Propaganda: A Roundtable Discussion

There is something vaguely anachronistic in asking individuals about propaganda. Is interviewing the “man on the street” ever really a proper reflection of  of popular opinion? And what does propaganda—either as tool of oppression or a dissemination of ideas—–aim toward affecting if not that?


The reader be led to believe, based on the above, that what follows is a sociological study that is inclusive of all human creatures great and small. It is not. In fact, our participants come from a very niche group of thinkers; highly individual in the limited world of sound, not to mention society at large. This is a music journal and, to be honest, we have an agenda of our own; one that, due to space and staffing, can’t allow for the coaxing of opinions about musical aesthetics from people who have none.


Instead, Sound American offers our nearest flail toward town hall democracy in a roundtable discussion between a group of semi- to unrelated- musical minds gathering together and contributing ideas, electronically, to an increasingly complex discussion of music, ideas/tools, and propaganda.


The discussion took place over two weeks with musicians and composers in New York, Baltimore, and Chicago. Each participant was chosen because their predominant musical activity takes place in a milieu that is typically perceived as being divorced from political subtext (in as much as any music can be separated from the latter, as some argue in this issue). Experiments in opera, made up of composers and performers Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch, represent (loosely) art song; Katherine Young, with her extended technique and experimental improvised bassoon music, covers the purely experimental strain; and longtime SA favorite Ian Nagoski, Canary Records label jefe and loving custodian of lost music, is included for his knowledge of domestic and foreign folk forms.


Certainly, it would be fascinating to undertake a deep conversation on the topic of music’s role in propaganda within a broad cross section of people from all walks of life and from all places, but would that discussion veer from Slayer to medieval vocal forms? Our pessimism in humanity says no, and so we trade the limited but personally interesting for the inclusive and personally banal (until the government research funding comes in).


Sound American: George Orwell, in his essay “No, Not One” stated, "We have moved onwards into a period in which any sort of joy in writing, any such notion as telling a story for the purpose of pure entertainment, has also become impossible."  This issue of Sound American questions whether the same idea applies to music: Is it possible that our culture has lost the “joy” in music as a pleasant assemblage of sound and the ability to create music for the purpose of “pure entertainment”?


And so, with that in mind, let's start our discussion with exactly that question:


Is there an example of music that has no narrative meaning, no ulterior motive, no politics, and no propaganda (in the broadest sense of that word)? Is there such a thing as a music as pure organization of sound?


Ian Nagoski: The first thing I thought of when I read your question, Nate, was my 11-year-old daughter who has been totally enamored with the radio (actual broadcast FM) for a couple years, and I am sure that she perceives the sound world that she's involved in there as a world of adults with no rules, a world of creativity, and a world of melody and rhythm. I remember vividly the day that a girl brought a copy of Thriller to my third-grade class and played it on the classroom turntable during show-and-tell, and hearing it was like seeing lightning in the sky—some kind of magical energy.


So, there is a point of origin, I think, within many of us who are devoted to music that does not have to do with ulterior motives. And for many people who love music without studying it, it stays that way. It stays a pleasure and a form of wonder and a form of play.


I can imagine a music that exists now in the present, where if you ask the musician, "what is that piece about?" they would say, "a river" or "a rainbow" or "nighttime."


That said, I have had a working definition of "art" for myself that includes a need for justice—a desire to rebalance a world out of balance through one's own action. It's possible to think of that as a "just-because-it-feels-good" style. I remember that Henry Flynt, for instance, tried to formalize, as he does, this idea in something he called "Brend Theory," which was just a non-art idea of play-as-play.


So, the question is, then, of intention and reception. Does that seem like a reasonable way to start the conversation?


Aaron Siegel: I have been mulling over this idea of music without “meaning, motive, politics and propaganda,” and testing it against sounds that I have heard over the last couple of days. It's a challenging exercise to try and parse music for meaning and then flip through my mental records of composers, styles, historical periods, global regions, etc. to see how these initial observations stack up. I would say that most music is weighted down by what I know about where it came from, who made it, and how they made it. So the meaning comes from my perceived knowledge about it as not just sound, but a kind of malleable culture.


