Music Is a Dirty Thing


Philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) made his own a sentence originally by the Roman playwright Terentius (195-159 b.C.): "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto." (Engl.: I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me). It is a wonderful statement, because it acknowledges the awareness of sharing all the good and all the bad that lurks in the human soul.


The same could be said about music-making: it is a human activity, and nothing of that which is human is alien to it. Music intertwines with human life and carries ideological connotations of all kinds, attracting them like a magnet attracts iron objects. It works for peace, it works for war, for everthing and its contrary. That is why there is no such thing as “pure” music. Music is by its very nature quite impure.


When we talk about music and ideology, we obviously deal with what in during the XIX century came to be called “extra-musical”. Such extra-musical elements, connotations, imagery, tone-painting, etc., are not necessarily noble. Quite the other way, much of the extra-musical can be quite ignoble at times, like in the case of propaganda, when music is used to encourage soldiers to torture and kill people seen as enemies; so it is also not necessarily noble of music to be the flag of ethnic identities, to memorialize victims and heroes of conflicts in such a manner that will at some point elicit vengeance. Neither it is noble, although certainly less dangerous, when wall-paper music – muzak - is intended to steer consumers’ attitudes.

In the field of ethnomusicology, for the past several years, we have become more and more aware of how the extra-musical is often not obvious, not so visible on the surface, indeed not necessarily meant to be easily recognizable. Here, unlike the case of program music and tone painting, we are talking about not just the “function” of music but, rather, about its “covert function”. And, of course, composers such as Franz Liszt – the inventor of the “symphonic poem”) would not have beeen pleased to admit that program music can be very ideological as well (let us just think of the patriotic tone-poem cycle “Ma Vlast” by Smetana). And Eduard Hanslick would not have been happy to concede that his contention that the meaning of music identifies with its form and design was instrumental in developing the concept of “classical music” and in turnig the concert into a ritual of lay-sacredness, which is ideological in its own particular way.


How do we find out when and how music expresses ideology in any single instance? That is easy to do. It suffices to ask: “who benefits from it?” Who is included or excluded by it? If someone benefits, and someone else is is excluded, that means that particular piece, form, genre, practice music is ideological – no doubt about it. And ideology is, of course, only a few steps removed from politics, although ideological attitudes are not always necessarily political in the strict sense of the term.


I find revealing in this connection Matthew Gelbart's book (“The Invention of 'Folk Music' and 'Art Music'”, Cambridge University Press, 2007) where the author argues that the very concept of ”classical music” (or art-music as he prefers to call it) can be seen as the “invention” of German nationalism; one that, one could say in Hegelian terms, also had to invent its antithesis – folk music. It would be impossible to have one without the other. They both are ideological constructions. There really is no solid object out there that we may decide to call “classical” or “folk”, or call any other name, just like a table can also be called “tavola” in Italian or “mesa” in Spanish. Here the word “classical” and the word “folk” are more than just a name, they are mental constructs charged with ideological overtones that make us see something that without those words would be perceived in a remarkably different manner.

This could be the beginning of a rather long series of considerations, but who has patiently followed me up to this point, surely already understands what I am driving at: what music historians have been calling “extra-musical” is, on the contrary, very musical indeed, the essential part, so to say. We are only now beginning to understand in how many complex, entangled, twisted up manners, musical sound is interwoven with the bad and good things human beings are capable of. Music is nothing inane, nothing neutral to all that. That is why music always matters, everywhere; it always means a positive or negative manner. It does not stay clean in a celestial dimension of its own, it could not remain  clean in a world where most things are unfair, antagonists and…dirty.