Thursday, December 14, 2017

Music Born From Suffering

Can We Really Take Pleasure From Music Born From Suffering? is the title of a article reporting on a recent conference held in Toronto. As is often the case, the essay doesn't quite answer the question:
Music enriches life so immeasurably that we are inclined to think of it as a purely positive phenomenon.  But it is more complicated than that.  Music is a product of a particular time and place and the context in which it is created can be dark, violent, exploitative, and even demonic.  To think seriously about music it is necessary to reckon with the problematic role it can play in culture.
That's the kind of introduction that thoroughly misses the point. Yes, music can enrich life, but it does so if and when it is the expression or reaction to actual life. If the context is dark and troubling, then that is what the music will reflect--ironically, sometimes by being just the opposite. The phrase about reckoning with "the problematic role it can play in culture" is just genuflecting to critical theory where everything has a problematic role!
The theme of adding a back story of tragedy to a piece of music and its effect on the music’s reception was returned to many times.  Musicologist Michael Beckerman described his experiments with accomplished musicians, in which he provided them with an anonymous score without telling them anything about it, and then tracking how their performance changed once he told them that the composer had been in a concentration camp, or that the composer had died.  While the performers claimed that the narrative deeply influenced their subsequent interpretation of the work, the recordings made by Beckerman proved otherwise.  “Sometimes,” he told us, “the musicians played exactly the same way but made different faces.”
This well-meaning exercise is the kind of thing that tends to place any particular piece of music on a Procrustean bed of the historical context. Yes, it always tweaks our interest to learn that, for example, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps of Olivier Messiaen was composed and premiered in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, but that is an old story and largely incidental to the aesthetic content of the piece. What is really problematic here are the hidden assumptions of the musicologists telling us the story behind the composition. It is their interpretation that, perhaps, needs to be examined. A performer really should not walk out on stage trying to make the performance a vehicle for whatever biographical context might have surrounded the occasion of the composition.

The scholars at the conference delve into a lot of ethical questions such as:
“Music that came out of suffering becomes valorized,” said Beckerman, “ so that we tend to overlook some of the disturbing facts, such as that the composer was granted privileges that allowed him to survive, including being exempt from labour.”  A starker way of putting it is that some music may have come to us at the cost of the death of a fellow prisoner who didn’t happen to compose.  When we know this, can we comfortably continue to listen to such works?
Perhaps all music comes out of some kind of suffering, or some kind of joy or some kind of arduous work. So what? The relationship of the context to the finished aesthetic object is complex and not necessarily causal. Also, I think that there is a legal principle that states that no contract signed under duress is legally valid. Can we not extend that principle to say that we really should not be picking over works written in a context of extreme duress for some sort of hidden privilege?

I can't help but think that this project is just another way of shifting the focus away from the aesthetic qualities of music to ones that can be interpreted in the light of social justice.

Let's listen to the quartet by Messiaen.

1 comment:

Will Wilkin said...

Its an old story but one that has now happened to me too. My commitment to becoming a musician relatively late in life has been deepened by a heartbreak that cannot be adequately expressed in words alone. At the same time there is a solace in the harmonies and melodies that entwine with the soul of he who produces them.