The music of politics and protest
Musicologist Dr Nick Tochka discusses his research into music in Europe and the Americas – particularly the politics of music-making since 1945
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My name is Nick Tochka, I'm Senior Lecturer in Music and Head of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne.
A historian and ethnographer, Nicholas Tochka researches popular, traditional, and art musics in Europe and the Americas, with a particular emphasis on the politics of music-making since 1945.
Dr. Tochka is currently working on a book manuscript titled “Rocking in the Free World: Popular Music and the Politics of Freedom in Postwar America.” It examines how postwar politics influenced the reception and practice of rock genres in the US between the 1950s and 1980s.
Nicholas Tochka sat down for a Zoom chat to talk about his work with Dr Andi Horvath.
So Nick, how do you describe what you do when you meet new people? You do meet new people, you do get out of the office, don't you?
Well, this past year I haven't really gotten out of the office.
Actually, that's true, I haven't actually got out from behind my microphone either. But if we were to have a virtual barbeque on Zoom, how would you introduce yourself?
Yeah, well the first thing I do when I introduce myself to new people is explain that even though I am a lecturer in music and I teach at the conservatorium, I actually don't give private music lessons. So I'm a guitarist and a bassist and I play all things strings, but what I do is I teach and I research the social and the cultural history of music making, especially with an emphasis on popular music since 1945.
So what impact does society have on the music that is made? It sounds like a really broad question but let's start somewhere.
Yeah, that's a really good question, that's sort of a bread and butter question in the discipline of ethnomusicology and popular music studies.
So I think that one thing to say is that there's this kind of older understanding of music as being transcendental, kind of 19th century romantic understanding of music as existing outside of political and economic conditions. That kind of romantic transcendental understanding of music as art for art's sake, that sort of 19th century slogan that I'm talking about, is something that is still I think to a certain sense with us today. It's something that when a student signs up for my classes we spend quite a bit of time talking about acknowledging that that's part of our heritage here in the west, that understanding of music.
Today however I think that it is becoming more commonplace, and especially in a lot of my own work and my own teaching, to really drill down into and try to understand - I mean, I like to think of it in my own work as the kind of political or economic conditions in which people make music, people listen to music, people evaluate music, they assign value or meaning or significance. They argue, they debate.
One of the things I tried to look at is sort of all these verbs, so all of the things that people do with and about music, and for me that's really kind of a window onto how exactly music has political meaning or social meaning.
Are there categories of music? Like I can think of protest songs, I can think of songs that are kind of like self-expression, that reflect what society is thinking about. But I can also think of songs that almost seem like self-therapy, it's personal, it's not a public message. What are the categories of societal impact on music?
Yeah, and that's something I'm really interested in in my own work, especially my recent work on popular music in the United States in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. So this idea that music, and especially certain kinds of popular music, that they might function as a form of self-expression or they might function as a form of therapy.
I mean, I guess the cliched example is that you would think that, oh, I'm going to kind of see into the deep, dark inner recesses of this singer-songwriter's soul to understand what makes them tick. That our heroes or the people that we listen to are going to be expressing themselves in a way that we connect with on records or on MP3s or however we listen to that music.
One of the things I do in my work is try to look at that historical beginnings of this idea. So one of the roots of this idea comes from the 1960s folk music movement. It comes from this idea that a guy or a girl with an acoustic guitar and even if they are singing into a microphone, that kind of unmediated presence, that sort of live, first take connection with an audience. That's a set of values and a set of tropes that quickly began to be adopted and assigned to other kinds of music in countries like the United States, Great Britain and Australia.
So I kind of see that idea that certain kinds of music can function as a form of self-expression or even a form of therapy as something that comes about in the late '60s and early '70s and something that becomes to be valorised by rock critics, by fans, by the musicians themselves, and ultimately taken for granted.
Give us some case studies that we can get our heads around where the political system, like communism or dictatorship, constrains or releases a certain type of music.
I have done quite a bit of historical work on popular music in countries like Albania and communist countries in the former Eastern Bloc. You also use the word constrain, which I think is an okay word to use but I would shift it and say that instead of thinking about the ways in which a system like a communist or an authoritarian country constrains music making, I would push us toward thinking about the ways in which it shapes music making. To me that's a little bit of a less value-laden term.
So in terms of how a political economic system like communism as it developed in countries like Albania or the Soviet Union shaped music making, in my own work what I try to look at are the institutions and the kinds of political and economic logics that organise the activities of the musicians. So in looking at logics and in looking at institutions, that also pushes us to think about the people that make up those institutions as well as the people who in their day-to-day work are implementing, fashioning, creating policy that then gets turned into some kind of a logic that leads to the production of music.
