I think the politics around abstraction are very interesting and worth exploring—not just for the sake of it, but because the personal is political and it is impossible to separate our existence or our artistic practices from their politics so it does us no good to not pay attention to it.
@emenel 's mention of abstract expressionism is interesting because that movement also exists in the context of the Cold War, and while I am not one to believe the CIA “invented” the movement, their interest in it is relevant. There is an aspect of glorified individualism and implied “American exceptionalism” in the work, and the stark difference with socialist realism is not without cause. An embrace of modernity, even an ambivalent one, presents a number of problems—of course socialist realism is also an embrace of modernity—and art that is philosophically rooted in Modernity, as a lot of “electronic music” is, stakes a specific type of claim on its socio-political-historical position. This becomes not simply a capitalist/anti-capitalist dilemma but a dilemma between the Enlightenment understanding of history as progressive (and thus the existence of some notion of Modernity) and some alternative way of thinking about the human story.
In this broader project of Modern Art there is also cultural-colonial globalization at work, and you have Western European artists such as Picasso drawing from West African art, and you have California Architects drawing from Japanese design, etc (there are many examples). These things get decontextualized, dehistoricized, and become symbols of modernism because of the lack of story around them. The narrative is destroyed in the project of modernity. The cyborg does not have a family tree.
On the other hand, we have the rise in popularity of vocal-led music in the 1940s due to the musicians strike in the US. This is not to say instrumental music isn’t narrative of course it can be, but if we consider lyrics an aid in building narrative this certainly has some sort of effect on how we conceive of narratives in music. If the dominant pop culture music now is employing lyrics to express itself it must impact the cultural touchstones and collective understandings of meaning in instrumental music that presumably composers were in dialogue with.
So we have “modernity” as an ideology destroying narrative by portraying it as antiquated or regressive on the one hand, and we have the nationalism of the war effort glorifying vocal and lyric music and perhaps coopting its narrative power for cultural influence—not that popular music themes are dictated from the top down, but what we consume is influencing culture and there is some feedback loop of what people in power think would be popular based on faulty—classist, racist, etc—assumptions and then building on that as those things become cultural touchstones for generations.
Irish traditional music, the folk music I’m most familiar with, has both a lyrical sung tradition and an instrumental tradition, but both are very rooted in a social interaction—which I think might be a defining feature of what we consider “folk music”. It is music that you play with your family or friends, in a social group, and in that sense there are stories that go with everything. There are stories in lyrics of course, which can be morality tales, or history lessons, or jokes set to music, or any number of different types of stories. But there are also stories to the jigs and reels—these are not only emotionally expressive and often have names that imply some sort of story or journey such as “Blarney Pilgrim” or “Haste to the Wedding” but they also carry with them the stories of repeated playing with friends and family. The story is also in the communal sharing of the songs, it is a cultural narrative. This applies to other genres of music as well, I find the emotional impact on me of live music is very different because of the social context of other people I’m with and the presence of musicians. The stories are much more visceral than if I’m alone in my room listening to music I have no cultural context or relationship to.
This is perhaps a long way around the horse to say that music is a socio-political act that does not exist outside of its cultural context. Music that attempts to erase its context or to be overly “abstracted” is engaging in a meta-narrative about modernity that is politically motivated. (I put abstracted in quotes because I don’t mean abstract in the formal sense of ‘this painting isn’t of a thing I recognize’, but abstracted in the sense of decontextualized). If we move beyond this way of thinking about “modern art” (as we are doing here) we can intentionally tell the stories we want instead of inadvertently reflecting the grand narratives that are the simply the norms we’re exposed to. This intentionality is not easy though, it seems to take a lot of work. It is a project (for me) of learning how to experience the world as an artist—not of attaining objectivity, but of noticing the ways lines or shapes interact on a persons face or the layers of information in the sound of a trickling stream. Perhaps its about paying attention and noticing detail, since that seems to be what I’m describing, but it feels like there’s something more to it too… I am fascinated by artists who can create such immediate and impactful work but have no capacity to speak about their own work in a nuanced way—they don’t need to have the exact language of understanding what they’re dealing with because they are bearing witness to the world and paying attention and that is reflected in the work.
PS Fatima Al Qadiri’s score to Atlantique/Atlantics is great, good movie too