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Diary of a Mad Composer

“If only everybody in the world read The New Republic, the world would solve all its problems.”

—Ian Buruma

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society in Real Enemies. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz

Those words—spoken to neo-liberal warmonger, and New Republic contributing editor Paul Berman, and for which I will eternally love Ian Buruma—I would paraphrase as: if only everybody in the world embraced political art …” The appeal of political declarations—whether they come from the endless herd of white men in blue suits yammering on TV or in the pages of political journals, or from an artist painting a slogan in the wilds of, well, there are no wilds left in New York City—is that of a consumer product: a simple, easy to swallow meme that provides instant satisfaction because it goes down agreeably. That’s by design, it’s meant for those who already agree with the meme.

Political art is mostly as dreary as politics itself, because, at least in America, it doesn’t express political thinking so much as mirrors what’s better known as the “political process.” Now that we are already deep into a national election, we can see what that process is: a tedious soap opera, with a cast mostly comprised of smarmy, narcissistic buffoons, paid for by oligarchs, and commented on by well-paid courtiers who consider themselves elite journalists but are really a set of gossipy, vapid theater critics with the intellectual maturity of tweens.

Politicians make anodyne statements, and so does political art. Political art tells us, for example, that racism is bad, and so do politicians. That settles it—of course racism is bad. And yet, somehow, neither the art nor the politicians have solved the problem.

The corollary is a Zhdanovite view of the arts, in which a work is good if it expresses a political statement the critic also holds. And so we have the current intellectual and aesthetic bankruptcy of cultural criticism from the conservative “team” (not Conservatives so much as a tribe, for whom winning is a justification for their self-perceived correctness). A recent example: flutist Mimi Stillman has a solid new recording on Innova, Freedom. On it, she plays music from Mieczyslaw Weinberg, David Finko, and Richard Danielpour. The pieces are decent but unremarkable, Stillman plays them well.

But with the title comes the liner notes, which describe how the pieces express the experience of different anti-Semitic injustices and horrors of the 20th century. The music doesn’t actually convey these, but the extra-musical arguments from the composers and Stillman do. Of course, that was all that Jonathan Tobin needed in a review in the New York Sun, in which—finding the arguments agreeable to what seems to be his view that war against a perceived Islamic hegemonism is what America needs now, and all the time—he praised the CD as the classical music world making “a coherent statement about the struggle for freedom.” No, it’s not, it’s some music, and no one who listens to it is in any way more free, especially as the neo-con understanding of freedom is nothing more than buying and selling in an autocratic society. But put that title on the cover, and you’ve sold a political statement to a loud and visible segment of society. You don’t even have to deliver it, just say “freedom!”

Deeds, not words. There’s no action in pointing out the obvious, and when it’s left as just a statement, then it’s easy to manipulate. Racism is bad, so racist political speakers have taken to shouting that pointing out examples of racism is itself racist, or that the promotion of diversity is racist (I expect to see that in an upcoming opinion from Antonin Scalia).

Anodyne, craven speech is the lingua franca of politicians—let them have it. Artists who traffic in it should also be ignored. I think it’s time for people to start ignoring the composer John Adams—it may help improve his work.

Adams was previously a fine and important composer; now he increasingly appears as a composer who considers himself important. The music has suffered. Great pieces that had no inherent social or political argument, like Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, and the Violin Concerto—and great pieces like El Dorado and El Niño that asked social and political questions—have been replaced by The Gospel According to the Other Mary and Scheherazade.2. Those two recent pieces have an embarrassing self-regard, Adams publicly waving his hand and identifying as a feminist via simplistic sloganeering.

At the premiere of Scheherazade.2 with the New York Philharmonic in the spring of 2015, Adams was well pleased with himself for mocking Rush Limbaugh, a meaningless target nowadays. It was like watching your father try to get hip with what the kids were thinking. This smugness has infected his absolute music too, which has gone from the deep, evocative charm and brilliance of Grand Pianola Music to the lazy pastiche of City Noir and the execrable Absolute Jest. Do try the recent, morbidly fascinating CD release from the San Francisco Symphony, which pairs Absolute Jest with Grand Pianola Music.The first panders through Beethoven (all the good music in the piece is taken from Beethoven), the second—with strong playing from pianists Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin—floats free of received wisdom and builds a spectacular, sweeping edifice through fitting together notes and gestures. It has no meaning, except for what one gives to it.

Grand Pianola Music, by being open to each listener’s experience, bears witness to life, and that is the fundamental imperative of political art. The piece is political in that it makes space for questions. Those are what matter most—the answer on what to do about racism is, well, who the fuck knows? But without the question, “what is racism,” we start having to spend precious minutes talking about bullshit like #alllivesmatter, something that should be ignored.

Bearing witness has been the great power of political music, from “Black and Blue” to “Strange Fruit” to “Mississippi Goddam.” It is what makes Fred Rzewski’s pieces important political art as well as great music. Coming Together and Attica don’t have answers, but they force the listener to confront important and difficult questions. His classic The People United Will Never Be Defeated! has no inherent political meaning beyond the title—what is the political meaning of a melody and its thirty-six variations? One answer is that a song of socialist solidarity can be made into great, abstract, high art, and the implications of that are—who knows? The fundamental contemporary political act is to say, simply, “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.”

There has been some music this year, live and on record, that has been superb as pure music and with an added, visceral punch of being deeply, powerfully political. And all the music does is bear witness, reveal some situation or question that is everywhere in plain sight, yet too complex or emotionally fraught for a man in a blue suit to handle.

