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Musical Maoist: Composer and political activist Cornelius Cardew (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

As a composer I have been affected by political considerations and developments over time, and in a range of different ways. Also, I seem to be a part of a huge international community of composers, past and present, that has been drawn towards folk music as a way of developing new, individual musical languages and palettes.

There has been a long history of the politics of traditional music affecting the aspirations and inspirations of composers. In the 19th century, the growing nationalism in central and eastern parts of Europe is plainly discernible in the work of many composers. Whole swathes of late 19th- and early 20th-century musical history are dominated by a roll call of their names — Glinka, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek, Grieg, Sibelius, Granados, Vaughan Williams and Skalkottas. Subsequently, nationalism has become tainted in artistic communities, not just because of the Third Reich but because more recent "big-gun"  nationalisms, like Gaullism and Thatcherism, were of the Right. 

This has caused a degree of anxious squirming in the world of traditional music, because that very traditionalism — the valuing and nurturing of ancient cultural practice — can so often be associated with nationalism, especially in the case of Ireland and Scotland. Indeed the attitudes of the Irish Left towards their traditional cultures of music, language and dance during the 20th century were ambiguous and troubled, to say the least. The Irish Republic was built by rightists, nationalists and Catholics on a range of traditional values as a bulwark to defend the Irish State and people from Bolshevism, liberalism and the English Protestant crown. The sound of Irish traditional music was the very sound of defensive introspection in the face of a changing outside world — a changing outside world that the forces of the Irish Left sought to import and impose on their own nation.

Many and various ideological and aesthetical hoops have been jumped through over the decades for Irish traditional music to take its present place in the affections of the bien pensants. And in my own country there is still a deep insecurity over the question of Scottish nationalism: is it a creature of the Right or the Left? Even today, with the giddy ascent of Alex Salmond, there is no clear answer. The anxiety over the importance of our past exacerbates this question. Is the celebration of traditional Scottish values and culture a                        reactionary impetus? Or is it all part of a progressivist thrust towards self-determination in a spirit of local ownership of past identities?

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Sam Macomb
October 24th, 2011
3:10 AM
Sam Macomb Mr. Macmillan reminded me of Ron Radosh's review of a book on the American folk scene of the 40's through the 60s (by the way, Pete Seeger recently showed up at a Occupy Wall Street trash-in). Theodore Bikel, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Burl Ives, and other reddish actor/musicians were involved. Meanwhile in Britain, Robert Wyatt, founding member of the avante garde rock and jazz group, SOFT MACHINE, had a productive solo career after becoming a parapalegic. This included a flayling album entitled MATCHING MOLE'S LITTLE RED RECORD (machine mole being "soft machine" in French). His two seventies albums, ROCK BOTTOM and RUTH IS STRANGER THAN RICHARD had their leftist's moments but were notable for their experimental yet tuneful jazzish compositions. In fact, as good as anything recorded in the '70s. The Soup Song perhaps being both political and witty. The arrangements and performances always first rate. Unfortunately in later years both his music and his politics crashed hard left. Including a little number called Stalin Wasn't Stallin'. The music no longer trumped the politics. A late--in-life Catholic convert, I sometimes feel guilty listening to this music, but it was so damn good.

Peter Kerr
October 22nd, 2011
12:10 PM
You lost me when you said Thatcherism was a "big gun" form of nationalism. Wasn't it "free markets and the rule of law" that she used to nag on about? Are you perhaps implying she was too "nationalist" because she opposed European integration and the Euro?

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