M J Grant: Harm and harmony: Music, torture, and the ideology of western civilization

Melbourne Law School
Wed, 22. Aug 2018
Melbourne Law School 102, 185 Pelham St

Over the past few years I have returned repeat­edly to the related sub­jects of music and pun­ish­ment and music and law. This was ini­tially moti­vated by the need to sit­u­ate research into the use of music as tor­ture within a broader (and longer) his­tor­i­cal frame­work. Although it has come to wide­spread public atten­tion only through meth­ods used by US secu­rity agen­cies in the ​“War on Terror”, the uses of music in tor­ture and ill-treat­ment are much more exten­sive, both in the present and in the past. The idea that pris­on­ers be forced to sing and play for their cap­tors is doc­u­mented in the ancient Near East, for exam­ple: a frieze from the palace of Nin­eveh in ancient Assyria, now held in the British Library, appears to pro­vide a pic­to­r­ial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a sub­ject better known from one of the Psalms:

By the rivers of Baby­lon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remem­bered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the wil­lows in the midst thereof.
For there they that car­ried us away cap­tive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?

(Psalm 137, taken here from the King James Bible)

In Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, many formal and infor­mal prac­tices of jus­tice made ref­er­ence to musi­cal tropes, par­tic­u­larly the con­trast between har­mony and dis­so­nance. Tra­di­tions of public sham­ing which folk­lorists and his­tor­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists have gath­ered under the gen­eral term ​“chari­vari” gen­er­ally incor­po­rated a cacoph­ony of noises, such as by bang­ing pots and pans, to draw atten­tion to the pro­ceed­ings and per­haps to sig­nify the dis­so­nant ele­ment in the com­mu­nity which was sub­ject to the ritual’s cri­tique. Some aspects of these prac­tices res­onate in rit­u­als used in mil­i­tary jus­tice in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­tury: mil­i­tary jus­tice and dis­ci­pline seem in turn to have informed the ways that music has been used both in the Soviet Gulag and, even more exten­sively, in the con­text of Nazi per­se­cu­tion and geno­cide.

Why, then, has this only recently come into focus in musi­co­log­i­cal research? The answer, I sus­pect, has much to do with what these prac­tices sig­nify, and how. Many of these prac­tices func­tion as forms of musi­cal ​“oth­er­ing” by play­ing on ideas about the oppo­si­tion between har­mony and dis­so­nance, sense and non-sense, and in par­tic­u­lar, reason and emo­tion. In seek­ing to unpick this com­plex dis­course, the direct rela­tion­ship between reflec­tive and activist modes of research will, I hope, become clear. For ulti­mately, what we are deal­ing with here is an ide­ol­ogy – lit­er­ally a system of ideas – which runs very deep in the his­tory of west­ern thought and west­ern ​“civil­i­sa­tion”. Indeed, the very idea of ​“civil­i­sa­tion” is both fun­da­men­tal to this ide­ol­ogy and defined in its terms. To chal­lenge these ideas is, there­fore, to chal­lenge processes of dis­crim­i­na­tion and mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion that are fun­da­men­tal to the way in which west­ern soci­ety works.

M J GRANT is a Teach­ing Fellow at the Reid School of Music, Uni­ver­sity of Edin­burgh. Her work cur­rently focuses on the uses of music in con­nec­tion with col­lec­tive vio­lence, espe­cially in war, geno­cide and tor­ture. From 2008 – 2014 she led the research group ​“Music, Con­flict and the State” at the Uni­ver­sity of Göt­tin­gen, and from 2014 – 2015 she was a Fellow at the Käte Ham­burger Centre for Advanced Study in Law as Cul­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Bonn. She also received a major stipend from the HF Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion for a mono­graph on the musi­col­ogy of war, which is near­ing com­ple­tion. Pre­vi­ous work includes Serial Music, Serial Aes­thet­ics: Com­po­si­tional Theory in Post-war Europe (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 2001) and an as yet unpub­lished mono­graph on the cul­tural his­tory of the song Auld Lang Syne.

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ongoing investigation between Liquid Architecture and Melbourne Law School.