, jazz, you name it. But these things aren't just quoted, they're put in a highly wrought context that gives them an aura of imaginative freedom. This is how he avoids the pitfalls of avant-garde political music. It is simultaneously anchored and free, Utopian and yet with its feet firmly on the ground. Go hear it while you can.

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