Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Music, unjustly

I promised to write about unjust uses of music, which is a tricky thing to do.  One can think about the army blasting rock music at Noriega to get him to surrender.  When googling for an example of this, I found this Wikipedia page on Music in Psychological Operations.  Besides Noriega, it mentions using loud music in interrogations at Guantanamo and in Iraq.  Andy Worthington has a detailed description of music used for torture.  One could ask why the torturers use music at all.  Why don't they just use loud white noise, or randomized sounds?  I have a feeling it is because of the perceived organization of music.  Music doesn't allow our brains to ignore it, because it has patterns that can be recognized.  It seems the most effective music torture uses music styles unfamiliar to the detainees. 
When CIA operatives spoke to ABC News in November 2005, as part of a ground-breaking report into the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques on “high-value detainees” held in secret prisons, they reported that, when prisoners were forced to listen to Eminem’s Slim Shady album, “The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic.” And in May 2003, when the story first broke that music was being used by US PsyOps teams in Iraq, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, whose favored songs were said to be “Bodies” by Drowning Pool and “Enter the Sandman” by Metallica, told Newsweek, “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it.” (Worthington)
 The listeners' brains can tell that there are structures to comprehend, but they have no cultural context to help out.  Add to this looking "through a glass darkly", the music used is played at unbearable volumes, and usually includes very heavy bass sounds.  Studies have shown how intense low frequencies will disrupt the physical processes of the body, causing nausea and breathing problems.  This physical distress, accompanied by pain in the ears and the mental stress of being interrogated in the first place, is indeed very torturous.

What about using music to convey a message the composer or performer never intended?  Benjamin Britten was a well-known pacifist who wrote his War Requiem to portray the horrors of war.  He dedicated it to friends who died during or because of WW II.  James Horner appropriated the Sanctus of this requiem to accompany the Trojans marching to war in the movie Troy, a movie that celebrates war rather than lamenting it.  Janis Joplin wrote "Mercedes Benz" in 1970 as a commentary on the consumerism of society.  She holds up the desire for goods as a ridiculous thing to pray for, with fancy cars and TVs as shallow means of happiness.  And then in 1995 Mercedes-Benz used it to get consumers to buy their car.    Various musicians have asked politicians to stop using their music for campaigns.

Then there is the flip side, musicians who write music as propaganda.  The Nazis employed musicians to compose anthems for their cause. Toby Keith wrote "The Taliban" to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This is a trickier matter than the others, since the musician could be completely sincere in supporting that cause.  It takes more objectivity to determine if the cause itself is unjust, which is clear in the case of Nazis but cloudy with the "War on Terror."

The horror of using music in an unjust way is the way music directly touches our souls.  We can't listen away from music, like we can look away from a visual work of art.  Music entrains our physical bodies with visceral responses to its rhythms and harmonies, even as the emotional content pushes at our psyches.


Peter (the other) said...

I find I need to limit the definition of "music" to think about these questions: text is out, and human voices emulating fear and pain (although usually easily identifiable as emulations) is problematic. Non-linear type sounds in general (that by definition are as produced in extremes) which can be perceived as distinct from the music, are just scary sounds. From an evolutionary angle, music itself can not harm you, but must refer to a scary idea (the dinner chant of the Cambridge Cannibal Society, just outside your door). The torture through amplitude is as you say, noise and unpredictability makes it demand attention. Yet, I remember a hotel room I once had in a north African city, just under the mosques tower and its loud speaker, a Stradivarius of mid-range distortion. After the instant arousal (including a mighty leap out of bed) each morning, I did start to accustom through familiarity. I suppose those of a musicological bent would find little music of any culture, hard to form a relationship to.

As to "the program notes" of music ("My composition is about peace and love"), composer's intentions, I have heard rumored, are some of God's favorite jokes (Napoleon's in, he's out, he's in).

John Chittum said...

I read about the same torture uses in the Middle East. one of the interesting tid-bits is the desensitization of the soldiers as well. Some soldiers told tales of actually being unable to "hear" the music anymore. As such, our mind blanks out the ideas.

and i'm not sure limiting music can help. Think of, say, Red Bird by Trevor Wishart. It's a 45 minute work that is meant to show torture, anguish, freedom, etc. There are no words, but the human voice is used extensively. Some theorists/philosophers/musicologist call it a limited case of music, if at all. I disagree, it's about organization of sounds.

the mind is a tricky beast. It wil organize sounds into coherent representations (just as images). Our minds make the leaps, just as we can see a a boat in a magic eye picture. another case that pops to mind is a prison built in Barcelona in 1938 by Alphonse Laurencic. I read about it in a book by Slavoj Zizek, but here's the link to the article he cited as one source


the cells were created so that prisoners could not be seated, stand, or lay in a comfortable fashion. blocks jutted out at odd points, clashing, garish colours were strewn about randomly. and what music is often described in the same sense?

Why, Arnold Schoenberg of course. Even one as learned as Slavoj Zizek puts them side by side, not because there isn't order, but because the order is much more difficult for the brain to perceive.

it's all about order- if there is a perceive order, or an order that can be understood, your mind can adapt in many ways. It can desensitize itself (there is some debate that the real torture was the dangerous SPL that the music was blasted in the prisons. above 130, after all, is physical pain. Even around 115, such as the wind ensemble concert i enjoyed this evening, can cause pain- as shown by the child two rows in front of my grasping at his ears at the loudest points of Jim Mobberley's newest piece, which includes as many horns as can be mustered. I think there were 20 tonight.). It can adapt, understand the patterns, and shrug them off. The harder it is to sense the pattern, the more likely it will cause confusion. Thus, cultural factors and familiarity can cause issues, but simple songs can be learned, and forgotten.

It's that lack of organization that causes the issues. just like other forms of torture, it's the "not knowing what comes next." toss in having that blasted at 150dBSPL, and you're in for a time that is definitely torture