HKW’s Holger Schulze invites us to think about the soundtrack of combat with the four-day event Singing the War.
Why is it that some music stirs violence in us? Why do we mourn the dead and praise heroes through song? How did Enya become the ultimate solace-giver post-9/11? As part of Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s overarching project 100 Years of Now, Singing the War sets out to explore the intricate relations between war and musical composition through a variety of concerts, screenings, installations and panels across four days. In advance of the festival (January 14-17), we got some insight from its curator.
So, what is the connection between war and music?
War is accompanied and punctuated by musical performances all the time. Every army has its orchestra; there are songs to cheer up the soldiers and to get the public into position against the enemy. You find music in fostering hatred, in mourning the fallen or praising the heroes. There’s also the question of how music and sounds are used as ‘sonic warfare’. Torture with music is one element, but more unsettling is using hyper-directed sound to deter people, so loud that you can only stop what you’re doing and press your hands against your ears. Also if you use ultra- or infra-sound, you die almost immediately from internal bleeding. You don’t know why or how because it’s below or above your level of hearing. That’s almost as disturbing as the gas wars in the First World War. Its origins go back deep into the past, into all the elements of military music, the drums or the horns being played to freak out the enemy.
How does this reflect in the lineup?
Our motive was to find examples of war in music from the last 100 years, across all possible genres. For example, Laibach has always dealt with war and violence in pop music, releasing the record NATO during the Yugoslav Wars, the biggest provocation a post-Yugoslav band could have done at that time. We invited FM Einheit and Andreas Ammer who composed audio pieces in the mid-1990s, working with original footage from German state leaders, Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler. We will have performances with the original Intonarumori, the instruments invented by the Futurists. You cannot understand the Futurist movement or the Bruitist movement post-World War I without the experience of an incredibly mechanical, ear-deafening noise.
One focus is also music recording equipment.
There’s this notion by Friedrich Kittler, “Missbrauch von Heeresgerät” [misuse of army equipment], that many practices of popular culture including music are abusing military technology, which is, of course, the case if you look into distortion algorithms, transmission, amplification and so on. There’s this famous sound archive at the Humboldt University that contains recordings of war prisoners. One piece by Hauschka and the Chor der Kulturen der Welt, conducted by Barbara Morgenstern, uses these voices and turns them into songs. In a certain sense, they work against the original ambition. They take these almost dead, imprisoned voices and give them new life.
Music played a crucial role as propaganda in World War II. Is that still the case now?
I think the biggest influence on this development is the global, pervasive character of popular music. You cannot separate the question of war music from the global musical distribution structures. That’s a perfect machinery for any war propaganda. In the US, musicians are asked to support the troops. Of course, every ‘good’ American would do that, whereas in Europe, especially in Germany, this would almost be unthinkable.
How do 21st-century listening habits influence warfare?
Soldiers listen to music all the time – they listen to their favourite tracks. This also leads to a transformation of war action, because it becomes somehow private. You’re doing it like you’re in your own room. Traditionally this isn’t the role of the soldier, who’s normally considered a ‘bureaucrat of death’. Many of the problems concerning post-traumatic stress disorder come from that, because war has become as personal as being at tacked as a civilian. Also we have one guest on the podium, Tore Tvarno Lind, who says that the music soldiers use to empower themselves is often exactly the same as the music they use to torture their enemies. They’re ‘enemies of our culture’, so let’s play “Enter Sandman”. But of course, people in Iraq and Syria listen to heavy metal – they maybe even bought the remastered deluxe version of Metallica’s album. There’s the assumption that extremely religious fanatics would never listen to this music. That’s a historical fallacy, because religious fanaticism emerged from contact with Western ideology.
National wars follow rules, terrorism doesn’t. Is that an influence on the music used?
In national wars, rituals for preparing war are almost bureaucratised – there’s a strict script. In a terrorist situation, you have rogue guerilla troops, and on the other side, pervasive surveillance measures, secret service actions and drone killings. It’s very erratic. Therefore, the musical traditions are also quite disturbing. Young European boys and girls, who often have a pop-cultural affinity, move to terrorist camps where music is prohibited by law. On the other hand, their attacks are promoted on YouTube with religiously motivated music, which people coming from the EU probably never would have listened to anyway. It’s a weird and, funnily enough, trans-cultural and post-colonial situation. You cannot say how these cultural practices and genres travel. It’s an ongoing mutual influence.
You’d also have to talk about the absence of music then.
You need to. In a war, especially in a religious war, there are always cultural practices which you try to attack, which you try to suppress. Non-performative, non-aesthetic use of music in this political sense always implies the prohibition of other music. Also certain musical performances are unthinkable, because they are so connected to the enemy and to what the enemy stands for.
Cyber war is also silent, apart from a buzzing computer maybe.
A performance by Zeitblom, “Is Everybody In?” deals with that: operations that are not visible, that often do not take immediate effect. They’re as unsettling as the gas wars or sonic warfare, because they are something you cannot see or hear. It’s again this mingling of non-war and war situations. The line between civilians and the military is furthermore blurred. You’re not trained in a group, you’re on your own all the time. Otherwise, you’re doing your job as an accountant or in a software company.
You could think that music and messages distributed via YouTube are the uniting force.
Music is very often a signal of distinction, not only for a cultural group or subculture, but also in wars. It’s like the crest you’re holding. We will also see this in YouTube videos probably, or maybe in state-sponsored Spotify ads. But I hope my fantasy fails me.