Beckerman, Guest Editor
When I think back to the Music Department at the
University of California—a place where I spent some of the happiest times of my
life—I don’t immediately recall a rabidly political atmosphere. Yet, on one
side of my office was my friend and colleague Scott Marcus, who would
intrepidly exclaim from time to time: “All music is political!” On the other
side, a few steps across the way, was Pat Hall’s enclave. Pat was and is a
world expert in sketch studies, not usually given to outbursts of any kind.
Yet, it was her initiative and dedication that is responsible for the journal
you read today.
and Politics is currently in its
fifth year and has printed everything from discussions of music in the
concentration camps to the iPod lists of soldiers in Iraq, from Polish Hip-Hop
to a sonic political anthropology of the Paraguayan Mission. In this issue we
offer articles dealing with Job and exile, polyphony and racial identity,
Ellington and Strayhorn’s Northern sweep, and Jewish music in Nazi Germany. Our
bright red cover might suggest that we are a left-wing journal. However, if
indeed all music might be political, our own orientation is left, right,
center, north, south, east and west, and round and round (and round).
And yet, five years into our mission it may be time to
revisit our founding notions. What does it mean for something to be political?
Rather than rehashing all the possible viewpoints in an abstract sense, I would
like to look briefly at an event I am involved with at the moment. I wonder
about its political ramifications.
Last year several members of the Czech Embassy in
Washington decided that, in order to celebrate Dvořák’s 170th birthday, the manuscript of the “New
World” Symphony should make a triumphant return to these shores. An entire
festival, titled “Mutual Inspirations” would be organized around this. I was
asked to give a talk, along with the Director of the Dvořák Museum in Prague, that engaged with issues and realities
related to the manuscript. Obviously, the very fact that the event was
conceived by an embassy lent it a considerable political tinge, drawing
attention to the longstanding ties between the United States and the Czech
Republic (technically those go back to about 1993, but you know what I mean, or
do you?). After all, Dvořák arrived in New York
in the autumn of 1892 and almost immediately came under the influence of such
figures as Jeannette Thurber, Henry Thacker Burleigh and Henry Krehbiel. By the
New Year Dvořák decided to write a symphony with references to African
American songs, Native American drumming, the tweets of a robin, and possibly
even a quote from “Yankee Doodle,” not to mention several movements based on
Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.
Surely, this work was also a political statement of sorts, at the very least an
attempt to demonstrate cultural pluralism to American musicians, composers and
audiences many of whom were resistant to the idea. These were exciting times,
well worth commemorating. By the spring of 2011 our event to honor Dvořák was ready to go, and everything from air transport to
security guards for the manuscript had been planned.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, and
this particular funny thing involves the highly unlikely substance of blood
plasma. For almost as long as the fictional trial in The Makropulos Case the Czech government has been involved in a
nasty spat with a firm called “Diag Human,” which was engaged in blood plasma
trade. I will avoid describing the events in extensive detail lest our dear
journal get caught on the edges of this whirlpool of litigation (the relevant
information is easy to find with a simple internet search). Suffice it to say,
things got so out of hand that the lawyer for Diag requested that certain
paintings belonging to the Czech government, on display in places like Vienna
and Paris, be confiscated in lieu of payment. This was done on the order of the
court, and while it may be heartening to imagine that the paintings of Emil
Filia, a Czech cubist, actually have considerable value in the art market, the
move had a disheartening effect on the international movement of national
treasures. The “New World” manuscript was not going anywhere.
While this is a most unfortunate outcome for our Mutual
Inspirations Festival, the dispute allows us to raise certain kinds of
questions related to music and politics. For one, is Diag Human vs. the Czech
Government properly a political matter, or is it really an economic one? Or
perhaps all economics is political (our Red cover). Does it follow then that
our journal should perhaps be titled “Music and Politics and Economics?” While
national treasures themselves certainly involve the political aspect of
nation-building and consolidation, their status as holy icons and all the
metaphysical fuzziness (and obfuscation) surrounding them suggests that perhaps
any study of this subject should be in our renamed journal, “Music and Politics
and Economics and Religion” (with a blue cover?). Further, since any serious
consideration of Dvořák’s “New World”
involves (in addition to economics, religion and politics) questions of race,
identity, genocide, musical form, Americanness, ideology, gender, psychology,
Wagner, the scientific method, philosophy, humor, acoustics and nostalgia, to
name just a few topics, should we have a journal with room for an “and” for
each of them?
Yes and no. It seems to me that when someone says that all
music is political, they often mean two interrelated things: first, that all
music is always political no matter
what, and second, more subtly, that it is necessary to state this forcefully
because dunderheads of the past refused to own up to just how political music
really is. Times have changed. Five years down the line we willingly
acknowledge the necessity for this counterpunch. But where do we go from here?
Is all music always political, or do we acknowledge that all music is sometimes political and that only some music is always political? Or at
least, do we admit, slyly, that anyone who is looking for it can find a
political angle to the study of music and sound at any time?
To the extent that editorials have viewpoints—and I am
expected to have one as a matter of course—I would proffer that not all music
is always political. Otherwise, one would hardly need a journal that seriously
considers aspects of music and sound that are.
By the way, a court in Vienna recently overturned the
seizure of the Czech paintings, relying on a United Nations statute declaring
that a State “enjoys immunity, in respect of itself and its property, from the
jurisdiction of the courts of another State subject to the provisions of the
present Convention.” Perhaps national treasures, as “State property,” are always
political after all or at least embedded in the legal system (“The Journal of
Music and Politics and Law”?). And while it is now too late to liberate the
manuscript of the “New World” in time for the festival, we scholars take solace
in the fact that, after all, it is never too late to write about it.