Dear Readers and Listeners,
This entry is fairly political but hopefully falls short of being preachy or ranty (tbh the last paragraph probably pushes it a bit). The written content is all chill, but heads up that both the movie scenes I link to, when talking about how context influences musical experience, are super intense and I’m not embarrassed to say I find them both low-key triggering. Neither is necessary for understanding the ideas I’m talking about but I chose to link them anyways because they are powerful examples that have both impacted me personally.
If you’re not interested in a snapshot of the politicized way I relate to Beethoven, please
SKIP TO THE MUSIC
It is completely redundant to call Beethoven a musical influence. His works resonate across the centuries and have impacted virtually all of Western music since. He is pretty much the standard by which you judge your own musical career - when you want to feel thoroughly inadequate and depressed.
My favorite quote of his is from the angry letter to Prince Lichnowsky who had pissed off Beethoven by joking that he would be flogged for refusing to play. It often gets abbreviated but the full reading is roughly:
“What you are, you are merely by an accident of birth. What I am, I am only because of myself. There have always been, and ever will be a thousand princes. There is only one Beethoven.”
Boom. Mic drop.
It is a different Beethoven quote however that has had the biggest impact on my life and I will share the way in which I first heard it as the musical section of this post:
This clip is taken from the Classical Kids cassette tape Beethoven Lives Upstairs. As a child I would lay at night with the tape playing next to my bed and every time it ended I would rewind back to the beginning so that I could listen through again. Each time I did this I felt a mixture of relief, that I had another half hour or so of the music but also some anxiety that this play through might be the one where I fell asleep. (Post continues below)
Normally I intend to use my own music for these sections but every once in a while I will throw in something like this. I don’t own the rights, so hopefully whoever does refrains from suing me. Maybe if one or two of you go buy the CD through this link they will think kindly on my use of this content.
"Music can change the world."
I am skeptical.
This may surprise you since in my second post I stated clearly that music saved my life. It has and probably will again.
Music goes beyond our bodies and minds. It creates a place where we can let go of our personal boundaries and experience something profound. It is safe to be overwhelmed by music and to temporarily forget who you are outside of that moment, immersed in sound. It can be transcendent. Ecstatic. Spiritually beyond comprehension.
But is it enough?
Music, especially without words, struggles to pass on the nuances of a composer's perspective. Even with lyrics, the same song can easily be an inspiration to one group and also to their enemies. Obviously every national anthem ever fits this criteria.
As the music of Beethoven has traveled across time, it has, for the most part, shed his political context. Music students will know that he originally dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte who at the time was First Consul of France. Most biographies focus on the depression and suicidality that precluded this part of Beethoven’s life but it is his political motivations that I am more interested in. It is clear that he was not only compelled by the liberatory promises of the French Revolution, but also that there was some depth to his solidarity with those struggling for freedom. Upon hearing of Napoleon’s self-imposed elevation to Emperor, he scratched out his dedication so violently that he tore through the page, saying:
‘So, he is no more than a common mortal! Now he too will tread underfoot all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. Now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!’
(please excuse the early 19th century gendered language)
Music often gets academically distilled as “sound organized over time” but for me this leaves out a key component. The changes in sound over time are happening within an ongoing historical and political reality that greatly impacts the experience of the music. Dramatically different feelings can be evoked by the same piece in this way. Think of that ghastly scene in Shindler’s List when the SS officer sits down to play Bach in the midst of massacring a Jewish ghetto. (Beethoven's music was similarly corrupted as a favorite of the Third Reich’s propagandists). On the other hand there have been times in my life where the simplest of melodies or a song built on a sappy chord progression will bring me to tears. Remember the closing montage in Requiem for a Dream?
In my most selfish moments I feel robbed of a life dedicated only to music. Now approaching thirty-three I am dissatisfied with how little I have actually created. In a different world I could have learned all the theory and techniques in my repertoire as a child and begun composing much earlier on. All the years spent indulging my #whitesaviorcomplex could have been put to making music instead.
But that is not the world we live in and that is not how my muse works.
The weight of the current global context is always in the background of my mind and if I don’t feel that I am contributing towards the manifestation of a better reality then I quickly become unable to find any songs at all.
What little I have created comes from emotion as much as from theory: The joy and contentment I find connecting to struggles for liberation and sharing solidarity with the people I meet; The horror and grief that stem from my own trauma and my awareness of the suffering of others. There are days when I feel like I will physically explode until I manage to sit down at the piano and smash away for a few hours.
But what am I to do when the same people causing and profiting off of the suffering of millions are able to bastardize music to leverage their political projects? Or even to process and reconcile their own twisted emotional realities through the beauty of music?
I believe composers and musicians need to firmly reject the apolitical facade I referred to in my first post and instead situate ourselves clearly within what is going on outside of the concert halls and recording studios. I understand many (most) people wont find the same affinity for an anarchist trajectory as I have, but developing and expressing some orientation towards the global situation allows us to define an aspect of our musical context which would otherwise be left open to interpretation. This is not only necessary to avoid the cooptation of our creations but it also opens up the possibility of adding another experience layer to our artwork.
Music can change the world, But it needs a little help from us.