make sour notes

George Lichty (1905–1983) was an American cartoonist, creator of the daily and Sunday cartoon series Grin and Bear It (starting in 1932). His drawings skewered both excessive capitalism and Soviet bureaucracy. Scenes in his cartoons were often set in the offices of Soviet Russian commissars, who typically wear medals and five-point stars labelled "HERO." He collected these under the title Is Party Line, Comrade! and published a book of them in the 1950s, which I read a few years ago.

My favorite in the Is Party Line, Comrade! series is the cartoon I've reproduced above. The sign at upper left reads: "Commissar of Music Culture (People's Div.)" Another sign reads: "Musicians of the World Arise! / Make Sour Notes."

A composer has entered the office, giving the commissar his latest composition. The caption reads:

"Is symphony I am composing from glorious sounds of Soviet industry, comrade commissar...the din of hammers, the clash of machinery, the roar of furnaces, the groans of the populace..."

Let's leave aside the final phrase - which is over-the-top hilarious. But short of that: when I first looked at this cartoon and read the caption I felt that something was not quite ideologically clear about its satirical base. The sort of Russian artists who would have created an assemblage of hammer noises, machine crashes, furnace roars, etc., had long been run out of the party, silenced, sent away or indeed killed. The finger-wagging composer here is a gone-to-seed, latter-day constructivist or Russian Futurist - gone from the scene of the 1950s Lichty believed he was satirizing, or had never yet seen the light of day in Soviet Russia (a musical collagist, a John Cage figure). The closest Lichty might have come to the music of industrial ambience would have been indeed...right here in the U.S.

Of course I said all this, above, having ignored the final phrase - which after all is the punchline. So Lichty did know what he was doing politically. My point is merely, I suppose, that Is Party Line, Comrade! is full of lines that were far, by then, from the Party.

And, anyway, the sound of the groaning populace could be heard at nearly any performance by John Cage in the same period.