Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Composing During Wartime

I sit at my desk with a pencil poised on the manuscript paper, trying to sort and sift ideas. I close my eyes, attempting in vain to keep my brain focused on the music, but I feel overwhelmed by the events unfolding around me. Back in February 2003, I marched through the streets of New York City, one of a million people who demonstrated to express outrage at our militaristic U.S. foreign policy. The entire East Side of Manhattan shut down; buses, taxis, and police vehicles were rendered helplessly immobile in a sea of people waving signs and chanting for judicious restraint. Now, three and a half years after the Defense Secretary predicted a quick victory that would take “a matter of weeks, not months”, American soldiers are caught in a bloody civil war with violence on the rise. 3,500 Iraqis died just this month, more than the total number of Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Our own military casualties will soon surpass that number as well. Each day, mothers and fathers – Iraqi, Afghani, and American – lose their children, and an endless war is raging, on my behalf – on our behalves as U.S. citizens.

In the wake of John F. Kennedy’s murder, Leonard Bernstein wrote "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before…Sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same.” This statement, an artist’s sincere and earnest attempt to find a response to national crisis, has been used to promote the notion that creating music is powerful enough to overcome violence. For artists, the notion that creative acts are a valid and equal response to destructive ones, is an attractive idea. At times it has helped me to feel heroic simply by going about my daily business of writing, playing, and generally making music.

And yet the violent acts continue. How can I continue to scribble sixteenth notes under those circumstances? Is it possible to respond to such violence simply by making music? How deeply is this war dehumanizing us all, little by little, hour by hour?

A friend recently bolstered Bernstein’s pronouncement by pointing out that if we all played violins continually, we wouldn’t be able to kill or inflict pain (unless, I suppose if we all played violin as badly as I do…). This is true, but as the fighting goes on, that hypothesis seems more and more irrelevant. I write and play music passionately; others wage war passionately. I pick up a clarinet; someone else picks up a gun. The two acts are essentially unrelated, yet unfortunately, in the end, the guns are more plentiful. It’s not only easier to learn how to shoot than to compose, it’s also cheaper (join the army!) and it’s the path to greater glory. Making music may have been heroic to Lenny, but to most Americans the soldiers are the heroes.

Of course, the very story of Bernstein’s life is a rejection of passivity. It is only the frequent citation of this statement in times of war that irks me. For it reveals a troubling implication about the American psyche: that we profess to conquer violence while refusing to acknowledge its deeper roots in cultural conflict, poverty, imperialism, and turf battles over control of natural resources. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was no accident; nor was 9/11. Both events were part of an opposition's calculated political agenda, and both events were responses – however unjust and cruel – to U.S. policy.

If therefore, as individuals, we abhor violence, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. Protesting it cannot be left to our elected representatives. The government will always indicate that our sole role is to 'keep living our lives', continuing to be productive taxpayers, ‘stimulating the economy’; in short, during a time of war we should do what we always did, only with more conviction and sense of purpose. Those who make music play more devotedly, farmers farm with greater fervor, bankers bank even more intensely. And of course, shoppers shop with renewed vigor and determination.

Remember how, in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush commanded us to go shopping? That would be our victory over the terrorists. “Shop!” we were fitfully instructed, as if carrying out that sacred command would prove that we hadn’t given in, that our lives hadn’t been disrupted by terrorist tactics. Dubya suggested that we answer violence thus: “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In the meantime, the federal government would respond to the violence for us, with a brutal 'shock and awe' preemptive war. Bush’s spokesperson Ari Fleisher had an additional, slightly more sinister, piece of advice for us citizens: “Watch what you say.” Accept the collective response of war. And accept the costs, the priorities. Our government spends more more each day for the war in Iraq than we spend each year funding the arts.

What’s the difference whether we shop or make music? Either choice constitutes a pyrrhic victory if it is accompanied by political passivity. I worry that Harold Pinter uttered a great truth in describing America as “a salesman…out on its own, and its most saleable commodity is self love.” How can we be so smug as to believe that the proper response to cataclysmic events is to continue with ‘business as usual’? In a democracy, how can we be so unmotivated to excoriate the policies of our own government and the conduct of our elected representatives? Has our lexicon become so distorted by Karl Rove’s doublespeak that we actually believe that doing nothing is equivalent to taking bold action?

