Politics and Music – a symbolic analogy or How and Why Schoenberg invented Musical Communism

Formal systems and abstractions are everywhere in our world and dominate the thinking and the reasoning on how we organize ourselves and theorize and speculate about it. Therefore I am proposing yet an amusing and interesting mental experience – the analogy and the mirroring of political systems/ways we have used to organize our societies and the construction of musical systems through time. It’s amazing how can we perceive the similarities!…

We can start by saying that the first modern composer, fully aware of the power of a systematic approach to music using symbolic notation was Bach, and what a composer he was! In fact I recognize him as the first deity of our narration. Bach was a clear example of despotism: the notes follow strict and clear rules, they should not let be free and yet, there was an amazingly strong hierarchy within the system. If we look at the species counterpoint and the fugue there is no doubt on how strict this formal system was. So, I’d say that a Tyranny absolutely fits here. And seems to make sense.

When we travel to a more lose system, yet still full of rules, clichés, perfect defined hierarchies we find the monarchs: the likes of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Monarchy is the system that follows Despotism – not so rigid, yet with enough constraints to be recognizable as non free and dependent within a governing center. Of course, there are subtleties within it, and we can also account on them, if we think of the absolute monarchs like Louis XIV, full of ego and with an all ornamented society we can think of this “evolution” in Monarchy as the same provided by Chopin or Liszt when they just stretched the system to a point where ornaments and virtuosity garnish the music to almost unbearable ways.

The next step is, of course, the start of the protests: when we step right out of monarchy and there are dissonant notes and harmonies that refuse to follow the rules, that want to stubbornly come out of the pre-established hierarchy, when we want no more a stable tonic attributed by God, we start seeing the offspring of the Republic, and we have to associate it with the likes of Wagner or Debussy. The system is becoming loose and flexible, adapting to the times.

Then, oh, my! Is it a retrogress or simply a derivation? It’s a whole new thing and concept! Schoenberg comes up with Communism! Of course, the creation of a system where the hierarchies vanish completely. There shall be no note above other, no rhythm prevalent. All shall be equal, so be it. Of course, like most of Communist regimes in history, also this one tended to fail miserably: most people couldn’t handle it and refused its application, its consequences were devastating to the audiences, questioned all the aesthetical status quo, and promoted another very questionable evolution – fundamentalism.

We already know from history that there are right wing tyrannies and left wing ones. Well, if Bach was our right wing Despot, we have in Stockhausen, Boulez and the serialists, the left wing ones – the rise and rise of the religious fundamentalism across music – the complete abolishment of hierarchies within the system, yet the total control of all systemic parameters, rules, rules, rules. What to say about it? Of course, some would follow this systems as a religion, as fanatics, where others totally stay out of the way. Usually you can’t have a mid-term mild attitude before this kind of organization.

We know what happens when the masses are pushed to a limit: they convulse and explode. And then they go in all possible directions. The reactions were huge. And we had a multitude of them. Of course, the left wing extremism, the Anarchy just imposed itself in the realms of Cage. Music shall have no rules at all, let chance be it!

On the other way, some new regimes and systems that were not quite politics but more of ways of life emerged also. That also happened in music – some new systems that were more “ways of organizing sound” also emerged. If we can think of the hippie movement, to set people free with very simple rules, very simple clichés and ways of organizing life and society in small communities, repeated all over, with the same routines, with very small hierarchies, most of the time only residually functional, you can for sure assume the existence of the minimalism and the likes of Glass, Reich and Young.

But, the system that outdone all these quasi-peripheral ones was of course, democracy. Democracy was the resurrection of the rules of the past combined with the freedom. More or less a potpourri where it could co-exist everyone in harmony without excluding no-one. Tonality could exist and should be prevalent as a norm, however, why not have meter changes, counterpoint, atonal moments? Why not? That is the like of most modern composers, they are democrat. We can see the reel of John Williams, Nyman, Arvo Part just to name a few.

Then we can recall small flourishing of a time when all seemed possible, yet not so sophisticated, we are of course remembering that obscure and marvelous period in the renaissance: the ars subtilior. That awkward movement that questioned everything and produced wondrous content without parallel in history – that was the greek democracy, yet to became a serious regime in the future.

Of course now we can understand that all before that were simple tribal organizations with few rules, and even renaissance might be mildly compared to derivations of feudalism and chivalry – if we ought to consider them political regimes, or perhaps just “ways of organizing society”.

And we still have to consider the point and borderline where formal systems not quite political, but more philosophical or organizative try to emerge as ruling the politics. That borderline can also be defined when things that are not quite music, more sound, perhaps, emerge to organize themselves. We have the flourishing of capitalism, that is politics or economy? All we know is that, for some reason, the system sometimes seems to dominate the other. And also we have the concrete school of Paris and the electroacoustic world, growing in parallel, and with a proper theory: sound and noise should govern themselves, and with the digital world we’ve lost track completely. We don’t know exactly where is the border between noise, sound, acoustic sound. Is it an oboe played by a computer still an acoustic musical sound? What’s the difference between an orchestral rendition and a midi computer rendition if you can’t tell the difference? What is the difference between your democracy or the banking and the finance world ruling your country if you can’t tell the difference?

And, of course, there are also the neo-philosophies that mix all that: the politics, the economy, the nature and try to co-exist in a niche of their own, organizing the society as a whole. We are talking of the environmentalists or all the neo-zen movements that try to use technology, nature and a simple way of life. We can see also the new age and relaxing music and still wonder what that would be: synthesized minimalism? Neo-tonal non functional derivations? We’ve had them since Satie, yet we are yet to find exactly how to co-exist with them in democracy and to acknowledge if they are really part of it, or just a side-effect of its own.

In conclusion: men has always find ways to theorize and organize things in little drawers and categorizations. What is funny is that many aspects of these formal systems overlap. Perhaps that’s because we reason in a certain way and we find useful to group things and try them out in certain ways. So, playing with ways of organizing societies and treating humans as numbers or symbols, or playing with notes and rhythms in a staff is not that different at all – symbolic manipulation I’d say that is!…


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