Week 2.1 Preamble: Magical Thinking About Music
If music makes the world a better place, then why are things so bad?
I’m sharing my lectures from Climate Crisis: Music, Nature, Culture, a new class I’ve launched at The New School, examining music in the climate emergency. If you’re joining us for the first time, you can follow our journey from the beginning.
You don’t need to identify as a “musician” to take this class.
You’re welcome to complete the assignments anytime, but I won’t grading you. The first assignment is the Start of Semester Survey.
Publicly accessible readings are shared in this folder. For copyrighted materials, I encourage you to use your local public library or independent bookshop.
Engage with themes from each class on Substack’s discussion threads. Check out lat week’s thread, “what we pay attention to grows”.
This is an experiment in moving music from the margins to the center of the climate emergency. It’s also an experiment in translating a spoken lecture to written form. I’m working out my ideas as I go. You’re welcome to share my posts by email and on social media, but I ask that you contact me before using this work in other contexts.
This week’s lecture took place in one 75-minute class. Translating my lecture notes to newsletter, however, I decided to expand on some material, so this week’s lecture will be presented two parts.
Part One explores examples of structures of colonialism and capitalism repeated in music, calling into question commonly held narratives about music as a social good. Part Two explores this further through the assigned readings by Dylan Robinson, Adrienne Rich, and Christopher Small.
Content Warning: This post contains discussions of genocide.
Magical thinking about music
Music is often invoked as a ‘universal language’: an expressor of cultural diversity, a resolver of cultural difference, an agent of understanding, an instrument of peace and a generator of positive social transformation.
We commonly speak of music as though it were a divine machine. A universal apparatus that builds bridges, gives hope, builds peace, ennobles us, empowers us, expresses the inexpressible, and transcends all time.
We ascribe magical powers to music. Yet, as musicologist Christopher Small argues, “There is no such thing as music.” Music is not a noun—a thing—but a verb; something people do. Music is inseparable from the social and cultural contexts in which musical acts take place. If we fail to consider musical contexts, we fail to understand the real meanings of music.
To me, the word “music” is one of those English language words—like “love,” “peace,” “hope,” “courage,” and “kindness”—that describe our highest aspirations but fall flat when they cross our lips. They become static in our mouths; pale, smooth stones when they should be jagged and electrifying.
Maybe we need an all-powerful imaginative device like a magical music machine to inspire us to courageous action. Maybe we need music the way Adrienne Rich talks about the “revolutionary poem”, the “What if—?” (see last week’s lecture)
“What if—?—the first revolutionary question, the question the dying forces don’t know how to ask.”
But I suspect our habit of magical thinking about music serves other purposes.
We’ll discuss more about dominant narratives and narrative shifts in Week 3, but for now, I’d like you to consider how dominant narratives are invisible hands that guide where we look, what we see, and what meaning we make.
Someone or something always benefits from the dominant narrative. Someone or something does not.
Why don’t we take music more seriously?
If musicians and music lovers are going to call on music to meet moral imperatives—“peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet,” for example—then we must take music more seriously.
Taking music seriously means pulling it out of the heavens and putting it back into our bodies and our actions.
Taking music seriously means being willing to prune even the best, most luscious, myths about music from our personal storylines.
It means refusing to accept platitudes like the “music speaks truth to power” (whose truth? whose power?) and “music is a universal language” (who’s talking?).
It means rejecting attitudes like, “just enjoy the music,” or “it’s just music”, or “I’m just a musician,” or “I’m not a musician,” or “there’s never been a better time to be a musician” or “music is dead”.
Taking music seriously is about taking histories, ideas, cultures, knowledge systems, and places seriously, so that the power of musicians and musical knowledge will no longer be lost, wasted, or erased.1
I’ve had a difficult time writing this week’s post. I find narratives about music and peace-building deeply aggravating, but I struggle to name why this is the case.
In part, it’s because they’re false. Music’s power to seduce our emotions, crowd our senses, and galvanize our attention can be used to any number of ends. It’s precisely because music has these powers that it deserves critical scrutiny.
