October 4, 2007

Noses Up: Express Yourself: What About Freedom of Music?

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Last time, I tried to argue that great music doesn’t need to be attached to the person who made it. Kanye West’s and Mozart’s public personas (and massive public egos) don’t have anything to do with our appreciation of the music they have produced.
Immediately after writing that column, however, I realized how much more complicated the situation is than I thought. These notions of creativity are hardly as black and white as one would gather from what I said two weeks ago.
Not so long ago, in 2001, an Israeli parliamentary committee publicly called for the country of Israel to boycott a conductor. In this case, it was someone who doesn’t even write music, but the government went to such an extreme measure because they found his “musical actions” to be offensive. The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, had lived in Israel since he was young, and is still generally considered to be one of the world’s best conductors. Why did the government care so much about this man who hadn’t even written music?
Barenboim had conducted a piece at a Jerusalem music festival by composer Richard Wagner. While there has been much debate about the personal beliefs of Wagner himself, it is largely thought that he was anti-Jewish, and it is well-established that he was Hitler’s favorite composer. The most infamous figure of the twentieth century had used Wagner’s music (which arguably sounds very nationalist and German) at mass Nazi rallies. The Israeli government, in 2001, thought it was offensive to perform this music, which in itself was not explicitly anti-Jewish (there were no words), but which was attached to the country’s most painful collective memory.
Whether or not they were justified in calling for this boycott is far too difficult and sensitive of an issue to get into. I simply want to show that appreciation of music in connection to the person who created it can bring up much more intense and polarizing debates than the personas of pop stars like Kanye West.
We collectively laugh at Borat’s anti-Jewish rants, but if he were “serious,” we probably wouldn’t, and absolutely no Sun columnist could get away with saying that we should ignore his opinions and “just listen to the music” in the way I argued with West. In this case, it seems pretty clear that offensive lyrics are equal to hate speech, and arguments about lyrics are equal to arguments about free speech like we encountered last week with Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia.
There are two sides to the Barenboim debate. One approach is to just discuss lyrics. If Wagner had written a piece with offensive words, and Barenboim had conducted it in Israel (debates about free speech aside), than there is almost no question that he would have deeply offended any Israeli. The Wagner piece he conducted, however, featured only an orchestra, so some would say that there is no reason to consider this action offensive.
On the other hand, we are all used to the cliché that music is “self-expression.” The overused phrase one hears on VH1 and MTV is that Celebrity X got into making music not for the money or the fame, but to “express him/herself.” By this logic, if Wagner held beliefs offensive to the state, and Barenboim publicly conducted music that was this man’s “self-expression,” then no matter what the piece looked or sounded like, it would have been offensive to perform it.
Making this even more complicated are the many players involved. If Wagner’s personal beliefs were completely unknown, but the connections to Hitler I mentioned above were known, what would then be the responsibility of Barenboim in relationship to the music? Would it be responsible for him to perform a piece that is not ideologically tainted in itself, but which is attached to painful collective memories like those of Jews and Israelis? This can surely make your head spin.
In the end, my gut may go towards free speech and free expression, but I really have no sense of the inner politics of Israel. Whether or not it was okay by that nation’s standards for the government to demand such a strong reprisal of Barenboim for simply conducting a piece of music raises an almost infinite list of issues including “free speech” debates, debates about anti-Semitism and debates about the role of orchestras in society. Less obvious, but equally important, it raises questions about the connection between music without words and ideology. The answers to these questions are easy when there are lyrics that can be analyzed, but become almost impossible when there are not.
What do you think? Was this action by the Israeli government understandable and how does music fit into arguments about free speech and free expression? Feel free to comment on cornellsun.com.