The 20th century produced many politically active leftist composers. In the early part of the century, some, like Aaron Copland and Woody Guthrie achieved mainstream success and reached large audiences. However, in the years since, the meaning of their pieces has been changed. Thus Aaron Copeland, a gay communist who was too radical to be allowed to play one of his symphonies at Eisenhower’s inauguration, came to be the theme music for recruitment ads for the Armed Services. Woody Guthrie’s song This Land is Your Land was changed, with the omission of a few key lines, from a call for communist collectivization, to a ditty about manifest destiny, suitable for third graders. Their work has been co-opted by those to their right politically and used against their intentions.
This paper will explore strategies used by composers in the latter half of the 20th Century to create serious leftist works that resist co-option. For example, after the tape recorder was invented, composers invented a new genre called tape music, where the finished product is the recording. Therefore, if a piece of tape music has words, they cannot be altered, edited or deleted. Some composers, especially text sound poets, used tape music to create pieces with fixed words and meanings. The anti-Vietnam War text sound poem The Glorious Desertion by Sten Hanson is unlikely ever to be turned against his intentions. This paper will look at a number of experimental composers including Steve Reich, Sten Hanson, Paul De Marinis, and Christian Wolff and how they created politically themed works that resist co-option.