So you asked about case study and I'll get us to maybe a very specific one. So I look at these annual music festivals that took place throughout the Eastern Bloc. Now, one way of thinking about a State-run music festival is to think about it in terms of how, for instance, the State uses this as a way to control individuals, a way to censor lyrics that it doesn't approve of, a way to put together artistic commissions that can say, yes, this is a correct form of music making, no, that's an incorrect form of music making.
Now, when you're thinking about a festival like that, I think the incorrect thing to do is to assign agency to the State or assign agency to some sort of faceless bureaucratic structure. So in my own work, what I did was I tried to track down the people who sat on artistic commissions, I tried to track down the notes and the minutes from those meetings to see, how, for example, they assessed or evaluated a composition or a performance. But I also tried to track down the composers and the performers and the singers to look at, first, what they were doing and why they were doing it, how they came to see the kind of music they were making.
The kind of interesting thing that I found, even in an extreme case like communist Albania, was that the musicians themselves often had non-political reasons that sometimes they paralleled the logic of the State, sometimes they went against the logics of the State but that kind of tension was okay, it was something that could exist.
So I think the thing that we need to bear in mind when we think about even these kinds of historically illiberal kinds of political-economic systems, is just that for these systems to work people had to work as part of the systems.
You've also explored the opposite end of the spectrum in a free society like America.
Yeah, so I think that while a lot of research that's looked at communist or State-socialist societies has begun from a position where it's assumed that musicians were unfree, or it assumes that we should not ascribe that much agency to musicians. I think that we can actually make that the mirror image argument about liberal democracies.
I think that in the past, music scholars, rock critics, music fans, musicians themselves, have tended to ascribe maybe too much agency and a little bit too much freedom to musicians. When I write about the 1960s, especially in the United States, one of the things that really fascinates me about this period is a shift that goes on. So in the late '50s and early '60s, a lot of American commentators and critics saw rock'n'roll, early rhythm and blues, they saw this as something that was going to turn people into automatons.
This was part of this mass culture critique where this music would brainwash people, it was actually a source for unfreedom, it was a source for taking away individual's freedom. Then over the course of five, six, seven years, we see this radical shift where rock music in the United States comes to signify not only a form of self-expression like we talked about a couple of minutes ago, but a way to free yourself or to emancipate yourself.
So to me that's really the crux of the critique in my more recent work is to look at how those values about democracy and freedom get to be assigned to rock music at a particular time. It's something we take for granted right now and I'll just give one sort of quick example. Even after the election of Donald Trump in 2016 one of the first things that a lot of popular musicians and commentators started to say was, well, no matter what happens it's going to be great for, and then insert particular kind of resistant music, punk or hardcore. Or it's going to generate this - as if a shift or a slide toward authoritarianism is necessarily going to be reflected in these expressions of freedom from certain kinds of popular musicians.
What misconceptions do people have about your area of research?
Well, I think I can answer that maybe in two ways. I think the first way is kind of a less meta way and more in the weeds of what I do and my own research. So I think I've kind of touched on this a couple of times that I would consider my work to be really revisionist in nature.
So just throughout my career I've always kind of been drawn to questions and places and people, narratives, stories, that have kind of become common sense or common places. The kinds of things that we just sort of take for granted and I think that my discipline of ethnomusicology, one of the contributions we make is by breaking down those narratives. So in my own work, the kind of misconceptions that I break down often have to do with either these stories that we've told about music making, so one major one in my early research was - maybe we can think of it as the kind of Shostakovich narrative. It's the idea that Dmitri Shostakovich, this Soviet composer, that he was a secret dissident and that he was somehow standing outside of the Soviet system secretly encoding messages into his music and that this was a real and serious and authentic form of political subversion or resistance. It's something that we should celebrate and we should valorise and it tells us something about maybe the weakness of the Soviet system.
So these sort of fantasies or narratives of resistance, we don't just see these with musicians like Shostakovich but we kind of see them especially with rock music in the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc. But the thing that was always interesting to me was that these kinds of approaches emphasised a relatively narrow band of musicians and narrow bands of music.
So once we looked outside of underground rock in Leningrad or once we look outside of literally the one per cent composers, people who are so high up that they can kind of do whatever they please and have all of these resources. Once we start looking at people who have day-to-day work, who make up the entire fabric of one of these systems, we start to be able to revise that narrative and that story and we can tell different stories.