In part, it’s because I am a musician. I notice how narratives about music’s power seem to erase the musician. They speak to music’s “universal power”, music’s “immortality,” and an “indomitable human spirit” in ways that soothe and distract us from the layers of international, state, institutional and individual interests at play. I know there’s a material, practical truth in a musician’s perspective. To follow the musician is to “follow the money”; to follow the flows of financial, social, and human capital that reveal the transactions of power.
Untangling and analyzing all of this lies beyond the scope of this post. But in this post, I’d like to offer a few pages from the book of late 20th century musical history. These are stories that shaped my life in and out of music. I am struggling to unlearn these magical, mythical, musical narratives. It’s not easy, and it’s messy, but that’s the premise of this newsletter: I am renegotiating my relationship to music.
“Things are going great, and they’re only getting better”
My adolescence was shadowed by the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, but I started Juilliard in a time of Western optimism. 1988 was time of crumbling empires and optimism: perestroika and glasnost; the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the iconic image of a lone protestor standing down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
War never actually ended after World War Two. The Korean War, for example, started just five years later, in 1950. But to me, a teenager in the 1980s, the Korean War was history; the setting of the hit TV Show M*A*S*H*.
In1983, along with 106 million others, I watched the M*A*S*H finale. The character Charles Winchester, who reminded me of my stepfather, coached a quintet of North Korean P.O.W.s in a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Looking at it now, I see the performance of imperial indignancy and self-indulgence; I feel it on the level of my own life, in the way I was humiliated by conductors and teachers, little tyrants posing as my mentors.
But in 1983, at age 12, I cried at the idea of music speaking across cultures, across barriers of life and death, incarceration and liberty. Music, tugging on our deepest desires for a higher order of existence.
When I graduated from Juilliard in 1992, it was with the promise that the world was ours to inherit, that “things are going great, and they’re one getting better,” that we, as artists, were bestowed a sacred responsibility: to use our music to make the world a better place.
(Whose world? For whom?)
Now that I’ve lived another thirty years, I see this is pretty much the same message every graduating class at every music school gets every year.2
Qualifying the claims we make about music
The years immediately before and after my time at Juilliard offer any number of examples to counter the idea of music as an automatic good.
During the Rwandan Genocide, popular music served a key propaganda role in constructing a threat of Tutsi power and disseminating it to Hutu people. Over a scant 100 days from April to July 1994, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu people were killed. The mass murders were expedited by an administrative legacy of colonialism: the Belgian practice of labeling Rwandans’ ethnicities on identity cards.
Popular “hate radio” station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines played songs to motivate and amplify the killings, such as one by popular singer Simon Bikindi who, in a gently cadenced voice, urged his fellow Hutus to “Defend your rights and rise up against those who want to oppress you.”
In 2008, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Bikindi guilty of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. He was sentenced to 15 years of prison.
During the Balkan War in the early 1990s, a new genre of “turbo folk” was propagated and disseminated by networks like TV Pink, which was owned by the daughter of President Slobodan Milošević. Turbo folk juxtaposed Serbian traditional melodies with militaristic-nationalistic iconography and MTV-style sexuality to powerfully advance ethno-nationalist hysteria and support for brutal campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” against Muslims. By 1995, an estimated 25,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians were killed. Over a million people were displaced.
Turbo-folk icon Ceca remains one one of the most famous Serbian singers of all time. In 1995, the 21-year old singer married Serbian mobster and paramilitary commander Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović in a spectacularly lavish ceremony. To Ceca, Arkan was “the bravest man in the country”; the man whose money and mafia connections made her a star.
To non-Serbs, Arkan’s name meant mass murder. His private army, popularly known as “Arkan’s Tigers” carried out brutal campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in Bosnia and Croatia.
Accordingly, his wife nuzzles a tiger in this video.
Arkan was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity but murdered before he could stand trial. In 2011, Ceca plead guilty to embezzling millions in transfer funds from the football team her late husband owned.
“getting free candy and helping others”
In the latter half of the 20th century, music became the soundtrack to the growing humanitarian conversation. In the 1980s, music’s power as an “agent of change” was enshrined in celebrity-studded popular anthems like Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” (1984) and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” (1985).
