Scott Spiegelberg pointed me toward a new academic journal from Cambridge University Press, Twentieth-Century Music. I haven’t had time to digest all the articles, but it looks like a strong debut. The range of topics is vast, everything from Boulez’s Pli selon pli to Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.” Some of the titles seem ripe for journalistic mockery — Ian Biddle’s “Vox Electronica: Nostalgia, Irony and Cyborgian Vocalities in Kraftwerk’s Radioaktivität and Autobahn,” for example — but I got a lot out of the scholarship even when the jargon made me fidget. I liked Mark Spicer’s definition of “accumulative form”: “A random sampling from the albums on Billboard’s Top 200 will likely confirm that many current pop-rock songs feature at some point on their musical surface a cumulative process of textural growth: various interlocking riffs – such as drum rhythm, bass line, and guitar vamp – are introduced one by one until the groove is complete, a technique most often employed at the beginning of songs.” I also enjoyed Charles Wilson’s critique of György Ligeti’s recent music, or, more accurately, of the promotion of Ligeti as maverick individualist: “Being valued for your individuality may be gratifying; but being valued only for your individuality ultimately implies that any individual will do just as well as you.” Good point — yet the overall picture of some vast corporate machinery promoting Ligeti is a touch absurd.
Most relevant to my current task — writing up the Shostakovich Festival at Bard — is Marina Frolova-Walker’s “Stalin and the Art of Boredom,” a deft overview of Socialist Realism in music. Prof. Frolova-Walker delivered a truncated version of this article at a Bard panel. Like many recent writers on Soviet culture, she draws on the files of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Here is her arrangement of quotations from the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, as reported by informants:
M. M. Prishvin: All the time I’m thinking I should leave as soon as possible – the boredom is unbearable . . .
Valeryan Pravdukhin: All we have in the literary world at the moment is unabashed demagogy and publishers’ terror. . . . As for the Congress, even to talk about it seriously is shameful: something more lively was expected of Radek’s and Bukharin’s papers, but even these wilted before they could bloom, since they had, after all, been subjected to drastic cuts by Central Committee officials.
A. Novikov-Priboy: The period of the final bureaucratization of literature has begun.
Panteleymon Romanov: Intense boredom and stifling bureaucracy, which cannot be enlivened by the beat of any drum. Gorky’s paper might be of interest to those who read it in the newspapers, framed by all sorts of enthusiastic comments, but for those of us who heard the speech, it was quite pathetic: there wasn’t an ounce of enthusiasm in it. The head of the Department spoke according to the orders of his superiors, with no inner passion.
P. Rozhkov: A kingdom in slumber.
Ukrainian delegates: Talk of ‘the futility of this whole comedy’ . . .
Babel: The Congress is running in a deadly fashion, like a Tsarist parade.
Semenko: Everything is running so smoothly that I’m consumed by a maniacal desire to take a piece of shit or rotten fish and hurl it at the Presidium of the Congress. Perhaps this would inject a little life into the proceedings. . . . [I]t is a fraudulent ceremony. . . . A good half of the audience, especially the delegates from the national republics, would really like to cry out passionately about gross injustice, to protest, to demand, to speak as human beings, not as lackeys. But instead, they are forced to listen dutifully to our leaders reading their papers, which are nothing but lies – they are assured that everything is just fine. And we sit and clap like clockwork soldiers . . . while the true artists, those who fight for their national culture, are rotting away somewhere in a Karelian swamp or a GPU prison.
Here is her impressive windup:
All too often, Socialist Realism is viewed as something unique and hermetic, incomprehensible to those who have never experienced it. But perhaps this is prompted not so much by humility, but by a complacency that allows us to imagine nothing remotely comparable can be found in the West. This was certainly not the perception of Russians as they were tossed from the Soviet frying pan into the free-market fire. Where the roadside hoardings and television screens had formerly presented the iconography of the old regime, they now presented the iconography of the new: out with Lenin, in with Marlboro Man. They soon became weary of the repetitive gabble of advertising, just as they were once weary of the dull monotony of Politburo speeches. Even before perestroika, the similarities were noticed by those capable of distancing themselves from the over-familiar. Andy Warhol remarked on the affinity between Soviet propaganda art and the Western commercial art he parodied in his pop-art works (compare his multiple images of Marilyn Monroe to the sixty or so faces of Lenin on the walls of the Lenin Museum). Or from the other side, the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid had become famous for their satirical broadsides at the pompous pretensions of Soviet Realism; they were not long in the West before they transferred their satire to Western banality and kitsch. Where Socialist Realist art once was used to cocoon the Soviet citizen from reality, in the West we have the shopping mall, those temples to the free-market, with their archways, fountains, and mood music. No, if we remove the blinkers, Socialist Realism no longer seems an alien phenomenon.