I am glad Ian has brought his kids into this conversation, since my experience is that our notion of culture is layered onto our beings from birth. So, naturally, kids (including my 8-year-old son) experience sound without much baggage. For instance, my son gets hooked on a lot of commercial pop music (Justin Bieber, Will.iam, etc.) mostly because it feels good to dance around to it. He hasn't yet heard these sounds through the critical filter of capitalism, celebrity worship, sexism, racism (and on and on) that I can't turn off. (Although, I do admit to enjoying a well-constructed piece of radio pop).


Coming back to Ian's point, I do think it is helpful to think about intention and reception, and the experience that a listener has when the artists' intentions are conveyed upfront as compared to when they are unknown. I like to scan through the radio to hear music I don't know and avoid reading programs before concerts start because I find I am more open to the “pure joy” of sound when I don’t  know who wrote the music or the culture it comes from. In a sense, I am giving my ears a chance to receive the music more fully as vibrations as opposed to letting my mind process it as culture.


Of course, I also prejudge sounds based on what I know about them and the culture I think they embody. Which is to say that a lot of sounds I hear are very “joyless.” But they are joyless in service of my own understanding of myself, and my ego, and are kind of important to finding a place in our world. Being an adult and a professional can be joyless, right? I wonder what you all think about our responsibilities as sound makers to the competing interests of reception and intention. How important is it to seek the joyful?


Matthew Welch: In my view "joy in music" and music as "pure entertainment" can only be partial representations of all of the possible purposes of music. While joy and entertainment can be accessed from musical phenomena, this is, I think, a fringe benefit from something that has a much more substantial place in our lives. My earliest memories are of music. My motivation towards music was out of need, like a compulsion driven by a newly awakened state. To me music is a fundamentally human activity of participation and identity/belonging that has predated all psychology and organized religion. Music is a basic human organizing vehicle. That it be one thing over the other (entertainment vs. necessity) is to enact the codes of belonging—in what way does music encode a community?


Regarding the idea of propaganda—propaganda we see pejoratively—being a derogatory term deriving from "propagation of the faith," a set of cardinals under Gregorian papal edict to propagate the message and language of the Roman Catholic Church. Propagation is spreading of information, which essentially has no specific positive or negative agenda, until information turbulence (cognitive dissonance and otherness) is formed when juxtaposed against a conflicting set of community codes. What that information is must be seen as a form of “other” to cast it into an exclusive labeling of propaganda. When we don't recognize the otherness of musical codes, it is because the codes of communication attached to said musical utterances are confluent with our forms of thought, and thus entrain and further ingrain the sense of belonging.

Composer Aaron Siegel

Even shorter, there are no musical absolutes, other than the vibrations of air (can we study this without intention of perception?) What we hear we process with our minds, and the shape of the mind, while malleable, is a reflection of a community direction. I wonder if Orwell was entering a loss-of-innocence stage in his life. This happens to musicians, too. The wonder and mystery of sound loses its panacea value the more the individual tries to shape the codes slaved to individual intentions—here we can easily become lonely. We wish to control art for our survival purposes in a different way than was most natural; something that expressed a shared propagation becomes an artificial challenge of the individual against the world.


Have we lost the joy by intention? Yes and no—art and culture and communication are intentional. John Cage's systematic uprooting of intention still required intention. Intention is not selfish nor need it be calculated. Music is intentional. However, adding individual intention to something that is already to the brim with intention can create an isolating dynamic. My music, my art goddammit vs. our music, our art.


Sound American: It seems to me that it is possible to have different definitions of music as propagandistic (using it in its non-pejorative sense as something that promotes) that are derived solely from our experience and ideas—all this being basically a summation of what has been said so far—but do any of you think there is a music that could be universally perceived as being propaganda? Something a majority could agree upon as promoting a very specific cultural idea or bias? How about a universally non-propaganda music?


Jason Cady: The Orwell quote and your question are somewhat broad and lend themselves to a variety of responses. As I understand it, your intent is to answer the question: "Is there such a thing as music as pure organization of sound?" My short answer is no. The interior logic of music can be enjoyed and understood on its own terms, but there is always cultural information connected with it.


But some music has more cultural signifiers than others. Pop musicians often talk about their influences because their style is based somewhat on appropriation. When we hear chugging power chords in a Katy Perry song it's supposed to mean something. How would John Zorn's classic Naked City recordings sound to someone who had no idea what jazz and thrash metal were? Even something like a minor chord can represent sadness. We take it for granted that minor sounds sad, but there's nothing in the laws of physics about the sadness of minor. When I ask my young piano and guitar students to describe minor and major to me, many of them say major sounds good and minor sounds bad. Yet in a few years those kids will start to hear them as largely happy and sad.