Rapidly disseminated through the rise of cable television music networks—MTV started in the USA in 1981, MuchMusic in Canada in 1984—these songs popularized and democratized individual involvement in humanitarianism.
The videos had undeniable social power. In the case of “We Are the World,” anyway, the craft is incredible. And the collective voices—legends like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder alongside guys who make you furrow your brow in an effort to remember their names—reminds us of what might happen if we were to let the illusion of our separation dissolve and resolve into knowledge of our indivisibility and collective power.
To paraphrase the lyrics of Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson: We are the world. We are the children. There is a choice we’re making.
Through a symbolic link, a song could transform the act of consuming popular music into the act of feeding the hungry.
So what’s the problem?
One problem lies in what psychologists call “mental attainment.” As Gabrielle Oettingen has demonstrated in multiple experiments, optimists just don’t work as hard as pessimists do. When you achieve a goal virtually, you feel less need to take action in real life. As a result, we feel like we’ve made a better world, but we fail to perform the actions that would bring it about.
Another problem lies in the way songs like these instill dominant narratives intimately and deeply inside ourselves, and naturalize them in the culture around us.
It’s like the little orange cardboard UNICEF boxes from my childhood.
From 1955-2005, UNICEF distributed these boxes to Canadian elementary schools at Halloween. We’d tie them around our necks with a knotted string, over the winter coats we wore over our costumes. We collected small change for starving children in the orange boxes, and candy in pillowcases to gorge on when we got home.
When UNICEF ended the program in 2006 (small change was too costly to process) the CBC interviewed a Québec school principal who expressed his displeasure.
“The kids feel good about what they've done," he said. He went on to say that what made the campaign work so well with kids was the association between getting free candy and helping others.
As a kid, I saw the coin boxes that way, too.
Today, I see the coin boxes were a kind of sentimental education in neocolonialism. In a single, uncomplicated story—with candy—I internalized lessons like these:
Tyranny, genocide, and hunger happened somewhere else, but never in Canada (a nationalistically-affirmative message that concealed the ongoing campaign to erase Indigenous lives and cultures);
Emergencies were exceptions, and not the rule (a selective view of history that concealed the perspective of marginalized people);
That bad things didn’t happen to kids in Canada, they happened to kids somewhere else (a nationalistically-affirmative concept of additive “multiculturalism” that concealed a racial lens of European cultural supremacy; that never mentioned the national residential schooling program that removed Indigenous kids from their families and cultures for no justification other than the fact they were alive; that implicitly taught me that anything bad that had happened to me shouldn’t be mentioned);
“Doing my part” and “making a difference” should involve my receiving tangible and intangible rewards (it makes it other people’s suffering about me feeling better);
The best solutions to war, famine, and genocide are ones that affirm the global economic order (interventionist “solutions” that preserve global inequities and their structural causes).
Humanitarian musical spectacles
Every society uses spectacle as sites for the contracting identities and the celebration and affirmation of dominant social values. Music is manifest in multiple forms of spectacle—concerts, ceremonies, contests—that are inseparable from entertainment, war, religion, politics, sports and other domains of public life.
During the 1980s and 1990s, television networks in the United States amalgamated with other major sectors of the cultural industries and corporate capital. By 2000, this would complete a syntheses of media, computer technology, consumer products, entertainment, and information into an “infotainment” society.
Fictional NBC executive Jack Donaghy illustrates the mergers and acquisitions spread neatly in this clip from the television show, 30 Rock:
The “org chart” is funny because it’s true—30 Rock predicted and parodied NBC’s takeover by Comcast.
“By God, it's good money!"
One musical manifestation of this trend was the global phenomenon of the “Three Tenors”—operatic superstars José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. From 1990 - 2003 their live performances of a haphazard mix of opera arias and easy-listening hits were broadcast on live television to audiences as large as 1.3 billion at a time.
