Book Review | A Call to Ears

Sound System: The Political Power of Music by Dave Randall. Pluto Press 2017. pp 216 €15.38

At the tender age of 17, Adolf Hitler went to see Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Vienna, conducted by Gustav Mahler, who was Jewish. As he explains in Mein Kampf, he had become obsessed with the composer ever since seeing his first opera, ­Lohengrin, at 12. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has suggested that Mahler’s conducting style may have inspired the future dictator’s fateful delusions of grandeur: “…did the young man identify with Mahler’s aura, his ability to command forces with a wave of his arms?”

This is just one of many fascinating citations that Dave Randall uses in his book Sound System: The Political Power of Music, which investigates the complex but crucial connections between power and music. A successful guitarist who toured the world with the renowned UK electronica band Faithless as well as Dido and Sinead O’Connor, this is his first book, but far from the first to address this topic. In fact, ­Randall refers to Plato’s citation of Socrates as one of the earliest attempts: “…the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling…the most fundamental political and social conventions.”

With well-­researched quotes like these and his own experiences, he brings a different perspective through a combination of theoretical inquiry as well as historical and recent examples, making his case for the need to ­understand how and why music has, can, and will change the world.

From the ancient rituals of foragers in Africa through the origins of Carnival in colonial Trinidad to the revolutionary uprisings of the Arab Spring, the reciprocal impact of music and politics is revealed in ­unexpected, fascinating, and ­moving ways.

Music Matters

The Political Power of Music
The Nazi Party understood the power of culture, recruiting numerous famous musicians like Richard Strauss (left) for their purposes.

He begins his argument by challenging precedents in cultural theory: Theodor Adorno (who studied under Arnold Schoenberg) believed that formulaic popular music was a “weapon of mass distraction,” as Randall paraphrases the philosopher, a play on Faithless’s provocative commentary on the Iraq War, “Mass Destruction.” However, ­recent trends in cultural theory have championed pop music as the “true voice of the people.” Randall rejects both, claiming that “the meaning of all music and culture is contested and context is key.” Perhaps this brings the example of Hitler’s passion for music into perspective. While ­Wagner was an inspiration, many ­famous composers were directly ­recruited by the Third Reich – most notably, Richard Strauss as president of the Reichsmusikkammer (Ministry of Music). Hitler “understood the power of culture,” and was keen to use it for his own purposes.

However, it’s Randall’s own ­experiences that really hit home. As a seasoned veteran of the music ­industry, he offers insightful first-hand ­accounts of performing at the famous Glastonbury Festival among the likes of Stevie Wonder, working around secretive sound checks for ­Madonna, and telling off Bob Geldof at a Live 8 gig.

Celebrity culture is another myth that he adroitly debunks. He critiques the creation of untouchable “stars” by a profit-oriented industry that aims to make fans feel that “they’re buying something extraordinary,” a momentary encounter with “greatness.” But to him, this separation between subject and listener goes against the fundamental purpose of music –bringing people together. “Music [should be] made by us for us (enhancing community), not commissioned by them for us (reinforcing hierarchy).”

This is not to sidestep what makes good music in and of itself, which Randall argues does not conflict with its social function. He often cites the influential book by Austrian cultural writer Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, whose main thesis is this: “Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.”

So back to what might be one of the most contested claims of appropriated art – Hitler’s passion for Wagner, who passed away six years before Hitler was born. What should we believe?

At the least, Randall’s book provides a framework for addressing questions like these. Even magic doesn’t emerge out of thin air.

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