What does Marxism sound like? The question could be the opening line of a tedious undergraduate joke – or the natural extension, perhaps, of ecologist Bryan Pijanowski’s attempt last month to record, through the dissemination of a smartphone app, a complete “global soundscape” in a single day. But no, it seems to be the theme behind a potent development in new music, and this week formed the backdrop for a deliciously provocative line-up at the London Contemporary Music Festival.
The evening, titled “Marxist Chillwave”, began with looped piano improvisations on Wagner’s Ring cycle – a body of work in which the composer’s socialist revolutionary sympathies found some expression – and touched base in the 20th century before showcasing young artists of today.
A series of vox pops gave me some sense of my fellow concertgoers. The majority were new music nuts and aspiring scenesters looking for street cred in a Shoreditch warehouse (yes, I’m guilty on both counts) but an elderly man told me he had come only to hear Luigi Nono’s piece and was keen to get home before the “postmodern decadence” began. It was a young crowd, unfazed by the discomfort of the venue, a former carpet factory, who were there to be challenged, iPhones at the ready.
There was a nod to Cornelius Cardew, a significant British postwar composer known for his Marxist views, with an atmospheric performance of his Red Flag Prelude. But the central question posed by the event was this: what is the sound of the left today?
Indie would be the obvious place to look. In recent decades, musicians across the pop-classical spectrum have gone back to basics, using cheap, low-fi technology to achieve a raw “honest” sound in opposition to commercial pop. The genre known as “chillwave”, characterised by a faded, dreamy nostalgia, has gained traction of late. But growing numbers of artists are seeking to flip this aesthetic on its head, embracing the sounds of a dystopian future – shiny, commercial and digitised – and revelling in the contradictions.
Some have linked this trend to accelerationism, a concept developed by philosopher Nick Land in the early 1990s, which asserts that the only way to combat capitalism is to accelerate its growth and ultimate self-destruction. Whether or not these musicians consider their work to be accelerationist, they share an interest in exposing power structures and an enjoyment of the fine line between artifice and authenticity, between criticism and complicity.
Cue Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit (Outsourcing), a four-movement piece that he “outsourced” to two Asian collaborators. Fascinated by property rights, Kreidler first created two pieces of work out of pop and classical samples, then commissioned a Chinese composer and an Indian computer programmer to plagiarise his work for fees of $15 and $30 respectively.
“Some might say it’s not my music, but it is my music – I own the patent,” the composer concluded in a sarcastic, deadpan style. And we laughed, despite ourselves.
. . .
Fatima Al Qadiri is another artist who examines systems of power. An EP of 2011 includes “Vatican Vibes”, a slick dance track inspired by the motifs of computer game soundtracks, and accompanied by a video in which a holy war is fought in the same style (“Select pontiff . . .”, “Commencing consecration . . .”). Her new album Asiatisch borrows from tracks including “We are Siamese” from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, to expose stereotypes about imagined China.
For this live set Al Qadiri presented Industrial Patterns: SameSame Soundtrack for Fashion, a video showing models posing in strange, androgynous outfits overlaid with repetitive synth rhythms, the flat voice of a catwalk commentator and the “ker-ching” of cash registers. Thrillingly sinister, the piece then segued into YouTube footage of Asian clothing factory workers dwarfed by mounds of fabric; the audience collectively shivered.
Earlier this month I attended a May Day march on Dalston, east London, organised by music label Nonclassical. In the back room of a grungy pub we heard Thom Andrewes’ White-Haired Boy, an opera about Boris Johnson composed using samples from campaign videos on the London mayor’s YouTube channel. The evening had begun in nearby Gillett Square, with the Riot Ensemble thrashing their way through Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union (1975), which references labour movements “where the members . . . want to reach their goal in a persistent, hard-headed but difficult matter” and is scored for any group of loud instruments with no exact pitches, resulting in a rich cacophony of thumping beats and dirty chords.
The crowd listened politely. It wasn’t clear if the man sheltering under an RAB Capital umbrella (advertising the hedge fund best known for its disastrous bet on the recovery of Northern Rock) was a champagne revolutionary, or a protester in search of a provocative gesture. But a grey-haired woman at the front pumped her fists and whooped as the piece came to its angry finale. It was poignant moment, a throwback to the days of earnest and idealistic expression, and a jolt out of the conflicted present, where the prevailing trend dictates: if you can’t beat it, join it – and push it as hard and fast as you can.
To listen to culture columns, visit ft.com/culturecast