The Political Potential of Instrumental Concert Music

Liam Grogan

For some time now I have found myself explaining the nature of my research and creative output to be met by great surprise at my belief that instrumental classical concert music has the potential to communicate political ideas and messages. Having more recently come to a more confident understanding of how I believe this potentiality might operate, I feel it might be time to express this understanding and outline an embryonic methodology for the creation of political instrumental concert music.


Firstly, it is clear that for instrumental music to have the ability to communicate political thought it must have the capability to communicate meaning. The fact that music often sparks vivid images in our minds of soaring mountain tops or desolate plains, or indeed more distinct memories such as the face of a lost loved one indicates our instinctive sense that music does convey meaning. However, the reality is more complex. The inadequacy of music’s capability to express definitive meaning can be observed in the highly subjective experiences we each have whilst listening to music. I once attended a concert of highly experimental jazz piano which left me fairly bewildered and wondering what I had just experienced but certainly without any clear sense of what the music had been ‘about’. Upon leaving the performance space, I was approached by a fellow audience member who looked very upset and told me that the entire experience had been a reflection on their recently deceased dog. There was no way that this could possibly have been the case and yet, it was. The disparate experiences we had had laid bare music’s inadequacy for the communication of definitive meaning, the thorn in the side of any political musical project which must be removed for it to succeed. To do this, we must first understand how experimental jazz piano can be both about nothing and a dead dog; how does music communicate?


What could my fellow audience member have experienced in the performance that could have lead to their reception? What did the unusual and striking sounds emitting from the piano that night have to with their dog? Perhaps their dog had been an experimental jazz pianist too...or perhaps, as the dog jumped it had sounded distinctly like the strings of a piano muted by a wood block, although somehow I doubt it. There can’t have been any concrete identity between the sounds of the piano and the dog. The only possibility is that within the musical expression there were elements which evoked the dog’s expressive aspects. It is possible that the dog had been particularly energetic and that the rapidity and frenetic nature of some of the rhythms in the performance had evoked this or the rough and gritty quality of some of the timbres sounded had conjured up memories of the dog’s rough paws. In both cases, there is a mediating step between the music and the meaning. It cannot be said that the frenetic rhythms directly meant the energetic personality of the dog but rather that the frenetic rhythms evoked a sense of energy specifically for the audience member who then processed this as referring to their dog. This process is connotative, the music refers. It is here that the ambiguity and inadequacy of music lies as music’s connotative quality is entirely dependent on the listener’s library of sensory references. This library is full of complex and interconnected sensory experiences which allow humans to divine meaning from abstract objects by connecting them with other both abstract and concrete objects. In this specific case, the audience member’s recent experience brought to the fore all of their sensory experiences of their dog, their energetic movement, the sound of their bark, the texture of their paws, and then they were presented with an abstract artistic performance which provided fertile ground for the connection of these experiences with the sensory qualities of the performance. It is not so much then that the music had been about their dog as the music had exhibited aesthetic qualities which aligned with the aesthetic qualities of their dog and thus evoked memories of said dog. The music hadn’t meant the dog at all. The music had meant nothing, but the audience member had constructed their meaning ex nihilo.


This is of course not a problem in this specific case. I doubt the pianist had desired to communicate any specific meaning. In fact, the vast majority of composers of instrumental concert music, both dead and alive, didn’t/don’t want to communicate anything specific. They merely desire/d their art to communicate. However, as I have indicated, for the political artist this is a problem. The political artist does desire to communicate something specific or at least within a realm of specificity. It is no good if a piece is written to communicate, for example, the lack of diversity within the musical academy and it only conjures up images of a rainforest or someone’s pet slug. An audience experiencing a piece of political music must, as much as is possible, understand the political thought or provocation which is desired to be communicated. This leaves us with a difficult question: if audiences construct the meaning of abstract art forms by utilising their own personal library of sensory references, what might exist within these libraries (and ideally, in the libraries of the majority of potential listeners) that could be used to construct a political meaning? In the case of music, we might ask, how does politics sound?


I do believe it is possible that we might be able to begin to collate a potential sonic vocabulary of politics as expressed in music. We might begin by considering political gatherings, contemplating their key sensory aspects and translating them into musical gestures or we could explore existing music which is considered political and utilise material from it as a hip-hop producer might sample a beat from a funk record. The possibilities exist for us to begin to create a political instrumental concert music which would utilise its auditory signifiers in a more concrete manner than non-political music to guide the audience towards a political meaning. However, there still exists a significant problem with this in that these political soundings still rely on the presence of specific sensory experiences in the personal libraries of audience members. For example, if we were to analyse Martin Luther King’s ‘I had a dream...’ speech and utilise the rhythm of his voice to inform the rhythm of a melody, it could easily be the case that an audience member, having never heard Martin Luther King’s speech, would not perceive the connection we had made. We could attempt to layer other auditory signifiers alongside the use of the rhythm to create a sign cluster which might more strongly suggest the piece’s connection with the civil rights leader but ultimately, the problem remains that we cannot rely on members of an audience understanding enough of the signs not to merely divine an alternative meaning. I should emphasise at this point that this is not a failure of the audience. As an artist, if your work fails to communicate a desired meaning with an audience, it is not their ‘lack of knowledge’ that is to blame but your failure to create a work which signifies adequately. The frequent solution on the part of composers who fail in their communication of a specific meaning is to utilise programme notes to explain what the audience should be getting from it with words. It is my belief that this is an inadequate solution as it begs the question whether one should just do away with the music altogether and merely just provide a 45 minute slot for people to read programme notes in a concert hall.