So in my own research I look at a lot of these narratives and these stories and I try to look at how they get to be told and then I try to go back to the primary sources or do interviews with people to see how we can nuance or complicate them or maybe even revise them. If I can just maybe follow up with one thing that's a little bit more meta in terms of that question about misconceptions, I do think that - I'm in a discipline and we're living in a time period where it's hard to make a case for why musicology would matter or why ethnomusicology would matter.
It's not something that can be easily translated into the speak of job-ready skills, it's not something that can be translated into this kind of neoliberal university jargon. I think that my utopian sort of - maybe not utopian but my sort of hope for my own methods in writing is that this is something, it's a set of methods and an approach that could have real world value even if it can't be translated into these kinds of immediately applied skills.
Talking about current times of COVID, how do you think this has impacted or will impact on musicology?
I think it's had a really terrible impact. I mean, looking globally at for example the job market, it was already - getting a continuing track job in a field like musicology or ethnomusicology, it was already like winning the lottery. At this point I think it's hard to make the case to students that they should even buy a ticket.
In terms of students as well, I think one thing that we do see in Australian society and in US society, and we've been seeing this in US society for a couple of decades now, is this vocational discourse about what university is and what it should train and prepare you for. I think it's hard to make the case for a discipline like musicology or ethnomusicology in today's climate.
That's kind of sad, it's kind of a scary thing because I think what it potentially means is that a lot of people who could potentially have something to contribute to these disciplines - diverse viewpoints, people with different experiences - may be selected out of being in the pool of students who would even be thinking of training in these disciplines.
Nick, what surprised you about your research?
Everything surprises me about my research. I mean, every time I dive into a new archive or pick up a set of newspapers, talk to a person who I've just met, I think I'm constantly being surprised, which is really a source of joy and pleasure and in the long slog from thinking and reading to getting the money to do the research, to doing the research, to writing it, to having it rejected by publications and then finally getting it out, I think that little surprises along the way are part of what's most pleasurable for me.
But I think that for me the biggest surprises that I often come about in my own work are when there's a really clear-cut story or narrative that we tell about a particular musician or particular style of music or a particular work or a performance. Once you start drilling down into the newspaper reviews from that period, once you start digging through the archives and seeing the notes of whatever committee greenlit that or funded it, very rarely are you surprised in the sense that, oh, the story was completely wrong, but they begin to sort of shift.
They shift in such a subtle way sometimes that then in formation with the build-up and the accretion of all these other little stories that you find, you realise that you can often - the narrative gets turned on its head. The thing that's sort of exciting about that process is that oftentimes you realise that the main protagonists of the stories shift as well, so you can start to give voice to a number of people who maybe had been left out of the original narratives. You can start ferreting out their voices and their perspectives and really changing your own perspective about this music that may be quite meaningful to you and of course to others as well.
Tell me a narrative that's shifted.
So one key example and case study I look at in my current book manuscript is the relationship between psychedelic drugs and music in the 1960s. So there is this story that's often told, where it just kind of makes sense or it's natural that certain kinds of rock music are associated with certain kinds of drug use. You know, the narrative if you can remember the '60s then you weren't there, this sort of a cliché.
So what I've been looking at is - I've been looking at the kinds of music that early proponents of psychedelic drugs actually used in their clinical studies, and despite this kind of overdetermined connection to bands like The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane or all these other west coast psychedelic bands, one of the things that you find is that in all the early clinical trials on both the west coast and the east coast, the music that was being use was often classical music recordings.
So in the late 1950s, Allen Ginsberg, he was at one of these CIA-funded medical centres on the west coast, he took psychedelic drugs under the oversight of a medical professional and he was asked what recording do you want to listen to, and he picked a Wagner recording. You find this throughout when we move to the east coast and we see Timothy Leary's experiments at Harvard with Richard Alpert, later Ram Dass. The sort of middle-class white college students who were participating in these trials were inevitably asked what kind of music do you want to listen to while we dose you and then interview? Inevitably they're choosing Schubert or Mozart or Bach; all these classical musicians.
Now, this isn't quite the picture that we have about LSD or magic mushroom ingestion in the '60s, in fact this is probably the opposite of what we think about when we think about LSD and the counterculture. But when we actually drill down into the primary sources and we look at why these kinds of music are being paired with these drugs and then we can sort of learn really interesting facts about the reasoning behind this.
So for example, we see Timothy Leary and other experts who are really focused on curating a drug situation for their listeners. They believe that there should be a guide and the guide should set a particular kind of setting for the drug user to have a particular kind of experience. Now, on the one hand this is something that is very much part of the ethos and the values of the coming counterculture, the idea that people should be exploring within themselves and that individuals should be digging down underneath the surface of society in order to understand what's really going on. This is a major countercultural critique.