The Three Tenors’ début performance was a fundraiser for tenor Jose Carreras’ leukemia foundation; a celebration of Carreras’ return to singing after surviving his own bout with leukemia; and an expression of the three stars’ passion for football. The open-air concert, staged in the rubble of an ancient Roman bath, was held on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final.
The event was produced by Italian impresario Mario Dradi, Carreras’ manager, and telecast to an audience of 800,000. Dradi sold the recording rights to Decca for a generous flat fee, likely failing to anticipate that the recording would go on to win a 1991 Grammy, become the best-selling classical album for a number of years, spawn a massive franchise, and change classical music for all time.
The Rome performance led to 33 more concerts and three more live albums—all best-sellers. But after the first performance, Dradi was out, and Pavarotti’s promoter, Hungarian impresario Tibor Rudas, took over. I imagine it was about the money. A New York Times article on the Tenors’ 1996-1997 world tour reported that each of the three singers would be making closer to $10 million dollars.
"Good money, eh?" Pavarotti said, "By God, it's good money!"
“Concert for a Better World”
I don’t know what took place in Dradi’s life after the Rome concert, but I do know that in 1994, he produced another classical music spectacle. Another open-air concert staged in rubble. His client, Jose Carrera, was the tenor in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Only this time, the rubble was the ruins of Sarajevo’s National Library, and the contextual event was not the World Cup, but genocide and sociocide in Bosnia.
From 1992 - 1995, the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, was surrounded by Serbian ethno-nationalist forces, cutting it off for the rest of the world. Citizens were subject to daily shelling and sniper attacks. Bosnian Muslims were driven into concentration camps, where they were raped, starved, tortured, and murdered. By the date of the concert, an estimated 10,000 people—most of them civilians and children—had died or disappeared.
It is difficult to write about this. Then, as now, it could be difficult to comprehend how words like “concentration camps” and “mass executions” could be part of a story in Europe, in the 20th century, again.
Journalist Peter Maass described how he had to re-learn the words for atrocity when he arrived in 1992:
That word, cleansed, had not yet entered the American vocabulary. It was a learning process, and I was at the start of it. Like an infant trying to speak, you had to learn the building blocks of cleansing before you could understand its meaning. First the syllables, then the word; articles of speech, then grammar. So you had to learn about the mass arrests, torture, rapes and expulsions, and you needed to understand that it was a system rather than a series of random incidents. Then you could understand what cleansing meant. It took time. You digested the patterns reluctantly rather than intuitively, because it made no sense that Europe was falling into madness again at the end of the twentieth century.3
I’m not sure how impresario Mario Dradi experienced his arrival to Sarajevo, whenever he first arrived. There is no comparable account of his journey. He was a concert producer, not a journalist. Accordingly, we are left with artifacts like the jacket copy from the DVD of the concert:
A gift of remembrance, compassion, and music for a war-torn city. Three of classical music's greatest talents unite for a performance of Mozart's Requiem in war-ravaged Sarajevo. The immortal Requiem becomes a celebration of the indomitable human spirit.
I’m still struggling to put words on my thoughts. But one thing I can say is that I loathe how these words turn a tragedy of inconceivable scale into a chance for classical music to feel good about itself.
You can watch the full performance of the Requiem on YouTube; the link is at the end of this section. I can’t bear watching past the beginning. There is something obscene in it, for which I can’t yet find the words. I want to watch it side-by-side with Dradi’s Three Tenors in Rome, so that I can start to name and what I find intolerable. I want to name and know this because I want to know history; how it is not history after all, but how it keeps happening in me and around me.
The concert film opens on a blue screen. The title “Concert for a Better World” fades up, then down, replaced in succession with the UNHCR logo (crossed olive branches supporting a pair of white hands folded to make a home over a single human figure), then a plea: PLEASE HELP US NOW.
The blue fades to black, which quickly fades up into a view of the Sarajevo skyline in a quiet hour. The soundtrack is silent. The camera pans from left to right. Then the screen suddenly fades to black, and up fades a soundtrack of explosions, gunfire, and shattering glass. The cards for the opening credits—the names of government agencies, impresarios, classical music stars—fade in and out over the sound of weapons.
