Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Music and Politics Riff

I don’t know about other professors, but these days I do the bulk of my work in short talks that will never be published.  As one hits the saggy days of middle age and mid-career, the calendar fills up with little riffs.  “Can you talk for a few minutes on Opera and Emotion?” “Can you say something about Venice?”  “How about a pre-concert lecture on a little known and in fact very boring piece Brahms wrote when he was 15?” It’s the academic equivalent of, “Hey I’m getting married in a few weeks.  Can you just play this very specific tune for me that you’ve never even heard?”  Often these gigs turn out to be really fun; ideas for the sake of ideas. You don’t really need a rock solid argument or footnotes, and the prose can be a little more creative, i.e, fuzzy.  And often these sorts of gigs present the opportunity to talk to those outside my usual minuscule musicological circle.  But still they take at least ten times as much time as you thought they would and usually, for me, involve massive amounts of cursing and swearing which is sometimes repeated by my six year old. (and some of that behavior from my otherwise supportive husband).  After each one I tell myself that I’ll say no to everything for the next decade. I then say a snappy no to one miniscule task only to say yes to ten things a few days later. 
            I thought this blog might be a good home for some of these nuggets.  So here’s the first one:  Over the summer one of our grad students asked if I’d participate in a round table on music and politics for a Technosonics New Music concert. It sounded cool and seemed like it should be easy, especially after a summer where, among other things, my children and I played in the Transparency Band while protesting on the lawn at UVa. Along the way I found myself reading, Plato, Nietzche, and Du Bois.  I listened to Louis Andreissan’s De Staat, based on the parts of Plato’s Republic where the master outlaws various sounds.  And I listened to some great local hip hop.  Much of the trippy little field trip I went on in my head to write this thing didn’t make it into the five minute talk and the talk won’t make it into print...  But here it is anyway.

When I was asked to participate in a panel on music and politics I thought it would be easy. Any musician ought to be able to riff on music and politics; I thought. After all, I grew up singing protest songs and fell in love with Rage Against the Machine in their early years. My scholarly work centers on early modern Italy where every bit of cultural expression was about promoting some political end. In seventeenth century Rome the reigning Barberini suffered through a plague, a war and a lot of bad press generated by the conviction of Galileo as a heretic. They handled it by arranging a grand procession, an Opera, and other events that displayed their greatness, conflated them with gods, and used musical performance to reinforce the dominance of church and dynast.
But as I began to prepare my comments it got complicated and intimidating.    There’s a tendency towards a level of abstraction that defies any practical application and eschews real bodies. It’s easy to talk about the kind of politics of music in Barberini Rome where music was used in the Machiavellian performance of power. But it’s excruciating to think through politics of music, sound, and noise as they play out on real bodies in real places and especially in this place where politics always comes back to race. This is a place built by Thomas Jefferson, a man whose commitment to liberty went hand and hand with the subjugation of black women and men. That would be the TJ who imagined blacks as incapable of creating real music. This is a place where, despite a lot of talk about diversity and equity, music is shockingly segregated; classical music concerts frequently have not a single African American person in the audience. It is hard to think about why in this very building undergraduates are still told that Beethoven’s ninth symphony is a universally great piece of music but if you ask most children living in poverty who Beethoven is they likely wont know because no one has bothered to tell them. And many of them will have never experienced live music outside of school programs which are dwindling by the year.
This will seem like an odd modulation, but I’m going to retreat for a moment to Plato. He explicitly connected music and politics. What’s important is that he understood that music had a physical power to do stuff. He outlawed sounds that he thought would damage the morals of listeners. He muted sounds understood as dissonant and clamorous and thus made what is now understood as a distinction between music and noise. For Plato passion-inflaming music incited massive injustice, conflict and an explosion of laws that futilely attempt to control the masses: “they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they could judge for themselves about melody and song.”  
Jacques Attali puts Plato’s ideas into a modern capitalist context when he explains the process of marking music off from noise as a matter of consolidating community. “Listening to music is listening to all noise realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political. More than colors and forms it is sounds and their arrangements that fashion societies. With noise is born disorder and its opposite, the world.”
In this country it has most often been the sounds of African Americans that get marked as noise. Plato’s words sound a lot like those of critics of jazz and hip hop. Saidiya Hartman and Stephanie Bests write that “Black noise represents the kinds of political aspirations that are inaudible and illegible within the prevailing formulas of political rationality.” Or to put it differently, music cannot be separated from race. Certainly, not in this city where the legacy of slavery, jim crow, segregation, and massive resistance still reverberates through the public schools, the housing market and music making of all sorts.  
And yet despite the fact that to use Harman’s terms Black Noise represents inaudible politics Jazz and Hip Hop have been read as sonic embodiments of democratic theory. Many African American critics have explicitly linked musical forms and cultures to politics. Ralph Ellison famously posited jazz as the soundtrack to democratic ideals. And Cornel West explains, “ The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group--a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.” Writing about hiphop, Imani Perry explains  that “ideologically, hip hop allows for open discourse; Anything might be said, or for that matter contradicted. The reunion marks a democratic space in which expression is more important than the monitoring of the acceptable, a space, rather that suppresses the silencing impulse extant in various segments of America popular culture, both within and outside black communities.” To be sure the politics of jazz and hip hop are complicated and where some hear democratic ideals, others hear misogyny and commercialism; claims that can not be dismissed. But that tension reminds us that the distinction between democratic and repressive politics is as fuzzy and conditioned as that of music and noise. And all of these critics are talking about the experience of making and feeling the music.
Perry uses Hip Hop to think about racial inequality as reflecting the tension between what we say and what we do or put differently the space between the abstraction and the reality. To begin with, many African Americans in Charlottesville have never set foot in this building. No matter how many free events we offer, many people will never feel comfortable enough to come on these grounds which are still often referred to as a plantation. And this building constructed in 1898 closed off the lawn and in the process blocked off a small African American community known as Canada. That name marked a geography of political alternatives that began with a free Black woman named “Kitty” Foster who purchased land for a house in 1833.
That’s the distinction between what we say and what we do. It’s easy to say we are working towards equal access to the arts, but it’s really hard to put it into practice. It’s hard to think about why a sound ordinance that has mostly gotten press for keeping down frat noise on rugby road is also used to silence some of the venues in town that are actually working towards promoting hip hop. It’s hard work to think about why the free music programs in the public schools remain largely white and affluent. And it’s even harder work to change it.

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