Music and Politics

I write this in response to various opinions that I see shared on social media and in the news following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the classical music world, it began with several Russian musicians who are long-time associates of Putin’s being dropped from their scheduled engagements and long-time associations with major musical institutions after their refusal to disavow Putin and his war. That gave rise to their (and others) response that music should be divorced from politics and isolated from world events, free of the dross of politics. That, of course, was not only a self-serving response, but one arising from a fantasy that music is somehow different than any other human activity, existing independently in an isolated universe free of all of the rest of what humans do, for good or bad. Then, various people started dropping all Russian musicians and Russian music from programs, regardless of the connection to Putin, as if just by performing anything connected with Russia was a statement in support of Putin. To my mind, that was even worse, a failure to recognize that the core reason why Putin’s war is such an egregious violation of human rights is that it entirely ignores the common humanity of Russians and Ukrainians. Russia has a great and glorious history that has made a great contribution to the best of what makes us human – a history that must not be ignored because Russia’s present dictator is a monster. We should not negate Russian culture in its entirety, any more than the world should ignore Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or any other German composer because the country they lived in gave rise to Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust (or any other similar examples throughout human history). Humanity is eternally in conflict. Music may not always be one of humanity’s better angels, but it certainly is, far more often than not, a power for good, even in the face of great evil.

To my mind, the only thing that makes writing music worth the effort is it’s power for good. It is inextricably entangled with politics in that sense and has been, throughout history, a frequent vehicle to give voice to the oppressed and power protest movements that have changed the world for the better. Just think of Woody Guthrie, the songs that powered the Civil Rights movement, John Lennon’s Imagination, or, in the classical world, Shostakovich’s incredibly powerful but subversive works, written under the ears, so to speak, of the last criminal regime to rule Russia.

It is this history of music that inspires me to write today. Music that intends to effect change, that is an expression in pure sound of the good that can be found in humanity – and by that very expression an implacable foe of evil. In our own age, that means music that is a warrior against racism, against warmongers, those who refuse to accept humanity’s responsibility to be caretakers rather than destroyers of our beautiful earth and the life all around us with whom we share our planet. And, I fully recognize and appreciate my good fortune in not living under a repressive regime where an artist has to mask their belief in humanity at risk of their own lives, and speak in code as did Shostakovich and many others before him. So, I don’t have to mask my beliefs in my music. I say it directly and out loud. Music for peace, for social justice, for environmental sanity. In song, in resonant sound that spreads into the universe.