This fades to silence, and a single camera tracking conductor Zubin Mehta’s feet picking their way carefully but decisively through the bricks, cinder and ash that form his path to his makeshift podium. The camera cuts to his face; sober, matter-of-fact. I think he’s looking to the orchestra and chorus, but his eyes suddenly dart up to the right and the camera follows his gaze to the jagged walls of the broken rotunda, the elaborate architecture of devastation. As if to tell us what we are meant to see and feel.
There is no applause before the music begins. No A from the oboe, no tuning.
This is where I always stop watching.
Erasing the Musician
I want to hear more from the musicians, in their words, and on their terms. Accounts in the Western media exaggerate their stories into romantic caricature: they “practiced in the freezing cold by candlelight,” “dodged sniper bullets” and “walked 10 miles each way” to attend rehearsals. But I haven’t yet read a report that notes the obvious contradiction in the accounts of how “music kept the musicians alive” and the tallies of how many musicians had died.
I’d like to know how the musicians felt about the performance after it was over. After the “stars” and the silent audience of UN officials had vanished, and they remained.
I’d like to know more about the economics of this production: how much it cost, and who got paid how much, how much the licensing fees were for the telecast, who owns the rights to the recording, who coordinate the funds and donations that flooded to Sarajevo, and how much of that found its way into the performers’ hands.
I searched academic databases looking for ethnographic accounts of the performance and came up empty-handed. On Google, I found a couple of “where are they now” pieces from the Wall Street Journal and The World, and a story about a cellist, Vedram Smailović, and a 2008 novel, inspired by his story, by Canadian author Steven Galloway.
The novel is called The Cellist of Sarajevo. I remembered both the real cellist and the novel, vaguely.
The real cellist of Sarajevo witnessed 22 people standing in a bread line be killed by a mortar shell. The next day, dressed in tails, he returned to the site to perform Albinoni’s Adagio. He returned each day for 22 days—one for each of the people killed—then continued in different spots in the city for another two years. He left Sarajevo in December 1993, and moved to an attic apartment in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland.
The fictional cellist also performed for 22 days straight, in the same location, for the same tragic reason. Galloway changed the date. He was careful keep his cellist a kind cipher—he didn’t speak, he had no name—but the book cover featured a well-known picture of Smailović performing in the ruins of the National Library in 1992 (two years before the Requiem). On the book cover, the left margin bisects his face and his bow arm, but you can see all of him in the original photograph by Mikhail Efstaviev (more here on Getty Images).
When the book about the fictional cellist became a best-seller, the real cellist expressed his outrage.
"It's unbelievable,” he told a CBC reporter. “How can somebody steal your work, my, my sadness, my, my tragedy?"
The writer said he felt entitled to use Smailović’s story without compensation. Galloway said, "[I don't know] for what I would be compensating. I mean, he performed a public act and I mentioned it?"
The real cellist said that if people are making money from his story, he should entitled to a share of it: "They put my picture, my face, on the front, on the cover with no permission. They don't ask me — they use my name advertising their product. I don't care about fiction, I care about reality."
The writer said he didn’t understand the problem. “He doesn't ever speak in the book, said the writer. “I was kind of careful not to put words, I don't want to put words in his mouth.”
See what I mean about erasing musicians?
Smailović is title of the book, his image is on the cover, and his actions inspired readers to make this a best-selling book. But neither the real cellist nor the fictional one have a voice. It’s Galloway who decides whether to put the words in his mouth, or remove them.4
As a musician, this story is all too familiar to me. Everyone loves music; they just don’t necessarily love musicians. Everyone wants to profit from music’s power; but hardly anyone is concerned with whether or not the musicians get fed or paid, or what happens once the show is over.
Wrapping it all up, or not
So what does all this have to do with music and climate change? I’m aware that I’ve traveled far from the frame of this class in this second post, but I appreciate your patience while I try to lay out many pieces on the table.
Maybe I won’t try to wrap it all up in the end of this post. Maybe I’ll leave these observations as they fall, with the knowledge that there is time to pause, reflect, and consider what they teach us. But before I leave, here are a few observations I’m taking with me.