It appears at this juncture that the project to create a methodology for political instrumental music is completely lost. Without adequate control over the meaning created by sound, how can we ever communicate political thought in music? Well, the solution, in the case of concert music, is actually directly in front of us. The answer lies in music’s often ignored denotative capacity. Music’s ability to mean itself. The sound of a C major chord means that a C major chord has been/is being played; the sound of a trumpet fanfare means that someone is playing the trumpet. In a solely auditory experience, such as listening to music on a record, this is, to some extent, an extension of music’s connotative capacity as the sound of the trumpet refers to our other experiences of trumpets being played. However, in the live setting, the capability of music to denote comes to the fore. Audiences are confronted not just by the auditory aspect of the music but the visual aspect; the audience cannot avoid perceiving that the sound of a C major chord is a denotation of the movement of the performer creating the sound, the act of playing. Regardless of the subjective conclusions arrived through interpretation of connotative auditory material, in performance, music always means itself; no matter what the violinist plays, the sound always means that a violinist is playing, a bow is being bowed and strings are being pressed.  It is this that offers to raise music out of the muddy waters of ambiguity and subjectivity towards a more concrete edifice of meaning.


The denotative capacity of music means that music is always pointing at itself and thus has the ability to comment on itself. A concert work where we can see/hear this in action is John Cage’s 4’33”. This is an extreme example, but one which highlights the distinctness of the live experience where the visual aspect of musical performance actively conditions the auditory aspect and pushes the audience towards an area of meaning. This can be really understood when considering 4’33” as a purely auditory experience without the framing device of the performance event. Apart from the fact that one might not even know they were experiencing the piece, the plurality of meanings which would arise from a purely auditory experience is in stark contrast to the more controlled meanings which result from the visual and auditory sign clusters in a performance of 4’33”. The meanings to which the piece points in a live setting concern the nature of music and musical performance itself; at the most basic level, the audience are invited to question what can be considered music. Cage’s 4’33” proves that by engaging with the visual signifiers of musical performance and the focusing nature of the performance event, it is possible to utilise the denotative capacity of music to communicate meanings about the machinations of music itself. It is from here that we make the small jump from the predominantly aesthetic questions asked by Cage, to more explicitly political questions. Taking 4’33” as a basis, we could easily imagine that by simply adjusting the physicality of the performer we would be able to suggest a multitude of political meanings. One example might be to indicate that the performer should exhibit resentment throughout the performance which might guide the audience to the conclusion that there is music to be played but the performer is resisting doing so for an unknown reason. This could, with the inclusion of other signs, elucidate the politics of the relationship between the composer and performer with a particular focus on the complex power dynamic which exists between them. It is possible that this could be abstracted further by an audience to become a commentary on complex labour relationships within society as a whole. The potentiality for this political meaning existed latently within 4’33” but through the further manipulation of its visual signification, it was activated and the reception of the piece as a commentary on musical aesthetic considerations is pushed towards more political considerations.


It should be acknowledged that this self-aware utilisation of the visual and auditory signifiers is not a guarantee of communication for concrete political meanings. As we explored with regard to purely auditory signification, constructing sign clusters to completely predetermine the audience’s reception of a work is a difficult and, in all likelihood, an impossible task. However, the thinking I have attempted to outline in this discussion aims at reducing the likelihood that audience’s will be derailed from interpreting the political nature of an instrumental concert work.


Finally, I believe that the methodology I have outlined in this discussion can best be summarised thus:

    • Music’s connotative capacity for auditory signification is inadequate for the communication of political thought.

    • However, music’s denotative capacity, music’s pointing at itself, offers the potential, through the utilisation of the visual signifiers most evident in live musical performance, for more specific meanings to be communicated.

    • This is not an infallible process but a rather a method of concentrating meaning such that it becomes more likely audiences will receive the politics of a musical work.


There is much left to say after this discussion, but having already written many more words on this than I thought I would, this is best left for another day. Below I have listed a few questions which remain unanswered that I will probably attempt to answer in future articles:

    • Doesn’t this just turn music into theatre?

    • Why have you limited your discussion to concert music? Surely this isn’t a meaningful space for the exhibition of political art anyway?

    • How do we use this methodology in practice? What techniques are there for us to create the political art you’re describing?

    • Isn’t it asking a lot of performers for them to engage with their physicality as well as produce sonically?

    • Are concert audiences ready for this? What does it mean for their role as receivers/interpreters?

Published 22/03/20

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