Saving Music from False Consciousness

Many of you were invigorated by my colleague John Halle’s provocative article “Occupy Wall Street, Composers and the Plutocracy”, which I posted in this space last year. He’s now written a kind of historical prequel, tracing the changing relationship between music and leftist politics through the 20th century: “‘Nothing is Too Good for the Working Class’: Classical Music, the High Arts and Workers’ Culture.” I find particularly intriguing a mid-century view articulated by Hanns Eisler that “simple music does and can reflect only simple political thinking,” and that “it is easier for people who appreciate complex music to move on to an appreciation of complex political problems, than for those who limit themselves to folk (pop, rock, gospel, blues, etc.)” This will certainly not go unchallenged (and John is not asserting it as his own view), but I’m fascinated that, before the 1960s fusion of rock and progressive politics, classical music was seen by some as having a potentially more crucial role. The depth of John’s historical knowledge in this area, and – even more – his ability to maintain all these cultural contradictions in their complexity, is phenomenal. We’re actually discussing writing a book together, though I’m not sure what, beyond my 600-word-an-hour writing speed, I have to contribute.


  1. says

    Thanks a lot, Kyle for linking to this. I haven’t set up my site to take comments so if anyone reading would like to do so here, I’d be glad to respond. For some additional context, I thought I’d send on Noam Chomsky’s reaction to the piece. I’ll mention that part of the motivation in writing it was to provide Noam with an answer to the question of why, when he’s asked about the music he listens to, he always says “late Beethoven quartets”. His audiences are always puzzled about why an iconic radical has conservative, even reactionary, musical tastes. Here’s what he has to say.

    “It’s a fascinating piece, also lots of personal resonances, in particular from the ’30s. Life magazine’s travesties aside, ILGWU was a lifesaver for my unemployed maiden aunts, seamstresses, little formal education but avid classical music enthusiasts, not least from ILGWU-run events, same with literature and the arts generally — that’s aside from the few days they got in the country, thanks to ILGWU, nothing like the pictures in Life. Same was true of the family generally, mostly unemployed working class, some with only a few years of formal education, some made it through high school, but lively discussions about the latest concert of the Budapest String Quartet, performances of Shakespeare, and on to every branch of psychoanalysis and for some, every variant of Marxism, that you can imagine. Some of them straight CP, often in ways I found comical even as a child, though with realization that what the CP meant to them was not Russia but being in the forefront of union organizing, civil rights, workers education. If you haven’t seen it, you might be interested in a great book on reading habits of the British working class in the 19th century, by Jonathan Rose. Pretty similar among Americans driven to the mills in the early industrial revolution. And not just in the arts, but also science and math, prominent figures felt it to be their responsibility to bring advanced understanding to the working classes. Quite different from today, with a few rare exceptions.

    “At the other extreme, had personal experiences with Babbitt too, not him personally but his coterie, around Perspectives in New Music, through close friendship with Arthur Berger. You may have heard from Louis Kampf about how Arthur tried to get us to help him through set theory and number theory. And I met some people . . . with whom I had some rather surreal discussions about what they were doing.

    “Actually, I’ve always liked the Rasumovsky’s better too. The reason I mention the late quartets is that it was so much harder for me to come to appreciate them, at whatever level I do — nothing very sophisticated.”

    KG replies: Wow – an unpublished Noam Chomsky text on my blog. You’re amazing, John. And by the way, I can’t think of any late Beethoven as either conservative or reactionary. We’re still trying to catch up.

    • says

      As Kyle mentions, the piece deals mostly with the 1930s cultural front and its legacy. Politicized classical music of the 60s and 70s, in which Rzewski figures prominently, is the next subject to take on. Lots to say on that topic!

  2. Kyle B says

    bravo on an article just as interesting and fact-packed as the Occupy one! As a side note… when did Hanns Eisler become such a tenacious avant-gardiste? Didn’t he for quite some time share more with Seeger than with Schoenberg? I know that in a hasty and confusing paragraph from “On the Social Situation” (1932) Adorno described Eisler’s music as “proletarian communal [or ‘use’] music” which the former of course had his reservations about. But I also know that the two shared a lot of ideas a decade later in California.

    At any rate, I share your sympathies with Eisler, although I don’t know if baking a have-your-cake middle road between complexity and accessibility (or what you call Eisler’s optimism and critical Seegerian awareness) is necessarily the right way to go. Wouldn’t we rather benefit from a demystification of what Seeger’s (and Cardew’s, for that matter) aesthetic ideology is all about? Isn’t it, in short, “if you understand and enjoy this music, it’s serving your class; if you don’t enjoy it, it’s oppressing you”? Seeger’s catchy emphasis on the “what is it good _for_” seems to imply that you can tell who precisely is benefiting from a piece of music based on who is sitting in the audience, or who applauds when the piece is complete, which seems a little sketchy. This is of course not to say that those without the opportunity for a rich musical education need to learn to plug their nose and swallow their medicine, but rather, pace Bourdieu, that my ability to comprehend and appreciate a piece of art does not ensure the reproduction of my class position, and in fact, comprehension and appreciation may have very little in common. The inability to decipher a musical structure (i.e. late Beethoven) doesn’t prevent anyone’s appreciation and intellectual fulfillment; on the contrary! I (maybe too idealistically) believe that if some paradigm shift allowed people to realize that incomprehensibility–“not getting it”–is an intellectual virtue, ‘alienation’ would be rescued from its current profoundly unfashionable status in the contemporary avant-garde.

    This is just my contentious two cents. I certainly look forward to the sequel on the 60’s avant garde, where the rubber really meets the road!

    • says

      Thanks Kyle B. All this is well taken. As far as Eisler’s status as an avant gardist, while you’re right that his works were for the most part in traditional forms, they were in what was the approved avant grade atonal idiom-some of the time: 12 tone. I would assume that Adorno is referring to the former in pegging him as a reactionary and there’s a point there, though as always when one is dealing with Adorno’s writings, the argument always seems to be about Adorno-and how to make sense of his train of thought and sometimes clotted prose-more so than the ideas themselves.

      Incidentally, that’s the main reason why Adorno goes unmentioned in the piece, something which those who are interested in the general subject might take objection to.

      You also mention the other elephant in the room-Bourdieu. And I agree with you that a facile reading of Bourdieu lies behind a lot of what Alex Ross calls the pop uber alles mindset. Of course, Bourdieu’s main focus was always on capital and its institutions something which exists only in the distant background, if at all, among those who make the strongest pitch for enthusiastically welcoming our new pop overlords without reservation.

      Finally, as for Seeger’s variant of gebrauchmusik-yes, it is reductive in the way you describe, though I’d want to fill out the picture with Seeger’s focus on judging musical culture with respect to the degree to which broad participation in music making-as opposed to music listening-is privileged. All this may have its roots in a specific kind of New England, patrician WASP mindset, of a sort recalling Ives. Half of my heritage is that so it seems very familiar.

      Again, thanks for reading-and for your thoughts.