Music and war

Contested spaces of the war in Ukraine

Wars always have repercussions beyond the actual armed conflicts and people directly impacted by them, especially when the war is initiated by one of the most powerful nations on the planet. In the globally connected world we live in, the effects of war quickly spread around the world. Global markets, movement of people, and modern technology extend our lived physical spaces by creating and enhancing the connections we have with each other. Part and parcel of these connections are also various imagined spaces, some of which I want to discuss here.

At the time of writing this, the war Russian President Vladimir Putin started against Ukraine is in its second month. Four million refugees have escaped the war, the majority of them heading toward Central Europe. Most Western countries are launching various efforts to help the Ukrainian cause, whether by supporting the war effort – mostly indirectly by offering weapons – or by helping to deal with the steadily growing humanitarian crisis.

The strongest action from the (Western) world against Putin’s unprovoked military action against Ukraine has so far been economic sanctions. Following suit, many businesses – including the music business – have also withdrawn from Russia. Some are even of the opinion (in Dutch) that (all) Russian music should be part of the sanction regime in the hope of compelling the Russian folk to rise against its leadership.

Contested imagined spaces of war

After the immediate destruction of lives, livelihoods, and physical lived spaces, the effects of war quickly come to bear on various imagined spaces as they get contested. The current conflict in Ukraine is an escalation of a longer conflict, fuelled and legitimized by competing interpretations of history. In this ongoing ‘war of memories,’ as the scholar Andreas Kappeler calls it, both sides use and abuse history – a history that, more than anything else, underlines the close cultural relation and shared origin of both folks.

Music as site of political struggle

Music enables (re)construction of imagined spaces in which cultural, social, political, and even economic relations can be renegotiated as musicians compose, perform and record music and listeners consume it by going to concerts and buying the recorded music. Unlike athletes competing on the international stage, musicians don’t wear national colours. Their nationality, political standing, and views are deducted by others from their background, actions, and the actual music they perform. Of course, musicians sometimes also compete with each other, and competitions such as the Eurovision Singing Contest has responded to the conflict by shutting Russia out, much like Russian athletes have been denied participation in international competitions.

While many Russian musicians speak out against Putin, others do not. One of the most prominent performers getting cancelled in the West due to his views is perhaps the conductor Valeri Gergiev. His support for Putin has been well known for a long time, but now he finds himself shut out of Western stages. Some venues find themselves having to cancel even Russian artists who have announced their solidarity with the Ukrainians.

While performers can be held accountable for their political views, Russian music – especially classical music Russia is famous for – was mostly composed by people who have no other connection to the events taking place today than their nationality. Especially, dropping the music of Piotr Tchaikovsky by some orchestras has been viewed as an overreaction by many. Not only was Tchaikovsky more interested in the musical developments in Central Europe while his fellow Russian composers were busy creating a national style of music, but he also had family roots in Ukraine and used Ukrainian folk music as inspiration, e.g. in his second symphony.

Music in the political space

For me, music – and art in general – is a site of celebration of human creativity. Music, as the most abstract form of art, easily lends itself to the creation of imaginary spaces. It is therefore also easily adopted as a tool in what Kappeler called the ‘war of memories’; the reinterpretation of certain cultural heritage in light of contemporary events to serve a political purpose. I’m not claiming that music is – or should be viewed as – apolitical, as all human action has its political aspects. Nor do I subscribe to the view that music’s meanings can be solely derived from the intentions of its creators, as such meanings arise from relations to the world around us at any given moment.

In Ukraine, music has been in the middle of political struggles since the time of the Kievan Rus’ a thousand years ago. More recently, the post-Soviet political developments in Ukraine have been favourable for the local music scene. As already mentioned (see the link regarding Eurovision above), the present war in Ukraine is affecting musical life as well as underlining music’s importance as a uniting force.

Where are you from by the Ukranian maker of electronic music Anton Slepakov. He used to sing exclusively in Russian due to better commercial opportunities but has been writing in Ukranian since 2014 (see previous link).

Musical nationalism

Nationalism – the idea of national cultural identities legitimising nation-states – is to great extent based on the idea of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder.

A poet is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.

Johann Gottfried Herder

Herder’s ideas, as well as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau before him, started a search for the folk roots of various nations around Europe and a movement referred to as Romantic Nationalism. ‘Romantic’ refers to the Herderian idea that the ‘soul’ of a folk is to be found in its folk culture, language, music, food, textiles, etc. The movement took various shapes according to the situations of the regions it landed on. In Germany, it helped the folks unite after the Napoleonic wars – and was later high jacked by the Nazis. In Finland, an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia at the time, it inspired the collection and compilation of the national epic Kalevala, which again inspired the Estonian Kalevipoeg, both helping create national unity that came to be of great importance during the next century’s struggles.