The question becomes not merely whether – but when and how – we should stand up and say ‘enough!' War is a confusing situation, because withdrawal seems as fraught as “staying the course.” As predicted by many analysts from the start, a civil war has now broken out in Iraq, and the situation is now far beyond our control. What remains is a hopelessly anarchic unrest, its graveness ignored by the warmongers of this administration, whose corporate and political interests benefited from the onset of hostilities. In all the hand-wringing over what to do next, it is easy to forget that the pretexts of self-defense under which we attacked Iraq have long since faded into the sunset. The only remaining excuse for continuing to occupy Iraq is to retroactively justify our misguided invasion.

I often muse over the complex and intertwined relationship between art and politics. I once brought a newly finished piano work to my very 'political' teacher Louis Andriessen. He looked at the dedication and grinned wryly.

"What's this?" He pointed to my inscription, which read, 'For Yitzhak Rabin.' It was the week after Rabin had been shot, and I felt pained by his death.

"I wanted to do something," I said solemnly, "to express something....about his death..."

"Did you know him?" he queried, amusedly.

"No..." I replied.

"Then you shouldn't use his name," he snapped. "This is silly."

At first I thought he was just being deliberate and contrarian, but now I think he was probably right (and he is Dutch, after all...). Our politics doesn't always belong in our art, at least not in that way. It's tricky.

One book that had a profound effect on me was Antonio Tabucchi’s novel ‘Sostiene Pereira’ (there’s also a movie version, with Mastroiani). The story begins as fascism creeps slowly into Portuguese pre-war politics. The protagonist Pereira is a middle-aged newspaper editor who begins to encounter violence more and more in the headlines; he finds his conscience torn, and one day he decides that he can no longer calmly go about his daily routine; he is drawn inextricably toward the only possible effective response – activism. Around the same time, in 1936, Llorca, the great Spanish poet and playwright, lost his life fighting with the Communists; his body was dumped in a ditch. Should he have balked at fighting for a cause in which he believed, and instead continued to write more and more beautiful poetry? Did he accomplish more through his ‘heroic’ death than he would have through his writing? It’s hard to know.

For who is to say that composing – or making music of any kind, for that matter – isn’t itself an act of violence? Why romanticize and tranquilize creativity? Composing, it seems to me, is largely about upheaval, about disturbing the status quo. The transfer of sensation, information, and emotion from one person to another may feel profound, even spiritual, but it is certainly not peaceful.

Artaud, in fact, was convinced that our most violent urges could be quenched and quelled by means of art. His “Théâtre de la cruauté” supposed live theatre to be the medium by which we might exorcise our antisocial instincts, returning home thereafter to properly behaved homes. In his world, art would not attempt to erase violence, but would instead serve as the catharsis by which violence could be experienced in a transformed – and physically harmless – form.

Being an artist demands a temperment that is sensitive to the joys and cruelties of the outside world. Ironically, artists sometimes seem desensitized to what goes on around them, but I believe that this remoteness – sometimes even manifesting itself in outwardly hostile behavior – can be a self-defense mechanism employed by extraordinarily vulnerable souls who decry injustice and tyranny.

In 1988, shortly before his death, Bernstein offers an eloquent – and now eerily prescient – rant against tyranny. In a New York Times essay he enumerates the dangers of fascism lurking within our own political system, especially during election years. “To call for war at the drop of a pipeline (while secretly dealing for hostages); to teach jingoistic slogans about armaments and Star Wars; to prescribe the weapons industry for the health of our doped-up credit card economy; to spend a dizzying percentage of the budget on arms at the expense of schools, hospitals, cultural pursuits, caring for the infirm and homeless – these are all forms of tyranny.”

The tyrant to whom he referred of was none other than George Bush the First.

One could argue that the ‘tyrant’ neocons have in fact taken a rather artistic approach to foreign policy, though it is played out in the theatre of war rather than the theatre of cruelty. They imagined a world as they’d like to see it, and they have been trying to fit the real world – our world – into that fantasy, inconsistencies notwithstanding. Or as the Downing Street Memo illuminated it: “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. Artists must likewise believe in the world that they manufacture out of thin air. When our faith wanes in the fabricated worlds of our making, the ‘vision’ is lost. So Dick Cheney, too, is a dreamer, albeit a tyrannical and authoritarian one.

At the end of his essay, Bernstein strikes a hopeful note. He writes: “I love my country – so much, in fact, that I am putting all my energies into seeing it to a better day, a more tranquil night, a shining and limitless future. And I abide by the words of that splendid liberal Thomas Jefferson that are inscribed on his monument in Washington: ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.’”

Time to write some music.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.