Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tortured Music

From the ever-useful website of Norman Lebrecht comes this interesting story. Here is a link directly to the website for the recording. If you click on the samples, there are brief extracts from each piece. The one for Stress Position consists of a low register pedal in irregularly accented quick notes. A "stress position" is a kind of interrogation technique involving putting someone in various positions for extended periods of time. Simply forcing someone to stand for a long period of time can be very painful. So, depending on the variety and length of time, stress positions have been determined to be a form of torture or at least "inhuman and degrading treatment". Despite this, they have been used by the British against the Irish Republican Army, by various police forces and by the US. Here is what the composer, Drew Baker, says about his composition:
Pianists spend lifetimes alone in small rooms with antique instruments. This intimate scenario is defined by an atmosphere of confinement as well as an overt physicality. The piano receives the weight of the body and disperses sound.

These simple and rather obvious facts regarding intimacy, physicality and space are essential to my piano works. Whether addressing extra-musical and political topics or simply existing as "absolute music," every piece on this recording attempts to lay bare the visceral intensity that directly results from the act of playing.
 He is making a connection here between the self-imposed stress positions that pianists live with (and all other musicians, for that matter) and, apparently, the interrogation technique, I suppose, because he doesn't say that explicitly. On his website there is this further comment on the piece:
Throughout the duration of Stress Position, the pianist must play an unrelenting series of repeated notes at opposite ends of the instrument. This causes the arms to remain extended for the duration of the work. In addition, each hand is stretched to further extremes as pitches are slowly added.
 It seems, therefore, that he is subjecting the pianist to the same sort of, well, torture, that the US armed forces use on terrorists. Interesting idea. Again, I am assuming that the purpose of this is twofold: as he says, to involve the pianist and the listener in the "visceral intensity" of playing, and, by having us experience an analogue to the stress position torture, to developing empathy for those subjected to this kind of interrogation. There are other similar piano pieces out there that might have a similar effect. The piano part to Terry Riley's In C, for example:

Which goes on for a very long time, indeed. Or Vexations by Erik Satie:

This is just a brief extract. The whole piece, repeated 840 times, goes on for hours and hours and hours...

My question is, would someone use the same sort of aesthetic technique to create empathy for the victims of 9/11? I.e. will we be seeing a piece soon where the performers and perhaps the audience will be engulfed in flaming jet fuel?

Looking back at my piece on aesthetic virtues and sins, I wonder how many sins this piece exemplifies? Number 1 probably, perhaps numbers 2 and 3 as well.

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