Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Richard Barrett Interview

Ian Pace has posted an interview with composer Richard Barrett at Barrett struck me as the strongest composer of the complexity gang, and I have wondered about the relationship between his politics and his music making. This interview deals very directly with that topic. New music is a form of resistance, and in this interview, Barrett gives this resistance one possible (socialist) profile. My own views are decidedly more left-liberal/green (being too much a misanthrope ever to be a good socialist), but the simple shared recognition of the potential for music to resist the status quo leaves ample room for an alliance of broad sympathies.


Anonymous said...

Great music has always resisted status quos, and it doesn't need to be "political" to do it. The only successful political music is propaganda. Composers who have what they fancy far-out political views, should keep them to themselves, do what they do best - and if they quote Chomsky word-for-word to such a great extent, they should please give him a little bit of credit.

Daniel Wolf said...

Well, there is political music and there are politics around music. Political music can be good bad or indifferent: Ives ("They are there!"), any Eisler, or Beethoven (_Wellington's Victory_). On the other hand, there are all of the circumstances which determine what music gets encouraged and rewarded and how the music is presented. And musical politics has its own range of virtue and vice. The Brandenburg Concertos were assembled to curry political favor of one sort while Prokofief and Shostakovich had their own political-diplomatic assignments.

For me, the intriquing aspect of Barrett's music and politics is that there's nothing on the surface of the music to indicate a particular political program. There are no explicit texts, no suggestive titles, or even program notes. The external references present in Barrett's music (Beckett, Matta) don't point immediately to politics either. (As far as I can tell, the "new complexity" composers with which Barrett is usually associated have no common political profile: some strike me as profoundly conservative, others identify with the left, still others just don't think about these issues. Some scholars have noted the cold-war background of Babbitt's work while Ferneyhough's hermeticism strikes me as allied with the Straussians. (N.B.: Does that make him a neo-con?))

I think that Barrett's musical-political gesture is primarily the assertion of his music in a climate where it is unexpected, marginalized, or even explicitly unwanted. But this is a tactic that anyone outside of the prevailing political bandwidth, left or right, can take, and the commissions, performances, prizes, and teachings gigs that he has received have depended upon the generosity of some social-liberal, representative-democratic states, so the story has a complexity of its own that deserves further accounting.

(This reminds me of Nagg's joke about the trousers in _Endgame_: "Listen to the world, and listen to my music!)