The Politics of Music & the Music of Politics

Can music really be political?  Jonathan Russell recently posed this question in a ‘chatter’ text written for New Music Box.
For Russell, this question seems to be articulated out of dissatisfaction with music’s seeming impotence when it comes to responding to issues of political importance and urgency.  This is a good start.  After all, doesn’t political consciousness grow out of a sense of disappointment, out of dissatisfaction? 

But behind Russell’s text dwell several assumptions about music and politics that, I think, need to be re-considered from slightly broader perspectives.  More is at stake in the nexus of aesthetics and politics (and specifically of music and the political) than merely questions of content and intention.  Without investigating the political at the heart of music (and, as I will suggest, the musical at the heart of the political) and of the power relations running through the culture, the statement that, of course, music is political remains vapid. 

Part of the difficulty is that this discussion assumes that music is fundamentally apolitical and autonomous (a position which, in its movement to be non-political, is precisely political) and that it is only when a composer uses overtly political texts or refers to his work as expressing political intentions do we consider music political. Overtly ‘political music’ is the exception; this kind of thing.  Is this really the extent of the political ramifications of music and of all of its modes of experience and making? 

A second difficulty is that the question is asked only from the standpoint of the composer.  The composer is moved to write a work with a political statement; here it is, deal with it…  Haven’t some major issues with political ramifications—the fact that the very system in which the composer gives birth to a work is itself hierarchically structured, what social interactions emerge out of the process of rehearsing, working out interpretational strategies and decisions, performing the work for an audience, funding issues, always—been glossed over by situating this discussion only within the frame of compositional intentions and content?

What about the social, participatory, and communicative facets of musical experience?  What about the patronage system and the socio-economic conditions under which music is created?  What happens when we look at the power structures and modes of experience running through not only the production side of music-making but the reception side as well?  Don’t works of music, in the interpersonal relations and possibilities of collaborative decisions (or resistances to collaboration) that a work opens up, suggest models of organization and power dynamics, themselves political, that are applicable to the official political realm?  The centrality of the individual in enlightenment thinking running parallel with the development of the concerto in which a single, exceptional individual stands out from and is held in check by the crowd (the orchestra) in the act of performing the sacred text of the score handed down by a solitary genius whose spokesman is the conductor, for example.  Or perhaps, the radically democratic anarchy established by group improvisation.  (Jacques Attali asserts some pretty radical claims as to how music plays a prophetic function in relation to future social orders in his Noise: The Political Economy of Music.) 

Turning to the work of Jacques Ranciere might prove helpful in expanding our investigation of music and the political.  His work attempts to set out a theoretical framework, which allows us to see that politics is essentially aesthetic in principle.   For Ranciere, politics are a matter of expression and demonstration, and aesthetics determine what is expressible according to what he refers to as the ‘distribution of the sensible’.  In his Politics of Aesthetics, he writes:

I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts.  This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution… The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. (p. 12)

Ranciere develops this parallel between aesthetics and politics, when he continues:

If the reader is fond of analogy, aesthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense—re-examined perhaps by Foucault—as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience.  It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.  Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time. (p. 13)

Political struggle is always already an aesthetic struggle to find new distributions of the perceptual.  Douglas Boyce has opened a discussion of Ranciere’s work in a previous Bigmouths posting, and my cursory glance here at Ranciere is intended to suggest a more nuanced topography of music and politics to be discussed and explored in future postings.

What I am trying to get at is the following:  the politics of music is not a question of content but rather represents the very structure of politics in the sense of offering possible modes of social experience and organization.  Music delineates models of action and relationships between individuals and collective effort.  ‘Can music really be political?’ is not quite the question needed.  Rather, perhaps, we need to ask whether politics can really be musical.  I would like to suggest, following Ranciere, that music is not only fundamentally political but that politics is fundamentally musical…  What do you think?

christopher zimmerman