March 6, 2008

Noses Up: The Sound of Despotism

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Kim Jong-il has allowed the largest contingent of Americans into his country in over half a century. They come bearing cameras, pens, paper and every other means for recording their experiences in his totalitarian bubble, which has been closed off in the most disturbing, anti-democratic way possible for an extremely long time. I met one Canadian who had the chance to tour the country, and he was legally forbidden from leaving sight of his tour guide.

These Americans, truly innocents abroad, are carrying some other tools the dictator is well aware of: violins, cellos, trumpets, flutes and the rest of the great mix of instruments that comprise the New York Philharmonic orchestra. They come carrying tuxedos and fine dresses, batons and bowties and sheet music that includes Dvorak and Gershwin.

Why is Kim Jong-il not worried? Here are a number of foreigners bringing in “instruments” of cultural change. The symphony has been called a monument of western civilization and this event has been called one of the greatest cultural exchanges in the country’s history. This may be true, and the actual act of listening by the North Koreans can be seen as their oppurtunity to finally participate in the process of globalization, which the symphony certainly represents (the globalization as imperialism debate is another column altogether).

It has become clear, however, that Jong-il’s decision to host them, and the U.S. State Department’s blessing of the proceedings, do not speak to the cultural, artistic or political power of the symphony orchestra. They speak to its anachronism. All the leaders involved know that if this concert matters at all in their tense diplomatic proceedings, it is only as a measure by which to coax the despot into better relations with the U.S. Jong-il has calculated that the event is a face-saving gesture towards the world’s public. Among his own people, it is symbolic — an opening to globalized culture without any actual change. Does a Dvorak symphony speak to a lack of free speech? At this point I have trouble even cataloguing what the repression looks like, since Jong-il has closed off his country so forcefully and for so long.

The New York Philharmonic’s participation in this false cultural spectacle is at best complicit with the repression and at worst actively encouraging it. The New York Times has documented just how luxurious the musicians’ accommodations have been, and how stark the contrast is between their five-course meals, attentive waiters and world-class hotel with the incredible poverty and lack of basic human needs in most of the country.

The public symphony developed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries into a great public equalizer, appreciated by a large swath of society. It was a mark of pride for Europeans, and later, Americans. While elaborate metaphors about its representation of Western democracy and the glory of reason have been constructed, in recent times it has come to be identified with elitism. Tickets to the New York Philharmonic concerts are prohibitively expensive (over $50 if you want to see more than ants), the audience is increasingly older and wealthier and people regularly consider classical music to be undergoing a sort of “crisis.” It is hard to disagree, seeing how the leading practitioners (icons to many in our society), are willing to prostitute themselves out to those dictators wanting to save face with their people and their own government’s interests in an act of “ping-pong diplomacy,” as the saying goes.

According to The New York Times, some members of the orchestra expressed that they were uncomfortable with their lavish hospitality, aware of the lack of electricity, food and human rights only miles away. I find myself identifying with them as much as I indulge in naïve judgment, because I know that there is an ambivalence involved in the whole situation. Those of us who actually love classical music think that surely this can’t be all bad, and that exposure is, in the larger sense, a positive move forward.
On the ground, the musicians themselves are a little like the North Koreans — manipulated — and this causes reflection that I think could lead to positive communication. It is the lack of ambivalence on the part of our leaders and North Korea’s that I find the hardest to listen to.

One of the pieces they are playing, George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” suite, is explicitly about the excitement of being in a foreign locale, complete with car horns meant to represent the busy rush of an exotic metropolis. It is the most ironic programming choice I can imagine, and, to me, indicative of a certain self-awareness on the part of those in charge of the orchestra, who realize that the American approach to travel is only innocent for so long.