There’s a substantial gap between the significant attention paid to music within humanitarian conversations, and the status of the musicians themselves.
The idealization of music (as a human right) and the musician (as a heroic figure) must be considered in light of these questions: Is music a human right? Who or what protects music, and musicians? What provisions exist for addressing violations of musical rights? And who or what can enforce them?
The construction of music as a ‘human right’ and ‘social good’ reveals a Western normative bias, even insofar as the conceptions of what musical institutions consider to be ‘music’. Acts of musical diplomacy are often acts of acculturation, a form of aesthetic and social coercion. These issues are under-examined, in part due to an affective status of music: musicians and music-lovers would like to believe that music transcends politics, and can serve a curative role. That musicians can sometimes seem to succeed where politicians fail, however, is not evidence of music as an automatic good.
Spectacles are sites for celebrating and upholding dominant narratives. We say, “be moved by Mozart,” but we also need to remain awake to the ways in which music is used to rewrite history and distort reality. The rise of musical humanitarianism in the 1990s corresponded with the proliferation of private sector humanitarianism. A focus on humanitarianism evokes (positive, peaceful) “progressive values.” Yet progressive terms are not neutral terms, nor are they innocent of political and economic interest. Claims for musical “universalism” and “power” are almost always associated with normalizing and/or mobilizing support for models that affirm neocolonial structures (e.g. the massive mobilization of food aid, an imperative to act centered on interventionist, technocratic models).
One of the reasons why it’s hard to parse all this out is that the worlds of musical performance and international affairs are functionally, practically and academically separate. Their more visible intersections typically involve a confluence of mutual interest: music makers find a form artistic patronage, a path of professional advancement, and access to a greater, more visible, social platform. State and non-state actors find a seductive and compelling expression of a complex set of policy needs, political expressions, and moral reassurance. This is not to say that little of lasting value transpires in these highly visible musical interventions, but I believe we need to consider these more deeply in order to better understand the complex formulations of power, music and musical power.
All of this—turbo-folk, the tiger, the Three Tenors, the cellist of Sarajevo—show how our hearing (how we hear, what we hear and don’t hear, and what meaning we make) is shaped by our history; how our habits of listening and capacities for hearing are shaped by internal and external forces. How we hear music reveals much about our position to a vexed, and often unvoiced, modern history. Dylan Robinson discusses “critical listening positionality” in the reading we’ll consider next week. “By becoming aware of normative listening habits and abilities,” he says, “we are better able to listen otherwise.” (Robinson, 2020, 11).
To put it more simply, in terms I’ve often used in my teaching and artistic practice?
People don’t listen with their ears.
History is not history. James Baldwin wrote, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.”
We can hear the fuller history of the world in songs, if we know how to listen.
We have the power to sing new songs.
For next time
If you haven’t done so already, please check out the Start of Semester Survey and Week One discussion thread. Our three readings for the next lecture are listed below and can be found through your local library or in our shared readings and resources folder.
Dylan Robinson, Excerpt from “Introduction,” Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (2020), pages 1-25. [WorldCat]
Christopher Small, “Prelude” in Musicking, Hanover: University Press of New England, (1998), pages 1-13. [WorldCat]
In this passage, as is much else, I am indebted to Adrienne Rich and her 1977 Douglass College Convocation address, “Claiming an Education.” You can access the full transcript in our shared readings and resources folder.
“Congratulations, Class of 2021!” The Juilliard Journal, 1 July 2021. Availabe at https://www.juilliard.edu/news/150221/congratulations-class-2021
In 2013, Galloway got tenure at the University of British Columbia, and was later promoted to chair of the creative writing program. (An international best-seller is a boon in a tenure review.) In 2016, UBC fired him. This 2021 Globe and Mail account of “a years-long, fractious case” heard in the B.C. Supreme Court reports that UBC listed “financial misconduct, dishonesty in the investigation of the complaint, alcohol consumption with students and a previous instance of sexual relations with a student” and that he had “he had failed to disclose a sexual relationship with another student (now his wife).”