But on the other hand, we soon have people in other areas who are criticising this as being too hierarchical and almost authoritarian in the way that someone like Timothy Leary is trying to set a setting. What this reveals maybe is sort of a different way into thinking about the ethos of the counterculture, one that doesn't begin from a natural starting point that says, well, the drugs were there to expand your consciousness because individuals were focused on expanding their consciousness, and the music just kind of naturally linked up with or made sense to be listening that it was all this haze of things that all kind of fit together.
Drilling down into even a small example like this is one way to denaturalise those conditions and look at the kind of debates that people had about how these different elements fit together. So that's the first part of the story, I won't take too much time but just to say that when we begin by shifting the story on its side and looking at it that way, it then forces us to ask, okay, well, why did people stop listening to Mozart and Bach while they got high and why did they start listening to these other bands?
Under COVID-19 we've come to appreciate the fact that we can't go to live gigs and music, do you think this has changed the way we've thought about music and musicians?
Yeah, I'm kind of of two minds on this. I think that on the one hand one of the things that this has done has sort of pointed out to all of us just how much we rely on creative people, people who are artists, people who are musicians, people who make the television shows, the songs, the albums that we consume in our everyday life.
I think the other thing though that this has shown is when push comes to shove, government policy to support artists really hasn't been there, and in fact in a lot of places in the world there have been these exemptions that are carved out. When I talk to musician friends and composers, I think there's one positive, interesting thing, is the way that a lot of musicians have banded together to support one another.
So for example, a colleague of mine who is a composer in the Washington DC area has talked to me about how he has cut his rates for commission so that people can commission new works for him. I think that we see with these Bandcamp Fridays when people band together to support musicians, especially independent musicians and artists, I think that that's a positive, that sort of sense of community.
But when we look at the large scale of the problem, we see that there really hasn't been a response from above that sort of meets that scale. Something like for example in depression-era United States, creating a federal program to support and put artists to work. I mean, that seems almost unimaginable in today's political-economic climate.
There's a lot of musicians out there who are nodding as you're saying this. So next time we go to put on a piece of favourite music or we stop and reflect on some music we've just heard, what would you like us to think about?
I thought you were going to ask me if I had a drug dealer I could put you in touch with.
You know, someone who researches and teaches about popular music, the kind of music that isn't supposed to be good for you, it's supposed to be the fun stuff that you like listening to and you buy a - I often tell my students this joke that I say, welcome to Ethnomusicology 101, I say that you thought you liked listening to music and now we're going to suck all of the fun out of it.
We're going to talk about race, we're going to talk about gender, we're going to talk about how it's all part of this terrible capitalist music industry. So I think that when you sit down to listen to a piece of music, I don't listen that way, I do sometimes when I have my work hat on, but I think that there's certainly a case to me made for just the pleasure of connecting with music on a human level.
Dr Nick Tochka, thank you.
Thank you, Andi.
Thank you to Nick Tochka, Senior Lecturer in Music and Head of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on January 28, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“Everything surprises me about my research. Every time I dive into a new archive or pick up a set of newspapers, talk to a person who I’ve just met, I’m constantly being surprised”.
So says Dr Nick Tochka, Senior Lecturer in Music and Head of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne.
Dr Tochka researches popular, traditional and art musics in Europe and the Americas, with a particular emphasis on the politics of music-making since 1945.
“In terms of how a political economic system like communism in Albania or the Soviet Union shaped music making, I look at the institutions and the kinds of political and economic logics that organise the activities of the musicians,” says Dr Tochka.
Currently working on a book manuscript titled “Rocking in the Free World: Popular Music and the Politics of Freedom in Postwar America,” Dr Tochka is looking at how post-war politics influenced the reception and practice of rock genres in the US between the 1950s and 1980s.
“There is an idea that music and especially certain kinds of popular music, might function as a form of self-expression or they might function as a form of therapy...in a way that we connect with on records or on MP3s or however we listen to that music.
“One of the roots of this idea comes from the 1960s folk music movement where a guy or a girl with an acoustic guitar are singing into a microphone, that kind of unmediated presence, a live, first-take connection with an audience.”
Episode recorded: January 28, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images/ Joan Baez Performs with Group Outside (Original Caption) 7/27/1969-Toronto, Canada- Thousands of folk music fans flocked onto Toronto Island in Toronto Harbor 7/25 to 7/27 to attend the Mariposa Folk Festival. In addition to evening concerts, there were afternoon workshops, the most popular of which was one given by Joan Baez. Between songs, she discussed her non-violent philosophy and opposition to the military. Her husband, David Harris, had been arrested 7/16 in California for evading the draft. She is shown performing.
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