The musical equivalent of this movement also found its inspiration in folk art. Musicians, and what came to be known as ethnomusicologists – went around the countrysides collecting folk songs. Composers then used the melodies and rhythms of this repertoire in their works, creating national styles of classical music.

Fresco of skomorokhy in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiyv Source:

Russia was no stranger to the intellectual movements of Europe. The earliest and best-known Russian composer to use folk material in his work was Mikhail Glinka, generally recognised as the ‘Father of Russian music.’ However, in the current context, I’d like to emphasise Russian classical music’s indebtedness to Ukraine. Ritzarev goes as far as talking about a ‘Ukranization’ of Russian music in the 18th century (p. 7ff), without which neither Glinka nor Tchaikovsky would have written the kind of music they did. She traces this phenomenon to the skomorokhi culture dating back to the Kievan Rus’ and remained influential in the region’s musical life.

Folk traditions remain an important source of inspiration for contemporary popular music artists as well. GO_A’s song SHUM, is based on an old Ukranian spring ritual. Samikova highlights the polycultural trends in Ukranian popular music, speaking to the creation of imaginary spaces I have discussed here.

Music builds bridges, not walls

At times of conflicts, like the current one, I find it helpful to turn to music for ways to (re)connect with our fellow human beings on all sides of the conflicts. The imaginary spaces music creates allow us to build bridges over the walls created by various conflicts. Music, and arts in general, reminds us of our common humanity – especially of those who at times of conflicts may seem like enemies.

No music no life

Sting is one of many artists quick to response to crisis around the world. He was one of the highlights of the Live Aid concert in 1985 as well as the Concert for New York City after the 9/11 attacks. He had his own concert planned for September 11th 2001 in Italy and went on with it after a deliberation with his band.

When the war broke in Ukraine, Sting released a new version of his song Russians from his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles. In addition to the message of the song being relevant again, the music has special significance to the present situation as well. The song uses the Romance theme of Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Furthermore, the glockenspiel used in Sting’s original version of the song also refers back to Prokofiev but perhaps also to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet and the children whose story it tells – although the libretto was adapted from a story of the German author E.T.A. Hoffman. And as a biographical reference, especially relevant at the present, Prokofiev was born in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Mehmet Polat – Musical Journeys and existing through music

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

I feel like I have to start this post with a disclaimer as there’s been a much longer pause in publishing activity here than usual – not that I’ve ever been extremely active. Most of my free time in the last couple of years has gone into a project I will certainly come back to here as well. Most of this article was written nearly half a year ago after the concert I discuss here. At the time of writing these words, I’ve sat in Corona self-quarantine for two weeks. Luckily I don’t have any health issues but it has thrown me off my – already delicate – routines.

The present pandemic also puts the below article in a different perspective. In this time of severe travel and movement restrictions, music and other arts can offer us precious means of ‘travelling’ to distant places and experience cultures and people from far without risking contagion. We  could call this ‘virtual’ – see my previous discussions of virtuality – but at the present moment that might be as real as it gets. The other topic of this article, ‘existing through music’ or ‘musical being in the world’ can also be helpful during this time of crisis. As we practice social distancing – even isolation –  the social aspect of engaging in musical activities, whether listening, making, learning, teaching music (the latter two most likely online) or something else, becomes more apparent. Many are already habitually using music to regulate their emotional states and help them e.g. ‘be sad in a certain way’. During this period music can help us remain connected to the world outside, to ‘musically be in the world’.

I’ll elaborate on the above thoughts later, but now a glimpse of the pre-Corona world in the hope that the post-Corona world still allows us experience and appreciate musical journeys and experiences in real social environments.

Bassist on stage

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Oud player Mehmet Polat with his new band Embracing Colours in Bimhuis, Amsterdam.

Music – like all art forms – is very personal to its creators, even if artists are not always very explicit about it as they might want to leave it for the listeners/viewers to find their own meanings and references in art. Polat, however, was rather explicit about the personal dimensions of his music and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Musical ontology

Polat’s introductions to his compositions were mostly quite personal and even biographical. At some point he mentioned that he ‘exist[s] through music’. This is an interesting philosophical statement that I won’t get into any deeper here but refer you to my earlier discussions regarding Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and musical ontology in Hindu philosophy. In his discussion of music as identity the musicologist Simon Frith speaks of ‘musical-being-in-the-world’. Although he doesn’t cite Heidegger, I think his view is a musical application of Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’. According to Hindu philosophy the universe consists of sound, which is perhaps slightly more literal ‘existence through music’ than Polat had in mind 😉

Polat is by no means the only musician to think in these terms. Below is a talk with the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who (from 26’20”) talks at lenght of ‘way of being as a musician’.

