Can Music Incite Radical Social Change?

The ever so slightly younger me was convinced of many things with regard to music that proved difficult to shake, the most sacred of which being the notion that it could convey a meaningful political message by means other than the sheer audacity of its own existence. My explanation for indulging in such naive symbolism, however briefly, is that I could not find a way to reconcile the life I had left behind with the one I so desperately wanted to break my way into. How could a man who had spent the last of his teenage years activizing, occupying and polemicizing in the name of Socialism so wholeheartedly embrace the regularly elitist, often inward-looking world of ‘new music,’ except in the hope that his own music might somehow promote concrete anti-capitalist ideas?

While music can serve as no such platform, no work is created from nothing; it is a product of its time, reflective of and inseparable from the society within which it is situated. It is from this vantage point, carved from my understanding* of the writings of Pierre Bourdieu and Terry Eagleton, among others, that I have gradually formulated a new reconciliation. In developing a fascination with the works of early experimentalists such as Cage, Wolff and Cardew, and later Fluxus artists such as George Brecht and Allison Knowles, I became increasingly aware of the inherent barriers manning the borders of bourgeois culture: The neigh-on impenetrable muscle memory of a virtuoso violinist, who has spent years proudly honing the techniques necessitated by traditional repertoire, the sacred social norms of the concert hall or, indeed, a given composer’s unquestioned assumptions as to his or her role in the act of creation are to name a few.

Music cannot activize like a protestor, nor can it incite specific actions (revolutionary or otherwise), but it can share a protestor’s optimism. It is my sincere belief that through a multitude of ideas that actively resist aspects of oppression in composition and performance situations – from Richard Barrett’s ‘point-zero’ approach to instrumental writing to the cross-referential, intelligently programmatic works of Michael Finnissy – one or two of those barriers might, for a brief moment, be made permeable enough to expose a little of the potential that could exist in the music of a post revolutionary society.

* Or misunderstanding, as the case may be.

Fluxus Performance
Takeshia Kosugi, Anima I & Ben Vautier, Attaché de Ben & George Maciunas, Solo for Violin. – Photography by George Maciunas