|Composer/Guitarist/Violist John King: http://www.johnkingmusic.com/biography.cfm|
The following is an excerpt from Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art, Return to SOURCE: Contemporary Composers Discuss the Sociopolitical Implications of Their Work.
In 1969 twenty innovative composers were asked the same single question. I was honored and delighted to have the opportunity to ask it again of twenty composers working today. I'll be featuring many of their individual responses on this blog in the coming weeks and months.________________________
Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?
JOHN KING (by phone)
Many of my pieces, going back to the 1980s, have been based around political and social issues. One that comes to mind is a set of pieces called Immediate Music for looped and processed electric guitar, violin, and voice. One piece called Move was about a series of events. There was a black activist group in Philadelphia called MOVE, all the members lived in a house together…they’d come out of the Black Panther Movement. They played political messages over loudspeakers, neighbors complained and the cops didn’t like it…the cops surrounded the house, fired into the house, MOVE members returned fire, then the cops dropped 2 bombs, which started a fire, burned the MOVE house plus about 60 other buildings in the neighborhood, firefighters let the blaze go until it was out of control. Eleven people including 5 children died in the fire. And around the same time, there was a New York Times editor named Joseph Lelyveld who came out with a book called Move Your Shadow about South African Apartheid. The title came from something he overheard a golfer say to his black caddy while taking a putting shot. Then there were a bunch of racial killings in New York both by police and by racist citizens in different neighborhoods. At the end of the piece, I listed all of the people who had been killed: Willie Turks, Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith. Because of recent events, I’ve been thinking…how long would that list be now? The piece premiered at the first Bang On A Can Marathon in 1987. At the end of the concert, someone came up to me and thanked me for remembering these people, for keeping them from disappearing from our consciousness.
Another piece called Corn was about an incident that happened during the farm crisis in Minnesota, which is where I’m from. Farms were being repossessed by banks…the farm community was being devastated…everything was on the auction block. One farmer and his son pretended to be buyers…they asked a banker to come out to their farm, where they shot him. They went on the lam. The father committed suicide and the son was arrested and charged with being an accomplice. The piece was like a country fiddle tune, like a hoedown. The chorus was “swing your partner, swing your banker, shoot your banker, shoot yourself” all done with a do-si-do kind of a groove.
Even before this, I was very much into Bertolt Brecht. I chose a radio play of his called The Trial of Lucullus. It’s an anti-war play. Lucullus was a Roman general who was known both for his cooking as well as for his rather brutal campaigns. I turned it into a solo piece using projected slides of Oliver North, General Secord, George Shultz, and Ronald Reagan with their eyes kind of blacked out like a porno film might have. Interwoven with my own music, I projected as much of the original text as I could. The hour-long piece went back and forth between Roman historical times and modern times in Central America…El Salvador, Nicaragua…
When these pieces came out, I got more critical response from the left, claiming that my work was too elitist, that I should have been playing music like Woody Guthrie. I was making avant-garde, experimental music because I felt like the politics were avant-garde…of this time.
I think art and music can make people realize that some things haven’t gone away, that someone is still talking about it now. Under certain circumstances I believe it can have a great deal of immediate impact. On some level, I believe it’s about just making people aware, and bringing issues to their attention…and then they can decide whether they want to act, or to look into things a little bit more. People might hear a piece of mine, and next time something crosses their field of media vision, they might look at it a little more carefully. James Joyce said he wrote Finnegan’s Wake to encourage people to think…he did it with incredibly dense language, referencing the names of every single river in the world, completely wild writing…it encourages people to think, and to move into the future. We can use this same kind of mindset to move forward culturally, musically and politically as well.
I also recently finished a series of string quartets titled Free Palestine. The music uses the Arabic pitch and rhythmic modes as its starting materials. It also asks the players to combine their material in different, non-traditional, improvised, chance-determined ways – exercising “freedom” in their interpretations. It caused (the “title” caused) some controversy at its premiere, some people boycotting the concert, the title needing explanation, etc….so it goes, though I see no need for explanation – all one need do is SPEAK the title and it somehow feels right, to me anyway.
I’m working on a piece right now that is designed around a large ensemble and the idea of the conductor, the person who usually controls that large ensemble. In this piece, I make sure that the musicians are given the opportunity to follow or not follow, sometimes based on chance operations and sometimes because of the way the music is laid out. I would like to see the conductor making a big gesture for a downbeat, and no one following that “order”. That, I think, is a kind of political statement, too – we don’t have to look to one person and think that that is the one person we need to follow. Maybe look to the people around you…make your own alliances. Time and sound can be organized around different kinds of egalitarian processes – putting them into practice. To me these kinds of endeavors can be really interesting, both socially for the people involved in making the music, as well as for the listeners – they get to experience new possibilities, new imaginations, new viewpoints.