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World Music For The Working Class?

Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Kurt Weill and Cornelius Cardew have all written ‘political music’, that is to say, music which features actual (rather than abstract) political issues as integral aspects of their composition. I have no objection to that. On the contrary, it’s laudable. Classical composers, especially those who work or have worked in an avant garde (and therefore elitist, essentially bourgeois intellectual middle class) idiom, should remind themselves that there is a world outside their ivory towers of academia where raising a child in a deprived area matters more to most ordinary people than the problems of serialism versus indeterminacy.

Of the 5 composers mentioned above, is it a coincidence that 3 of them are German? I think not: all of these composers were children during the second world war. For German artists, writers and composers, a major problem had to be confronted: what should be their contribution to the artistic creativity of the world when their own government tried (with formidable success) to ignore or at least attempt to divert attention away from what happened during the period 1933-1945. The risk that major industrialists and current government members may be accused of collusion in the national socialist regime of Herr Schickelgrüber was to be avoided whenever possible. To an extent they succeeded: Krupp, Mercedes, Volkswagen and their western ally, Mr Bush (grandfather of the current American president) were able to continue to count their profits, unimpeded by that spot of bother circa 1939-1945. In fact, the second world war was largely irrelevant to all these subhuman scum since they continued to trade throughout the hostilities. This must be a sublime example of a triumph for capitalism: that commerce can continue and profits be made even while the nations involved are sending tanks and hurling mortar bombs at each other. On Christmas Day, 1943, as the Americans, New Zealanders and British joined forces to shove the nazi hordes out of Italy, the allied troops were heard singing Silent Night – a German carol.

So, for those of you unfamiliar with these composers, take the most extreme example, Luigi Nono. His most ardently political works were composed during the 1960s and common features were: a total absence of melody, harmony and rhythm (he was an avant garde composer, after all); fractured, fragmented sound incidents set amid long periods of silence or very quiet sounds; voices accompanied by or interacting with electronic sounds on tape. Texts tended to be taken for multiple sources, including Marx, Gramski and Adorno.

Now, how many ordinary working class people have read books by Marx, Gramski and Adorno? How many such people would even understand them if they did? I have an impressive (self) education and even I have difficulties with these interminably tedious tomes – most of which are crammed full of so much incessant waffle that I really wonder why they bothered in the first place. Then how many ordinary working class people actually listen to avant garde classical music? Go to the home of a supermarket worker in Wigan – there’s his CD collection – how many discs by Xenakis, Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen will you find? In one memorable interview, Nono imagined car plant workers in Havana with The Lighted Factory and other such works being played as the background music piped across the factory floor. I suggest there’d be a distinct danger of industrial action before the end of the day should such a policy be adopted. ‘Hey, Miguel, what this shit you play us? Give us some decent dance bands or we wreck da place.’

When I worked in a factory (which, fortunately, was for only a brief period during my youth), the music played through speakers across the factory floor was whatever Radio 1 or Capital decided we should hear – standard commercial pop pap, much of which was very popular among the majority of those working at the lathes and packing departments of Shetack Tools (Balham) where I was ensconced. For me it was hell – not the work but the insidious aural pollution to which I was subjected each day. This absurd (and spectacularly patronising) notion of ‘music for the masses’ must rank as one of the most gross perversions of Marxism ever devised. ‘Music by the masses’ would be marginally less insulting, for a start. But ‘the masses’ represents a concept against which I automatically rebel. It makes human beings sound like ants. I can accept that government and church leaders perceive the people as ‘the masses’ because to them, that’s all we are: the mere nuts and bolts designed to hold together the machine which manufactures their wealth and power. I resent Marxist intellectuals who use the term ‘the masses’ as a term imbued with glory and triumph. The moment I ceased to be a part of the masses was the moment I became a creative, original thinker with a personality that fascists and communists were unable to define. That was my first major victory. Do you want to be merely a tiny, faceless part of some amorphous crowd, nothing more than a nameless ant?

Our Russian pals Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev also wrote ‘music for the masses’ but they were singularly more successful – primarily because they understood what ordinary working class people wanted to hear and they were sufficiently skilful to be able to compose music that was of high quality yet accessible to ordinary people, what these despicable Marxist ‘intellectuals’ refer to as ‘the rank and file’. Here, the situation was rather unusual, of course: the government required its writers, artists and composers to create works that they believed to be relevant to ordinary working class people. This is primarily why so much drivel was created in Russia for nearly 50 years – because those ordinary working class people probably had better taste and cultural awareness than their leaders. Did Josef Stalin really regard himself as one of the toiling masses? I doubt it. Mao Tse Tung certainly did although how much he was deluded here is open to debate.

In Britain, it used to be the case that the government saw the cultural aspect of its job as a need to educate the working classes, to raise their pitiful desires up from the gutter, so to speak. This attitude was most evident during the early days of the BBC. It is therefore somewhat odd that the situation has altered radically since then: now the government wants us all kept as ignorant and stupid as possible so instead of classical arts and educational programmes (however flawed these may have been), we are given Eastenders and Big Brother. Cornelius Cardew alone among politically motivated composers elected to tackle this problem in a practical manner. That he failed completely and profoundly need not be a criticism.

The plain truth is simply this: the moment you elect to write music in an avant garde idiom, your work will cease to be of interest (and will therefore be irrelevant) to ordinary working class people. Deal with it. I am allowed to compose and perform as much wild, weird and wacky avant garde music as I like because I am honest about my creativity, I am not a Marxist and I stopped being working class back in the 1980s. Well, to be more specific, I realised that being proud of your class was a dangerous and damaging concept for people and should be avoided at all costs. The class system was invented (and imposed upon us) by the ruling class in order to maintain a system of control and coercion designed to protect their own positions of plundered wealth and social privilege. So long as ordinary people claim to be ‘working class and proud’, the security of the wealthy elite is assured. I do not for one millisecond posit that we should be ashamed to be working class (or any other class for that matter). I assert that the most useful and healthy response to the class system is to defy it in all its hideous manifestations and reject it utterly. Why allow yourself to be hindered and stifled by limitations and proscribed behaviour set by those who seek to use you as factory and cannon fodder? Be classless – confuse and confound the enemy!

Andy Martin – October 2007.



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