A Selection of Fascinating Musical Manifestos, 1910-Present

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A couple of years back, the Guardian published an article called “The Lost Art of the Pop Manifesto,” bemoaning, well, the lost art of the pop manifesto. The article harked back to the golden age of punk, when bands published manifestos as often as they made records, and lamented that bands these days just don’t seem to do the same thing. We’re not so sure, though — so in honor of The Knife’s recently published manifesto, which did the rounds earlier this week, here’s a look at some of our favorite manifestos past and present, from pre-WWI futurism to post-millenial hippie utopianism, from stuckism to an erudite tract on black metal.

The Knife

So, let’s start with a latter-day band who do have a manifesto — of sorts, anyway. The pseudo press release that surfaced on the Internet last week set out an idiosyncratic vision for The Knife’s new record, and it’s as strangely beautiful as the band’s music. They’re pro ecosystems, sound systems and making their own instruments, and anti “Monsanto, fracking and ‘terminator seeds.'” You can read the whole thing here.

The Futurists

Futurism wasn’t strictly a musical movement, of course, but Francesco Balilla Peratella’s 1910 Manifesto of Futurist Musicians is the grandaddy of them all as far as musical manifestos go. It also rather presaged the youth obsession of later musical movements — including, of course, rock ‘n’ roll and all its bastard children — with its appeal to the youth of Peratella’s generation, because “they are thirsty for the new, the actual, the lively.” You can read the manifesto here.

Ferruccio Busoni

Around the same time, another Italian composer by the name of Ferruccio Busoni was composing his “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music,” a fascinating essay that discussed the idea of music being “set free” from the laws and principles that had been set down for it — a remarkably forward-thinking idea that predicted the advent of everything from free jazz to musique concrète and the avant-garde composers of today. Dummy Mag ran a really great article about Busoni’s manifesto last year, and you can read the essay itself via Project Gutenberg.

John Maus

Here’s a man who we imagine has probably read both the Futurists and Busoni, along with everything else written by anyone ever. Maus’s 24,000-word response to an open letter from Ad Hoc founder Ric Leichtung is one of the greatest things ever, and the closest thing he’s come to penning a musical manifesto, touching as it does on his approach to music, along with thoughts on love, philosophy, Beethoven, Greil Marcus, and god only knows what else. The tract makes for strangely compelling reading (especially the stuff about his unrequited love for a girl he met on tour with Ariel Pink in 2005.) Truly, there is no one else remotely like Maus. Bless him.

Riot Grrrl

As far as recent(ish) music movements go, it’s probably Riot Grrrl that’s had the most coherent mission statement. The Riot Grrrl Manifesto was first published in 1991 in Bikini Kill’s self-titled zine, and set out a series of reasons why the movement came to exist, along for what it aimed to achieve (“BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways… BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings…. BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real”). You can read the manifesto in its entirety here.

Pussy Riot

As the “punk prayer” that got them into trouble in the first place demonstrated, the members of Pussy Riot have a flair for the theatrical and the self-publicizing, so it’s probably no surprise to discover that they have a full-fledged manifesto to go with their politics. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s “Art and the Human Manifesto” was published on the band’s website during their trial for “hooliganism” last year, and it makes for pretty fascinating reading. Her speech during the trial’s closing statements touched on similar ideas, citing Russian history, the treatment of dissidents and arguing that “it is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial.”

UK Punk

Given how closely identified the UK version of punk was with fashion, it makes sense that its de facto manifesto was published on a T-shirt. The shirt in question (above, worn by Johnny Thunders) was designed by Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, and Bernie Rhodes, and in keeping with punk’s binary, year-zero view of the world, it set out a series of “loves” and “hates.” It makes for interesting reading now — some of the things punks were for and against were fairly predictable (pro-Iggy Pop and Lenny Bruce, anti-parking tickets and “pop stars who are thick and useless”), but others are rather innocuous. Who’d have thought, for instance, that punks would hate Salvador Dalí and Michael Caine but love Jimi Hendrix and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? You can read the full list of loves and hates here.

Billy Childish

Wild Billy’s Stuckist manifestos were just as apposite to his musical endeavors as they were to his art — his statement that “artists who don’t paint aren’t artists” is easy to extrapolate to the world of music, and it’s no surprise that Childish’s bands have stuck very much to the sort of DIY garage rock that complements the notions of authenticity that also inform his visual art. We’re not sure we agree entirely with his conclusions — most of the most innovative music being made these days has nothing to do with vintage guitars or tube amps — but his questions regarding the hollowness of conceptual art and the self-congratulatory irony of its practitioners are certainly also worth applying to the musical world.

Liturgy

If you’ve ever wanted to read a 100-page tract about black metal, well, now you can. A couple of years back, Liturgy’s frontman and black metal scholar Hunter Hunt-Hendrix published an entire manifesto for his band and the genre in general, and it’s fascinating — if somewhat esoteric — reading. (Sample paragraph from the first page: “Transcendental Black Metal is black metal in the mode of Sacrifice. It is a clearing aside of contingent features and a fresh exploration of the essence of black metal. As such it is solar, hypertrophic, courageous, finite and penultimate.”)

Prince Rama

And finally, a band with not just a manifesto but an entire utopian philosophy, set out around ideas of “ghost-modernism” and “The Now Age.” The whole thing is… well, it’s idiosnycratic, let’s say, but curiously compelling in its own strange way: “Somewhere between Time and Eternity lies a dimension called Hyparxis. Hyparxis is defined as an ‘ableness-to-be’. It does not indicate a change in time, or a manifestation of eternity. Instead it refers to transformations in ‘inner time’. Hyparxis combines what is actual with what is potential, thus creating a ‘present moment’ based on the internalized experience of external temporal events, past, present, or future. Thus, the Now Age refers to no age at all, but instead describes an elemental quality of being.” We can’t be 100% sure what it all means, but shit, Hyparxis sounds like a fun place to be.