Holding it Down: The Veteran’s Dreams Project is at the limit of what anyone can handle. I saw this on November 12, 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum, in the company of boice-Terrel Allen, who interviewed Mike Ladd for our current issue. Holding it Down is a dramatic piece from Ladd and musician Vijay Iyer, political music with an agenda that is basic and communitarian.

Holding it Down is simple and abrading—it gives voice to veterans of color who have served in the forever wars in the Middle East and central Asia. Primarily through the voices of veterans Maurice Emerson Decaul and Lynn Hill, they speak to us about, and through, their dreams, dreams about the murder of war, the thing that America works so hard at ignoring.

It is stunning and disorienting to see people who want normalcy, just like us, talk to us about dreams of murder, death, destruction, killing other people, insanity, and suicide. What is uncanny in our current wars is how much is fought from home. That is the story behind Hill’s overpowering poems. Her duties were unsettling: after serving all day piloting a drone, she left what essentially was her office, got in her car, and drove home. Her work was work, with office hours and routines, it just involved killing people. It was normal and abnormal, and her dreams, in the end, are about being known by her name, and following the regular routines of life. “I dream in color,” she says. “When I dream, I dream of normalcy.” It is political, and radical in the extreme, to point out that there’s very little normalcy left in how America is governed.

It goes against how society currently works to point out that the “solution” of war means sending men and women to maim and kill other people, to destroy their society, and having those same men and women come back—if they come back at all—mutilated in mind if not in body. But I’ll hand it to the professional propagandists for war, from Dick Cheney to Christopher Hitchens to Andrew Sullivan to George Packer to Matthew Yglesias; from CNN to the New York Times, The New Yorker, et al., ad nauseum: they’ve managed to sell the professional murder and chaos of war as a moral good. Holding it Down shows that to be a sickness.

There’s more sickness and fundamental anti-Americanism in our technological-surveillance state and how the suits use fear to justify spying on each and every American (does America even exist anymore, except as the “homeland” of borders and atavistic white supremacy, rather than an idea of how government should operate?). That is both a feature and context of Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies, a multimedia performance that opened at BAM on November 18. Argue and his Secret Society big band were staged by director Isaac Butler, and they accompanied a fifteen-channel video made by Peter Nigrini. In twelve sections, they manage the seemingly impossible: create a musical narrative of paranoid conspiracy thinking in America.

I’m sympathetic toward the impulse to accept conspiracy theories—they are spying on you, and unless you are an important or wealthy person, they are out to get you, at least via government and industry’s casual and inhumane neglect of ordinary people and their lives. But the conspiracy is just another easily digestible, one-bit answer for everything.

The combination of Nigrini’s film and the music is seductive, a tour-de-force of propaganda. Images and clips that range from mind-control experiments to the notion that the moon landing was faked (by Stanley Kubrick, of course) build an accumulating inward spiral—the narrative only goes in one direction, towards the grand unifying conspiracy of everything. Even if you don’t agree, the storytelling carries you along.

Argue’s mellifluous, rich, driving music adds an extra, subliminal layer of authority. It is so strong, polished, appealing, and interesting, that it seems after a while that Argue is not just bearing witness to but also actually arguing for conspiracy theories. That is the power of art/propaganda, where even the most outrageous lies can be made into convincing stories in our movies, novels, and operas. At the last moment, we are pulled back from the brink, with a cogent narrative adapted from Richard Hofstadter, that describes the paranoid style. It’s all just a show after all, just putting the question out there.

Nigrini consciously used ideas from the classic political paranoia films The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate. The visual themes seduce the mind. Argue adapts some atonal techniques into his score, although his suggestion of a conspiracy theory involving a cabal of twelve-tone composers dominating modern classical music is a theory (joke) gone too far. They didn’t need a conspiracy; they had the universities and Darmstadt. They did it all out in the open, one ideology to stand above all others. It’s just politics, baby.

Close companion to this is Ted Hearne’s new recording, The Source, on New Amsterdam. Hearne is the most powerful contemporary political composer today, a real heir to Rzewski’s legacy. His Katrina Ballads is a masterpiece, a gripping musical depiction of how shit is fucked up and bullshit. I wish I could also praise The Source, but it is inconsistent. The piece is about Chelsea Manning in that it conveys the information she leaked and expresses some of her thoughts via transcriptions of some of her chat logs. This is a document made into a musical work, an oratorio, but the music doesn’t always work. Hearne uses Auto-Tune to set the prose into music, and the effect is alienating, cold, bearing witness more to technology than human actions and accountability. That does peek through, though in powerful and chilling musical expressions of the murder of war.

More sympathetic, and really quite lovely and evocative, is Joe Phillips’s Changing Same (New Amsterdam). This is a subtle and remarkable work. Phillips has made music that places the style and meaning of rhythm and blues into the context of contemporary classical music. Stuff like that is usually embarrassing to hear, but Phillips makes it work, and makes it sound easy and natural. His bearing witness is by example—a black composer taking black popular music (with its own important history of political and social consciousness) and placing it, without comment, on an equal footing with the forms and structures of the classical tradition. It is no exaggeration to say this is on par with Mahler making symphonies with music his peers thought of as vulgar, and it is just as successful.

Let us all strive to bear witness, as these works do.


George Grella

George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 15-JAN 16

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