Protest music: questions of travel

During the student protests in 2010 several blogs and articles diagnosed an absence on cultural output accompanying today’s political activism. Pop music? Only a career option for the privately educated. Folk music? The preserve of a few preachy lefties. Visual art? Students are now being educated to produce saleable art, not social commentary. While some articles suggested that there are people making ‘protest art’ and ‘protest music’ (there was even a conference on it recently), the majority argued that the media and cultural industry was too complicit through sponsorship deals to give voice to such sentiments.

More so than music and art journalists, artists, musicians and curators themselves are asking questions about their possibilities to aid the struggle against ‘the war against citizens’ and imperialist practices. Last year, I witnessed London Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Vladimir Jurowski address the audience about his unusual choice of emphasising themes of human suffering and perseverance across musical periods (e.g. bringing together Schoenberg, Nono and Beethoven) to address on-going global violence. As part of his talk, he gave examples from performances around the world where the underlying political resonances of classical and contemporary classical music were picked up more sharply under conditions of censorship, on-going bombings or recent liberation from dictatorship.

While Jurowski comes across as rather confident about the impact of politically and sonically timely programming (and the ‘human spirit’), many composers across genres are struggling with the question of what to create for our times. As musician Laetitia Sadier put it at a recent concert at the Union Chapel in Islingtion: ‘I just don’t know how to respond anymore.’ The fact that she did play some songs with overtly political lyrics – and also asked the audience whether anyone had suggestions for potential responses – made the statement appear not as resignation, but rather as a call for debate, experiments, contributions. (Here are also some interesting interviews with her in The Quietus, Westword and .)

rating agencies
financial markets
and the G20’s
but who are these people
and why on earth do we care about their opinion?
what do we care about their self-proclaimed authority?

rating agencies
financial markets
and the G20’s
were not elected by the people
in the name of what are we letting them govern our lives?
they are politically illegitimate

enough already with the dictatorship, tyranny of money
we want a real, a real democracy

(Laetitia Sadier – Auscultation to the Nation )

At the time, she did not receive any answers, but, at least in my case, the question stayed with me, so here is a brief attempt at one possible answer. Shortly after her gig, I read Judith Butler’s ‘Frames of War’ (on the portrayal of war and terrorism in the media) and the following passage took me back to the Union Chapel:

‘The public sphere is constituted in part by what can appear, and the regulation of the sphere of appearance is one way to establish what will count as reality, and what will not.’

What are viable ways of contesting more powerfully supported appearances? Butler herself seems to suggest that acts of resisting through cultural practices may seem quite weak in comparison with e.g. ‘the military power of the state’, but still present an ideological obstacle. As she writes about a recent publication of Guantanamo prisoners’ poems:

‘The poems communicate another sense of solidarity, of interconnected lives that carry on each others’ words, suffer each others’ tears, and form networks that pose an incendiary risk not only to national security, but to the form of global sovereignty championed by the US. To say that the poems resist that sovereignty is not to say that they will alter the course of war or will ultimately prove more powerful than the military power of the state. But the poems clearly have political consequences – emerging from scenes of extraordinary subjugation, they remain proof of stubborn life, vulnerable, overwhelmed, their own and not their own, dispossessed, enraged, and perspicacious. As a network of transitive affects, the poems – their writing and their dissemination – are critical acts of resistance, insurgent interpretations, incendiary acts that somehow, incredibly, live through the violence they oppose, even if we do not yet know in what ways such lives will survive.’

(From Judith Butler, Frames of War, p. 62).

This ‘transmission of the effort’, as Rancière (following Deleuze) calls it, or one’s willingness and ability to respond, seems almost as vital, if not more, than the form of the response. Of course, form matters in terms of anything from how far (and where to) a song can travel (geographically, economically) to the kind of work it can potentially do (make people dance, function as demonstration anthem, render people silent or attentive), but then the question might be: what can you do? Here, the emphasis is placed alternately on ‘can’ and ‘you’ – ‘can’ referring to technical/temporal/social (etc) limitations and ‘you’ pointing to one’s unique set of experiences and influences that inevitably shape one’s response (there is also a vital element of unpredictability in this).

This does not mean that one can or should avoid questions of ‘travelling’ – on the contrary: the fact that one has a unique ability to respond creatively should extend this creativity to thinking about where a potential experiment might go. (Example: if I write a song and release it through a big label, the song might get more widely distributed and reach less radical people, but also enter into a certain relationship with commerce and maybe face censorship or rejections from people with certain politics.) Further, it might help to assume that one has fellow travellers, which can help in two ways: first, that one does not have to confront things alone, and also that one does not necessarily have to explain and change a situation, but rather affirm a certain stance and offer oneself as a ‘node’ or companion. In a system that promotes isolation, this can be a first step towards solidarity and change.

As a musician whose music has ended up in unexpected places (at one point my pretty unknown band received an e-mail from a group of students in Chile who, to our surprise, stated that one of our early instrumental songs accompanied their protests), I can second the conclusion of composer/writer Sam Richards’ book ‘Sonic Harvest’ (an interesting account of a search for relationship between music and democracy): ‘I no longer believe in an ‘ideal’ situation. Any situation is ideal for making music’. Taken into the ‘protest music’ context, the question of how to respond should perhaps not be seen as the search for an ‘ideal’ way of responding to disastrous politics, but as a prompt to explore and push the modes and limits of the contribution one can make – and to signal one’s readiness to travel (with): have sounds, can travel!


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