Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Music and war have a weird relationship.  Our histories of art -- certainly those of art in the twentieth century -- often rotate around massive conflicts.  Political events have always helped divide up our centuries into periods; art historians and musicologists like to think of the French Revolution as a nice way to tie up the short eighteenth century and begin the long nineteenth, which itself concludes with World War I.  This doesn't always work out -- there are artistic "events" which are entirely independent from political ones, and sometimes the track of music history doesn't run on the same rails as the the track of political history.

But the last hundred-plus years of music have been inextricably shaped by our two World Wars and the Cold War .  We orient ourselves around pre-WWI modernism and post-WWI modernism, interwar Neue Sachlichkeit, post-war Zero Hour music, Cold War formalism.  Rightfully so: these conflicts weighed enormously on composers, because they actually participated in them.  The Second Viennese School were involved, in one form or another, in fighting World War I -- Berg's experiences gave birth to Wozzeck.  The second World War was even more tumultuous -- we had the patriotic-ish music on this side of the ocean from the likes of Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and even John Cage, but also the scarring experiences which shaped the early lives of Zimmermann, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Takemitsu, and many others.  To participate in music, before the 1970s, almost guaranteed that one had participated in war.*

That is very, very far from the case today.  I am not aware of any composers today who have served in the military (please let me know if you do Edit: in the comments, Arlene and Larry Dunn have kindly pointed out two musicians, Billy Bang and Lawrence Morris, who both served in Vietnam.  Alex has also smartly mentioned that Israeli composers such as Avner Dorman would have served military duty; he also points to two recent American soldiers, Jason Sagebiel and Daniel Todd Currie, both of whom are composers).  The only way war shapes today's musical lives is in its absence -- American art which engages with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan deals primarily with the gulf between contemporary life in the U.S. and the conflicts we are fighting overseas.  In an effort to shake the public, or at least draw greater awareness to the thousands of troops we have stationed in the Middle East while we attempt to cut taxes, artists dramatize the absence of war in our lives.  Unaffected by the immediacy of conflict, we focus on its absence.

Thus, tonight and tomorrow night's Theatre of War, a multimedia event organized by Chicago's Spektral Quartet.

 As a friend of members of the quartet, I won't promise any journalistic objectivity in writing this preview -- it's a shout-out for a very well-deserving project.  Theatre of War (get your tickets here) promises to engage the eyes, ears, and mind in the wake of the NATO summit.  There will be films by Richard Mosse, the staging of a short story by Virginia Konchan, poetry by Wislawa Szymborska, and George Crumb's Black Angels along with Drew Baker's Stress Position.

Black Angels is a classic of the quartet repertoire, and certainly doesn't need any more ink spilled about it.  Stress Position, though, is intriguing.  (Here's an informative interview with Baker.)  It is a piano piece which dramatizes torture in a powerful way -- the pianist is subjected to a kind of physical distress, forced to bang on the farthest ends of the piano, while the audience watches.  It is a powerful, triple metaphor: a pianist subjected to the whims of an autocratic composer, commenting on the conventional performer/composer relationships of the classical tradition; an individual subjected to the aspects of musical torture, a recent and disgusting phenomenon; and a complacent public watching silently, mimicking our own removal from our government's actions abroad.  Baker, powerfully, gradually transforms the work into one in which the torture is impossible to ignore -- the audience cannot escape the message, and must undergoe mild "torture" elements (the piano is gradually amplified, the lights cut out towards the end), a very literal wake-up call even if it gives only a hint of what prisoners might have experienced at places like Guantanamo Bay.  The discomfort caused by a mere ten minutes of a mildly oppressive theatrical experience leaves one with the intense guilt and awareness that it is much worse elsewhere.  The actual music is reminiscent of Stockhausen's Klavierstuck IX, completing the metaphor of the dominating composer by referencing one of history's most autocratic composers.

(An excerpt, courtesy of my former aural skills TA Jonathan Katz, with pages turned by UNC's own Lee Weisert)

In the final moments of the 1965 premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten -- an arch-dramatization of the effects that military presence can have on civilian life -- after the main character had been raped and abandoned as a beggar in the streets, prerecorded screams blared through the Cologne State Opera house, and the house spotlights were lowered onto the stage and shined in the eyes of the audience.  The screams were meant to evoke those of the victims of Hiroshima, the stage lights to imitate the effect of watching the atomic bomb explode.  The message was not felt -- newspapers in following days shouted of the scandal caused by the audience's moment of blindness, but no one realized it was supposed to be an atomic explosion.  An attempt at literal political commentary at the end of a mostly-allegorical opera failed.

A similar thing happened when I saw John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2007.  Peter Sellars had spoken about not wanting to stage the atomic explosion itself but instead, after a nearly hour-long countdown, have the audience realize that they themselves were, in fact, the bomb.  We heard, as in Die Soldaten, a musique concrete assortment of noises, with a Japanese woman calling out for water -- Hiroshima re-staged.  But leaving the opera house, I heard no one discussing the political ramifications of the work, the idea that "we" might be the bomb, or anything having to do with issues of nuclear disarmament today; people talked about the music, the libretto, the success of the work as theater.  If there was a political intent here, it didn't seem to have any political effect.

What the Spektral Quartet is offering in Theatre of War, and what Baker projects in Stress Position, is a message that cannot be ignored.  It is not necessarily a message promoting one view over another, but it cannot help but incite debate.  They invite the audience to stick around for discussion after the performance, and hopefully new ideas will be formed, or old convictions brought back to the fore.  Some people complain that art shouldn't be too overtly political or literal, that we have to seek out change through universal, sometimes fuzzy ideals -- Alle Menschen werden Bruder and the like -- and that's fine some of the time.  But I'm also happy to see that there is musical work which will directly address the times we live in, and the things we spend most of our days ignoring.  Beethoven's Ninth won't remind you that there are men and women dying overseas for reasons that aren't always entirely clear, or just; Theatre of War will.

*Caveat: if one was male.


  1. Thanks Will for this insightful piece. Our socio-political culture has evolved post-Cold War to insulate the mass of Americans from the realities (moral, financial, and otherwise) of military actions taken in our name. Thanks for helping to shine some light on Theatre of War" which hope will provoke more thinking and discussion about what we are doing and the consequences of our actions.

    We have one tangential thought about contemporary composers not participating in war. If we expand the composer filed to include Jazz composers (which advocate), we do have examples of war service. Top of mind for us is the amazing composer-electri-violinist Billy Bang. Unfortunately he has passed away, way too early. His service in Viet Nam plagued him and many of his fellow musicians. It led to 2 stunning projects "Vietnam: The Aftermath" and "Vietnam: Reflections." If you are not familiar with these, seek them out.

    Keep up the great work. We love reading your stuff.

    Larry and Arlene Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

  2. Brief Postscript. After mentioning Billy Bang's Vietnam Projects, we had to play them before heading out to "Theatre of War." I noticed on the CD inserts that composer/conductor Lawrence "Butch" Morris is conducting on both projects. He too served in Vietnam.

  3. Interesting reference to Stockhausen; however, I also hear Palestine's Strumming Music in Drew's piece, coming from a very different musical pole. When listening to the Palestine I'm always acutely aware of the physical duress required, but it seems more like artistic heroism than a metaphor for torture or power.

  4. One more postscript. We dug back into Billy Bang's Vietnam projects a little deeper on reflection after attending Theatre of War. You can read our further thoughts about them on Acornometrics: