News Music

News Music

So who’s writing In Memoriam Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

Come on. I’m sure it’s at least crossed somebody’s mind. His death has been a huge headline; I find it hard to imagine that no composer has considered addressing him in a piece. I have no doubt that the recent passing of György Ligeti will prompt a spate of memorial pieces, efforts that the memory of such a brilliant composer richly deserves. However, the public is vastly more aware of Zarqawi than of Ligeti (who seems to be most widely recognized through his connection to 2001: A Space Odyssey), so why not turn your attention to him instead?

One answer, of course, is that Ligeti was an eminent artist, and Zarqawi was a monster responsible for the deaths of innumerable innocents. Although we are inclined to think of Ligeti in a favorable light and Zarqawi in, to say the least, an unfavorable light, few would argue with the fact that Zarqawi has been a much larger figure in world events than the aforementioned composer. Why shouldn’t a piece decrying an unspeakably evil person be every bit as valid as a piece celebrating the achievements of a great one? Let me reach back to last week for an even better example: Why, in 2006, would you write a piece (of the sort that more than a few composers wrote a couple of months back) about how great Mozart was when you could write a piece about how awful Zarqawi was?

In his recent post “The Times They Are a-Puritanical,” Randy Nordschow identifies “signs of unruly chaos pacified into orderly insipidness” as a stylistic shift symptomatic of a musical response to “dire political times.” I would submit that such pacification is a withdrawal from real-world discourse not conducive to the “revolutionary musical renaissance” that Nordschow speculates might be imminent. Call me naïve, but I wonder if our responsibility isn’t to make our music sound more relevant but rather to make it about more relevant things. The thought of writing a piece about the estate tax, for instance, might seem hopelessly pedestrian, but it’s a real issue—an issue which most Americans are grossly underinformed. I recently read an article in The Washington Post about an incipient boom in German sex slavery concomitant with the World Cup. That’s terrible! How come nobody’s writing a piece about that?

We fret to no end over the problem of how to cultivate an audience for new music. I’m convinced that accessible-sounding music is not the solution: The ugliest piece in the world will move listeners if it tells them something they need to know. The world has never been more full of things that listeners need to know, and a lot of those things are pretty ugly themselves.

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9 thoughts on “News Music

  1. pgblu

    “…it’s at least crossed somebody’s mind”: an unassailable claim, as you clearly thought of it yourself.

    Considering that Zarqawi never paid any estate taxes, you could probably write a piece arguing that if he HAD been subjected to estate taxes, he would have had just that much less money to finance his evil behavior. Kill two thorny issues with one stone (piece).

    If your music is so lucid that one can divine such a specific subject matter from it, that’s quite an achievement. Then again, if you could get your music to do that, aren’t you afraid that it will degenerate into propaganda as opposed to art?

    Okay: Zarqawi is represented by the |0146| tetrachord, and he lurks around, seemingly showing up in every complex chord (nascent democratic institution) you construct. It’s very frustrating. Then along come 2 500-pound bombs in the form of ‘pure’ ‘American’ pentatonic collections, and he gets blown to smithereens! Non-evil wins the day! Then in the coda, we are reminded of |0146|, but the first pitch has been removed (estate tax!), and the resulting |025| is shown to be a subset of the pentatonic – maybe us folks and that Zarqawi guy weren’t so different after all. Oooh! I shudder!

    I’m pretending to take your post seriously, even though I think it’s absurd. Have I fallen for a belated April Fool’s Joke?

  2. Colin Holter

    I am entirely in earnest, but at the foundation of my proposal is the composer’s right to decide what his or her music addresses. For instance, a serial piece (or, as you suggest, a piece based on sets) titled In Memoriam Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is about Zarqawi. This is not negotiable. Whether or not the musical substance of the piece acknowledges this fact – through metaphor, as in your example, or via musical quotation or a verbal text or even some experiential shape – is not a measure of whether the piece is actually about Zarqawi or not but instead of whether the piece is effective or not. Program notes have a similar capability.

    Your point about mind-crossing is well-taken, but you have to understand that I specialize in unassailable claims.

  3. dalgas

    An “In Memoriam” piece is almost always a sympathetic portrayal. Even an “in memoriam” of some tragic event is generally written in sympathy of the victims. So, I doubt you’re going to get a Zarqawi piece out of anybody over here. Maybe somebody would do an opera a la “The Death of Klinghoffer” some years down the road.

    As to using topicality to “connect” to some as-yet-unreached audience, go for it. We’ve already had Jerry Springer… but whose “topical” are we talking about? Even Zarqawi was and is way down that list as far as 90% of Americans go. There’s a big difference between being “topical” and “relevant” for an audience.

    It’s instructive as well, to remember that the vast majority of pieces whose program has been the most “topical” die the quickest death…

    The question also doesn’t address what the majority of us who write non-programmatic music would need to do to be “topical”.

    Steve Layton

  4. pgblu

    non-programmatic music
    It seems that Colin is not intending ‘non-programmatic’ music, but rather pure instrumental music about specific themes from the news. I too must admit that I am having trouble imagining this. My previous post with the set-theory was intended as tongue-in-cheek.

    Colin ought to oblige us with an explanation or demonstration. [chortle]

  5. kmanlove

    I’ll do the Zarqawi piece if a) it can be a rock opera, and b) if Tom Waits will play Zarqawi. I jest.

    I recently heard an NPR interview on Latino USA with author/journalist Eduardo Galleano (he was promoting his new book), and he was almost begging the world (and especially the US) to quit being used to these kinds of things as they go on in the world. By at least having a piece that addresses Zarqawi or any real issue for that matter, it would be a bold and necessary attempt for our community to refuse to stand by and accept.

    Civilian deaths in Iraq are supposedly somewhere between 38 and 43,000. It’s difficult for me, as an artist, to accept that. I write “ugly” or difficult-to-accept music that applies to my own life and experience. Maybe I should start looking around.

  6. kmanlove

    One more thought
    I wonder how much resistance someone would get for a pro-Zarqawi piece. Like, if I dropped my Zarqawi Rock Opera on next year’s Midwest Composers Symposium, would it be performed? Did Nono get any problems from “Como una ola de fuerza y luz” (closest pieces I can think of-if you still think of communism as good vs. evil, you probably think of terrorism as the same… anyways)? Thoughts?

  7. Colin Holter

    It certainly wouldn’t get performed if it required extended techniques, microtones, unusual instrumentation, or more than “four minutes” of program time.

    Seriously, though, I suspect that all manner of transgressive music would probably pass under the radar at a festival like Midwest simply because the judges are not accustomed to act as moral arbiters. I’m having a hard time coming up with an example that would not result in my dismissal from NewMusicBox if I were to include it in this comment, but I think you get the drift. Logistical considerations seem to be paramount among MWCS judges.

    In other words, you might not get a performance of a well-written, super-playable piece of music about serial murder, but the most stunningly profound sonic epiphany in the history of Western music will not induce the director of the Indiana University orchestra to choose a piece that will take more than five rehearsals. Sad but true.

  8. jbunch

    So right.

    I think it’s a good idea to cut a little deeper into the real world with our music. Nono is a great example, among so many others (Lachenmannnnn, Beglarian, Corigliano, Anderson, etc.). For me, it would be a welcome diversion from pieces of music that are centered around some super-special chord progression, or a synesthetic projection of the color Blue. Maybe it’s easier on the conscience to write that kind music because – in seeking to distance oneself as much as possible from tragedy or controversy – one cuts themself off from the temptation of usurping said tragedy as a marketing tool for ones music.

    But that leaves us in an even worse position: cultural irrelevance!

    I think we just need to trust ourselves. Maybe we should just let the authentic activists and the inauthentic opportunists do as they will. In doing this, the things that need be remembered, will be remembered; the things that need be mourned, will be mourned. And, we can personally choose to steer away from the people we believe to be frauds.

    On a more local note, maybe you, Keith, and I could arrange an Zaquarwi anti-tribute concert at some bar in Bloomington – say karaoke to the Pretenders: “..I’m gonna make you…make you…love me…..cause I’ve got to have some of your atteeeeeeeeention…”


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