Experimental Music in the Cultural Cold War

BY BRENNEN OWENS//

In a letter to a state department official in 1947, President Truman wrote, “I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people.” Despite personal preference, the United States vigorously supported these half-baked lazy people during the Cold War. Abstract music in particular became a weapon wielded by the state in order to promote anti-communist ideology.

On one side was the Soviet Union, who decidedly embraced the concept of socialist realism in all forms of expression. Fundamentally, this promoted music which elevated the human spirit past formalist bourgeois works. Laurel E. Fay, expert on Russian and Soviet musicology, in her book, Shostakovich: A Life, says of this, “The only musical art deemed worthy of the working classes, and thus the only music demanded by the Soviet state, was to be defined by its accessibility, tunefulness, stylistic traditionalism, and folk-inspired qualities.” In the Eastern Bloc, composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union and Ernst Hermann Meyer in the German Democratic Republic were political vessels of state promoted proletarian music. 

Although in their works, they showed mastery of the classical orchestral forms. Meyer’s thirty-two-minute work from 1961, Sinfonia Concertante is a deeply complex piece featuring a range of emotions through the piano and orchestra. Through his arrangements, Meyer was deeply committed to displaying his faith in the Marxist-Leninist ideals on how music was to be made, listened to, and distributed. In this right, he excelled. Each of his pieces seem to elevate your understanding of the human soul. Through a deliberately narrow production style, communist composers created complex and intellectual pieces. Yet these composers lacked the immense diversity of expression found in Western music.

On the Western side, many bureaucratic officials would’ve personally enjoyed the intellectual music coming from the Eastern Bloc. Despite this, they could not publicly endorse the communist culture for political necessity. Instead, they had to choose Experimental art and music was in direct opposition to the ideals of Socialist Realism. This art lacked coherent form, was entirely inaccessible to the general populace, and outright denounced tradition. Yet, in the promotion of this type of expression, the United States had one thing to prove. That in the West, you were free to create whatever you wished, without any censorship. 

The CIA took heavy interest in the ordeal, and in 1950 created the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF). The CCF operated for 17 years and, in its heyday, conducted affairs in 35 different countries. The project in name was an “autonomous association of artists, musicians and writers.” Headquartered in Paris, the objective was to sway European intellectuals towards the West. Historically the intellectual patronage of Europe was broadly to the left, but the CIA bankrolled the CCF to convince them that America was the bastion of free expression and culture. Through this thinking, artists like Jackson Pollock were funded by the CIA for going against Socialist Realism. In a funny way, it was the broadly left intellectuals, who may not have supported the US but who did the most fighting against Soviet ideology.

In one particular instance, the CFF collaborated with the MoMA to host the “Festival of Twentieth-Century Masterpieces of Modern Art” in Paris in 1952. The Boston Symphony Orchestra headlined the event by performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It was not random that Stravinsky was chosen, being an artist who fled Russia after the revolution. 

However, it is in dissident artists like Czech musician Milan Knížák, which paint the conflict in culture most vividly. Working during the communist regime of Czechoslovakia, Knížák was an active member of the Fluxus (anti-) art movement, avant-garde to its core. Knížák even organized the first Fluxus concert in Prague in 1966, two years before the massive liberal protests of the Prague Spring in 1968. His most influential work is “Broken Music”, a song composed of breaking up multiple vinyl records and stitching them back together into one record. It is impressive in its lack of attention to what we as humans enjoy listening to. It is a total rebuke of socialist realism. It lacks form or even mass appeal, skipping back and forth from different parts of records, giving a sense of anxiety. 

Knížák was welcomed with open arms to the western intellectual modern art movement. He is prominently displayed in the MoMA, recognized as a foundational figure for experimentation in performance and production of music. This begs the question though, how much of a dissident can you be while being funded by the CIA? Knížák was never formally funded by the CIA but benefitted from a framework set up by the agency to promote abstract expression. These abstract modern artists played into the hands of anti-communist interests perfectly in their rejection of socialist realism. So how should they be viewed? As pioneers of expressive arts and music, or rather as pawns, unknowingly winning the cold war for the Americans? Did the fluxus movement do more to combat the communists than Eisenhower or NATO? 

Anyways check out these cold war CIA funded psyop songs:

  1. Broken Music by Milan Knížák
  2. Danger Music # 17 by Dick Higgins
  3. Sinfonia Concertante by Ernst Hermann Meyer
  4. The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
  5. Dark-Eyed Cossack Girl by Leonid Kharitonov & The Alexandrov Red Army Choir
  6. Fugue in A Major by Dmitri Shostakovich 

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