People are often baffled by the musics of other cultures and even confused by the musics of subcultures within their culture. "It all sounds the same" is the comment that people often attach to a genre they are not familiar with.


As I write this I am listening to Reign in Blood by Slayer because my teenage niece recommended it along with Cannibal Corpse and several rap songs. I had not listened to Slayer in a long time, and I am surprised by how tame and mild it sounds. I am digging the guitar solos though.


On the other end of the spectrum, some music is more innovative in its language. The newer the language the less it can signify, but it cannot be entirely removed from culture. I just switched from Slayer to Milton Babbitt's Reflections for piano and synthesizer. Could someone hear this and not connect it with anything else? I don't think so. First of all, even just the piano and synthesizer conjure associations. Second, I think many people would hear this piece and think, "mad scientist" or "modern art" or just "chaos." They might even imagine an old guy with glasses teaching at an Ivy League university.


Aaron Siegel: I keep coming back to medieval vocal music. Let me see if I can express some of the questions about this music. On one hand, it comes from and is only meant to promote the religious views of the composers and clergy for whom it serves as the basis for ceremony. Most of this music is based on open, naturally occurring intervals and, in large enclosed spaces, the sound of the music resembles what I can only imagine might be what religious leaders describe as the presence of the holy. Why does this music feel holy? I would suggest that it does precisely because of its interactions with the physical world—reverberation, naturally occurring resonances, etc. The words, even though they are often holy texts, are completely superfluous. They could be singing about how to change a tire and it would still sound like angels. On one hand, this music is nothing but propaganda, and on the other, listening to it is as direct an experience of vibrations in the air that I can think of. How can this be?

Canary Records' Ian Nagoski


Ian Nagoski: No, I don't think there could be music that could be experienced as expressing a program of values universally. The only thing universal about music is the fact of its existence, and even that fact has gone nameless in many places either into the present or until recently. I seem to recall that there wasn't a word that meant "music" in Icelandic until 150 years ago, and the word that was settled on then was "tone art" or something. Elsewhere it may be "sound play," which expresses the only universal truth in music that I know of.


To Aaron's point about the apparent naturalness and angelic quality of millennia-old European church music, I would say that 1,000 years of the Church's power and indoctrination has caused the iconic supremacy of the tonic, dominant, and subdominant over sixths and thirds over seconds and sevenths to the extent that those whose ears have been colonized by European church values would find greater psychological comfort in "Wild Thing" than in the court music of central Java. And that people raised in the mountains of the northern Philippines or Laos would not necessarily experience Palestrina as valuable.


Katherine Young: To better express my experience of making and listening to "sound play" (I like that, Ian!), I would need to clarify (expand?) the notion of "pleasant assemblages of sounds" and "pure entertainment." What provides me with pleasure, entertainment, and joy depends on what I need in a given moment. At times it can be sound play that I'm familiar with and accustomed to, something that I know I find comforting (sometimes the only thing I want to listen to is "The Passenger" by Iggy Pop on repeat for an entire day).

At the same, for me the intellectual-conceptual-play triggered by the unexpected, the unfamiliar, and the new in music sound can also be intensely pleasurable and highly entertaining. (Not always, but often! Intention, craft, proportions, whether I'm hungry or too full, and other aesthetic considerations are still in the mix.) But definitely sound play that, as Jason puts it, uses a less familiar language, can be stimulating in a particular way and thus elicits a particular flavor of joy for me.

So, rather than perceiving such an experience as an Orwellian loss, I would frame it as potential, as an openness to different experiences of pleasure, entertainment, and joy. Play, even for children (if my memory serves me), is not simply a "good" and "easy" experience. Desires go unfulfilled, competitions and struggles for dominance emerge, knees get skinned. And that's okay—we go back for more! There's pleasure, entertainment, and joy to be found in these entanglements, as well as in their fleeting resolutions.


Becoming more self-aware, learning more about the economics, politics, and exploitation inherent in music as a product of human labor and interactions—I mean sure, it makes things more complicated. Some sound play in which we were once able to find joy might no longer do it for us. But if we listen and think openly and rigorously we can often find new and different joy in old favorites, as well as in new experiences. As Matt pointed out, there are many, many, many "possible purposes of music," and therefore many, many, many, many possible experiences of joy

Bassoonist and composer Katherine Young