To raise a major moral issue like the use of music as a torture device (Phil’s August 20 blog “You like crazy drums?”) is on one hand a clarion call; of course this is serious, and why would the American Musicological Society not issue a symbolic statement such as Phil calls for? Further, to carp about it and to point up inconsistencies in our collective reactions to perhaps related phenomena seems like a wretched legalistic dodge, the sort of fail-safe strategy that gums up the works, under the guise of earnest concern of course, and ensures that nothing will change.
And yet, and yet. The issue is really torture, which to me is always wrong, period. I can’t see that music as torture is more or less wrong than anything else as torture, and I confess that deep down this feels like special pleading—e.g., water resource managers complaining about the use of water for torture, or (more ridiculously) Hello Kitty aficionados complaining that Hello Kitty armbands were to be used by a Thai police department as badges of malfeasance and indiscipline.* Phil quotes Suzanne Cusick in her concern about this aspect of the global war on terror (which she puts in supercilious square-quotes) “that particularly wounds me as a musician—wounds me in that part of my sensibility that remains residually invested in the notion that music is beautiful, even transcendent—is a practice whose contemplation would always lead me to contemplation of bodies and pleasures. Not bodies in pain.”
Far be it from me to get in the way of Suzanne Cusick’s contemplation of bodies and pleasures, but when did we all become passive mid-70s teenagers listening to Tubular Bells? Not long ago listeners (particularly American listeners) were being openly browbeaten for their stubborn blandness of taste, wanting things to be pretty and nice. “Americans do not like to have adventures with their ears!” I remember oboist and composer Heinz Holliger saying, and composers have raged for decades that we don’t have the patience or moral fiber for music that challenges us, discomfits us, or makes us think. Were all the Dies Irae settings in history intended to make people contemplate pleasure, or to seriously disturb them? The latter, it seems, if more likely; ask those who understand traditional teachings about the afterlife in the Roman Catholic church; if I’m not mistakent, the purpose was to terrify people away from sin, to “scare ‘em straight” as they’d say in gangster films.
I can’t get over the feeling, moreover, that what sets us off is really not the torture but who is doing it. You really do not want to get me started on the current administration and the people in it, but issuing high-minded protests on anything they do seems almost reflexive, the intellectual equivalent of shooting carp in a barrel. Are other kinds of torture better? We all know that torture has always been used by the thugs of both extreme Left and Right (perhaps someday someone will persuasively explain the difference). Has Cusick et al. written articles against Central American governments that “disappear” people, or the treatment of women under Saddam’s regime (especially those designated for use by his sons)? Perhaps she has, I don’t know.
My enraged reactions to music I found fundamentally offensive—OK, torturously so—like Annea Lockwood’s Burning Piano and the like was always met with arch, ironic smiles, with bromides about people often resisting challenges and the comfort of the familiar. I guess that torture really is relative, and mine doesn’t register on the meters. Far be it from me to distance myself from love, pleasure, and transcendence, but can musicologists of all people afford to go on record with an earnest, carefully worded version of Music Should Be Nice? (For a wickedly funny cautionary tale about what intellectuals look like when they venture out of their comfort zones, click here.)
So music as torture is OK? Of course not. The problem is the torture, not the music.
Let’s use a less extreme example. We have all heard (NO I’m not going to look it up) of cases, over the years, where music was used as punishment in law enforcement. How different is that from torture? To me it seems a matter of degree, but surely what constitutes torture itself can be seen that way. I seem to remember discussions on the AMS list: someone would find an article about how young malefactors would be punished by making them sit and listen to classical music, and we’d be outraged and cluck with disapproval. There was also a case where the punishment was Barry Manilow was used, and we all cackled with glee: “Well, we don’t exactly approve, but…” Going further back, I remember reading about a judge who sentenced some youthful criminals to a reading list with required reports—the two examples I remember were André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. There was an apparent justice about that: make the little thugs learn something. Just to be devil’s advocate, though: what if one or more of the little thug were severely dyslexic, and reading itself was torture? Music, or for that matter physical pain, might have been preferable.
As always, it’s a matter of elusive dividing lines: how do we distinguish, I mean really, between the you-like-crazy-drums? sort of musical torture, or even the war-on-terror kind and a stern parental you-sit-your-tail-in-that-chair-you-snotnose-and-listen-to-Beethoven-it’s-good-for-you? In the latter case, would anyone get up in arms? The neighbor playing hiphop would likely get more flak. I am not convinced that there is really a distinction, but I am and have always been deeply suspicious about what we feel ideologically justified in criticizing. Too often it feels passive, lemming-like, politically correct, and worst of all politically safe and, in a certain sense, protected. Intellectuals tend to take unadventurous public positions, it seems to me, and they are among the most easily co-opted people on earth. (Recommended reading: Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, which I’ve mentioned before.)
I repeat, I’m against torture (a very brave statement for a university professor, I admit). Given its existence, though, I think I am willing to go on record as preferring the use of music as a torture implement to physical injury or physical or moral degradation. I’ll leave it to everyone else to draw whatever conclusions are necessary about me.
*Relax, Hello Kitty fans, the idea was abandoned.