Sunday, March 13, 2016

Interview with Frederic Rzewski for Leonardo Music Journal #25, Politics of Sound Art

Photograph by Michael Wilson
In 1969 SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde magazine asked twenty innovative composers the same single question: "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for social or political ends?"  

In 2015 I asked  the same question of twenty composers working today for the Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal. Two of those composers – Terry Riley and Frederic Rzewski – also answered the question when it was asked 46 years ago

I am featuring the responses of individual composers here on the blog until May 2016, when the entire series of interviews will be made freely available on the Politics of Sound Art page.



Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?

The political use of music (there is no other use for it, really, except that it can make you feel good): Music is used all the time for political purposes. What is significantly absent is the inverse: some kind of musical influence on politics. Wagner, you might say (but it really isn't clear, in this case, who is influencing whom). One could imagine a politics in which music was not merely "used", but was a basic element: a "jazz politics", for example. A politics in which art, music, and poetry were given priority because they brought enormous savings to the economy, as spiritual activities which reduced violence and hastened the coming to adulthood of the species.

But it is true that, before this can happen, there must be a fundamental change in the common perception of what is necessary for the survival of the species: individuals, or communities?

Music must become conscious of its powers. At the moment it is roving amok, not knowing where it is going and why. If music does find a direction, it could have enormous consequences. Already its power to influence behavior has been demonstrated in history: it played a huge role in influencing public opinion towards the Vietnam War, for example. It seems strangely absent now, when war threatens to become the permanent state of the society. There is nothing now to compare with Dylan's "Masters of War".

Music may or may not be able to change the world. Probably not. But it would be nice if it could. So I think we musicians should act as if it could, even though we know it probably won't. We should not act as if we didn't care. Because, in fact, we do care. Music could really have a significant influence on the course taken by humanity in the next few decades. We are really are living through a critical period in our evolution; and, like it or not, the inevitable revolution has already begun. Will it be musical? Or will it be like all the others? (As Mark Twain remarked: "Prophecy is really hard, especially when it's about the future.") But there are grounds for optimism, since the stakes are so high and the dangers so great. Therefore (with Gramsci): pessimism in thought, optimism in action. The revolution will not be televised, but it might well be musical.

As for improvisation: after fifty years of blather, we have finally come to realize that, when we talk about it, we don't really know what we are talking about, any more than we did fifty years ago. We improvise when we cross the street, and although it is necessary for survival, it is not sufficient to change the world. We can't cross the street without a plan either. We need both of these things; and that's precisely what we don't have.

(The last time I saw Elliott Carter, just a few months before his death, we talked, as we always did when we met, of serious issues facing the world. At one point he said, "The real problem in this country is that there is no communist party."  Carter was not a communist, but he was a highly cultured man, and in this case he was right on the button.)

Musicians, like most artists, are frequently refuseniks, in whatever political system. But equally frequently they are collaborators, all too ready to collaborate with the system that feeds them. Some become famous and use their fame to exert political influence, sometimes admirable, sometimes questionable. Others remain in obscurity, although their work is no less important. The great composers are not solitary geniuses creating out of nothing, but simply those who put their names on the collective products of traditions which may be hundreds, even thousands of years old.

The way musicians relate to each other in the production of music can be a model for the way people relate to each other in any social situation. In this way, music is the revolution. The more we can develop it to a higher stage, the more we will be helping the revolutionary cause. As for what the final consequences may be, refer to Mark Twain.