Do music and politics mix? "Oh yes, definitely," says Frank Abbinanti with a forcefulness that belies his mild-mannered demeanor. "Incorporating political consciousness into music is extremely important. A composer should illuminate the problems of the world--otherwise he or she would just be a mere entertainer. And we have plenty of those nowadays." For most of the past decade the Chicago native has practiced what he preached in his sizable body of work. In Europe, where political music is part of the mainstream, he's regarded as an experimenter with something to say. In this country, he feels he's almost a minority of one.
By and large musicians are not political animals, Abbinanti admits. Before the Age of Enlightenment, most members of the profession served either the church or the nobility; the music they wrote and played was meant to delight their patrons or to uplift the soul (or both). Around the time of the French Revolution some composers started to put their politics into their music. Mozart obliquely touched on class conflicts in his operas. Beethoven, by first endorsing then bitterly denouncing Napoleon, came to stand for the artist as democrat. Rising nationalism in the 19th century made a hero of Verdi, who zealously called for the unification of Italy. Wagner in his Ring cycle, Abbinanti points out, "responded to the events of 1848 [in France], to the emergence of ideology and class consciousness." The rival aesthetics of Schoenberg and Stravinsky were interpreted as the progressives versus the bourgeoisie. And Shostakovich made his mark as both an apologist for and a victim of Soviet politics. But the exceptions are few, says Abbinanti. "A lot of composers, especially younger ones in this country, prefer to deal with psychological fantasies and academic mind games. They have no sense of history--they don't write out of necessity."
Abbinanti's political awakening came long after he finished his musical training. As a teenager, he dabbled in aleatoric writing like John Cage's. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1974, he came under the influence of Ralph Shapey and neoromanticism. He was enamored of both styles but says, "I was caught in between and lost direction. I found Cage and Shapey philosophically reactionary." In the late 70s he stopped composing and turned his attention to political and social theories. He joined collectives that studied Marx and his modern disciples, searching for ways to make the world utopian. Music stopped being all-consuming and became "part of a grander scheme of things" that included film and literature.
During his first visit to Europe in 1981 he found kindred spirits. "I met Cornelius Cardew in London, with whom I had corresponded for over a decade. I was struck by his sense of a larger perspective, by the compelling social realism in his music. I made up my mind to follow his example." Two years later Abbinanti helped organize a memorial concert here for the British Marxist.
Soon after, he began composing again. His Liberation Music for piano solo, a partly improvisational piece that is both a personal and a political statement built on the Italian workers' anthem "La bandiera rossa," was presented at the 1983 New Music America festival. Since then he's been active on the local new-music scene, acting as codirector of the InterArts Ministry and arranging concerts for European musicans.
He still reads leftist magazines, but it's the problems of writing political music and the challenge of being a leftist composer in America that preoccupy him. Like his idol Charles Ives, the insurance executive who wrote avant-garde music for the masses, Abbinanti has a day job (as a paralegal) to give him financial security. Like his other idol Pierre Boulez, he hopes to "extend the language of music--in my case, to accommodate political imageries." A self-described "postmodern eclectic," he believes in keeping his music accessible. "My works, for the most part, are 'neotonal,' postelectronic. I'm concerned with conveying political imageries, and they invariably force an aesthetic problem--the problem of finding their equivalents in the modern idioms I have at my disposal. I also like to use little cells from works of the past as loose models." In Espana: La lucha (Spain: The Struggle), written for the Pitzen Brass Ensemble, he says, "a sense of great violence is achieved through Gabrieli-like counterpoint." In Four Songs, which was commissioned by the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, he says, "I used texts by feminist writers, but I also had in mind the famous last songs of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. The trick was to put as much distance as possible between mine and theirs."
In his latest work, American Labor Studies for Orchestra, he pays tribute to American workers through the ages. "I subscribe to the classical left view of labor as a focus of the world, creators of wealth," he says. "The symphony is my first try at Americana. Yet this music is not sanctimonious. When listening to it, you'll find it rough and gruff. There are clusters of jarring dissonance--the equivalents of slogans like 'Don't be a scab!' I want to get at the unfulfilled quality of the life of a worker as well as the continuity that exists between generations and cultures in the U.S. The tableaux unfold as in Pictures at an Exhibition but in a more serious vein. You don't need words to understand the message. In good political music the listener should know something important has been stated."
American Labor Studies for Orchestra will debut in a concert this Sunday by the Harper Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Frank Winkler. The program, which also includes works by Copland and Bernstein, begins at 3 PM in the Building J theater of Harper College, 1200 W. Algonquin Road, Palatine. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors and students. More info at 708-397-3000, ext. 2547.
Abbinanti may complain about political apathy, but he's busier than ever with commissions. He owes the Arditti String Quartet a piece that he says will deal with the Middle East crisis. He's also been invited by the Grant Park Symphony to write an orchestral work to commemorate the 500th aniversary of Columbus's expedition to America. "It's a tricky situation," he says. "Columbus, we all know, was a great astronomer, navigator, and fund-raiser. But recently he's also found to have been a cruel colonist. My piece, I hope, will show both sides of the man."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Amy Rothblatt.