Music as Torture: A Dissonant Counterpoint

Jonathan Bellman

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.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to Music as Torture: A Dissonant Counterpoint

  1. “…preferring the use of music as a torture implement to physical injury or physical or moral degradation.”
    You ARE a composer (and my favorite kind, I am sure) 🙂
    I think music gets dragged in as a good source of broadband noise (such as in the hearing aid scene available one post down), which is what it becomes over a certain volume. It is no more complicit then a hammer, but if we then draw that idea to firearms this blog would be swamped with noise, itself, so I will stop.

  2. Excellent post. As a completely tangential side note, I found that “wickedly funny” skewering of Stanley Fish’s article to be possibly the worst ever deconstruction of a supposedly “worst op-ed ever written.” It’s consistently mean-spirited, unfunny, and somehow 2-3 times longer than the original article. I didn’t see anything in Fish’s harmless observations to suggest that he thought he’d “discovered” something new in the Starbucks phenomenon, but most of Rosenbaum’s critique is rooted in that assumption. The coffee op-ed was clearly nothing more than a lighthearted take on something many people find annoying; Rosenbaum’s hatchet job was clearly an expression of some deeper issues he has with Fish. The real snobbery is in the suggestion that a serious academic shouldn’t be allowed to have some lighthearted fun; what academic blogger would want his/her attempts at humor to be treated so ruthlessly?

  3. Jonathan says:

    Can’t quite agree, I’m afraid. If any of us set ourselves up as a pundit in quite the way Fish has set himself up (a rather theatrical gravitas comes to mind), then he’s open game. Indeed, the same is true of anyone writing publically, including bloggers. (Something about heat and kitchens here.) Frankly, I suspect that an editor told him to lighten it up, but please–how out of touch is a befuddled tone iin recounting a Starbucks experience? That’s passé in Greeley, CO, for heaven’s sake; what is it in NY? A leaden attempt at lightheartedness deserves…the hook. Which is what he got from Ron Rosenbaum.
    Besides, Fish gets money and maximum exposure for writing that, two things bloggers don’t. When we’re young, we note when parents and elders attempt–condescendingly, awkwardly–to talk like young people, in some kind of bizarre attempt to be trusted. (OK, I’m thinking late 60s and early 70s, and you can imagine how ghastly some of those attempts were.) There’s a whiff of the same clumsy artifice here, and the metallic clunk of a prominent Man Of Letters trying to Starbucks it with the hoipolloi could be heard all the way out to the front range! Stanley Fish has nothing to fear from Ron Rosenbaum or any other writer. But he shouldn’t expect a pass, either.

  4. Chris says:

    Jonathan falls into the trap of conflating the imposition of one person’s taste or aesthetic upon another person with the actual technique of subjecting a prisoner to hours-long sessions of exposure to music at extreme high volumes. Such techniques are an integral part of the methodology of psychological torture the effects of which, while they leave no marks upon the body, are often far more damaging and lasting than physical torture. Here is a quote from the article in the Nation which I mentioned in a previous comment,
    “In a gripping Vanity Fair article, Donovan Webster searched for and found ‘the man in the hood’ from the macabre Abu Ghraib photos. Haj Ali told Webster of being hooded, stripped, handcuffed to his cell and bombarded with a looped sample of David Gray’s “Babylon.” It was so loud, he said, “I thought my head would burst.” Webster then cued up “Babylon” on his iPod and played it for Haj Ali to confirm the song. Ali ripped the earphones off his head, and started crying. ‘He didn’t just well up with tears,” Webster later told me. “He broke down sobbing.’ ”
    Clearly this is quite different from insisting someone listen to classical music because one thinks it will be good for him or her.
    This is just the sort of ignorant double-think that cripples efforts to generate any kind of general awareness of the nature and consequences of torture (not only for the victims, but for society at large). Folks in all areas of the music community are in a unique position, have a special responsibility, to clarify this important point.

  5. Scott DeVeaux says:

    I think this argument misses a crucial point. What the U.S. is doing is *not* torture, according to the government, precisely because it doesn’t do what torture normally does: it does not inflict physical pain. This is “no-touch” torture–invasive interrogation techniques that somehow manage to push the victim to the breaking point through other means. One of them, for people raised outside of the U.S., is the use of popular music at deafening levels for interminable periods. (We at least assume that most Americans would be used to hearing deafening music, whether they like it or not.) In other words, music is being used as a new, sneaky form of torture, and it has not being challenged in the same way that, say, waterboarding has been. The AMS is at least taking a professional stance: we know music, and what you’re doing is a form of torture; since America is not supposed to do torture, stop doing it.
    Yes, Suzanne Cusick has other reflections in her 2006 talk about the nature of music, and why using it for torture (or as a battlefield weapon–guns that “shoot” highly concentrated blasts of music to disorient people) contradicts our usual sense of music as a pleasurable thing. She also has smart things to say about the gender angle (reading blogs that cackle about the pleasures of using music to humiliate our enemies, especially if it places them in a feminized, victimized position). All that, however, is separate from the basic accusation–that music has been used for torture (along with “stress positions” and other forms of “no-touch” interrogation methods) since at least the 1980s, and probably going back to the Cold War era of the 1950s.

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