Musical journeys

During the evening Polat frequently reflected on translating his life experiences into music. For the present discussion I’d like to draw a comparison with another Oud player Dhafer Youssef, although not in any normative sense as they’re both unquestionably masters of their instruments as well as resourceful composers and skilful band leaders. Both musicians started their musical journeys by immersing into their native musical traditions and later encountering and exploring other traditions resulting in intriguing combinations.

Polat has not only innovated on the instrumental technique as well as the construction of his instrument to serve his artistic needs; he also has a unique talent for working with musical materials of other cultures and have a musical dialogue with them. In such dialogues, he – together with the other musicians – explores these musical materials from his own background and roots in the Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical music.

Cross-cultural instrumentation

The Embracing Colours project is a jazz band with drums, double bass and accordion. Polat is of course not the first one to play the Oud with a jazz rhythm section. The best known today is probably the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef who has for a long time had a similar group but with piano instead of accordion. The choice of instrumentation has quite significant repercussions to the musical possibilities available for the groups. While Arab music – like most musics of the world – has repertoire that can be played on Western instruments, it does entail sacrificing some of the tonal richness of the musical culture. The micro-tonal maqamat are difficult to perform on instrumentation with fixed intonation. Youssef’s choice is to avoid the micro-tonal maqamat, whereas Polat has cleverly arranged his music so that the accordion doesn’t clash with the micro-tones he plays on the Oud. The Mozaiek Ensemble I have discussed previously also managed to arrange their music to combine piano and micro-tonal maqama.

Cultural encounters

Cultural encounters always require negotiations on various levels to reach mutual understanding – or harmony, which in this context is not a musical term. Musicians are often inspired by each others’ music and musical cultures. Depending on their aspirations and understanding of the musical cultures they’re involved with the results may vary from mere exotic flavour borrowed – or stolen, a.k.a cultural appropriation – from another culture to exciting mixes of and dialogues between different musical cultures.

No music no life

I’ve earlier briefly discussed how The Beatles – especially George Harrison – were inspired and influenced by Indian music. Even earlier the usual Western response to music from other parts of the world was to view them as primitive (see also my earlier discussion of primitivism in early jazz criticism). The first attempts of the British colonialists to engage with Indian music was to harmonize it as they viewed it as lacking this musical dimension – central to much Western music, but much less so in many other musics of the world. Power relations in cultural encounters may result in cultural appropriation. In music, this risk is greatest with agents in prominent positions in the music industry.

Polat’s and Youssef’s different approaches to music-making and their own musical roots speak volumes of their respective musical journeys. While Polat has immersed himself and draws from the musical heritage of his home region and other cultures in the region, Youssef had his formative musical experiences at a young age in his native Tunisia but paid his musical dues in the jazz scene of Vienna.

It would be too simplistic to try to draw any straight correlations between Polat’s and Youssef’s backgrounds and their musical expressions. It is, however, interesting to observe the musical journeys of these artists.

Specifically, my interest here is the relation Polat’s and Youssef’s musics have to jazz as some of their music is characterized as jazz or jazz-influenced. I have earlier discussed jazz as Black music. However, jazz has ‘gone global’ already a long time ago and there are various local jazz traditions and different kinds of fusions and hybrids with other musical cultures.

While Polat’s and Youssef’s musics don’t use musical elements of jazz in terms of melodic materials (blues) or the characteristic triple based swing of jazz as already mentioned, they opt using the rhythm section of jazz. While bass and drum set are nowadays common across genres, it’s good to keep in mind in this context that this form of ensemble playing started in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early days of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz musicians at those times adopted their repertoire to the audiences they played for. This legacy lives on with contemporary jazz musicians who are typically rather versatile stylistically, even if they specialize on, or prefer, playing in certain styles or (sub)genres. Polat’s and Youssef’s ensembles consist of these kinds of musicians brought together for the specific projects that mark the musical journeys of these artists.


Screenshot of the Virtual Insanity video

Some time ago I discussed multimediality as a means to study and understand some artistic experiences. Virtuality is another such concept. With all the “virtual reality” hype of the recent years – perhaps even decades already – the term has become part of the vernacular without too much “resistance”, or people wondering about it. So I’m going to do some “wondering about it” right here.

Let’s start from the beginning and look at the etymology of the word. “Virtual” has three meanings in dictionary. From its Medieval Latin roots, it carries the meaning of “effective,” as in “the company is effectively bankrupt.” It also means something that exists only in our minds; imagined. The third meaning is probably the most familiar to many, relating to computer simulations of aspects of life and rendered through some virtual reality technology.

The word “virtuality” comes from the old Latin word “virtus”; “virtue”. Given the central place “virtue” – moral excellence – has had in western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to our days, our “virtual realities” seem to be normatively positive imaginations. Here we could think of the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy. The current forms of virtual realities through devices such as VR glasses create an experience which largely neglects the body, although we’re already seeing the technology developing beyond this limitation. Being divorced from the physical reality, virtual “realities” are “safe” in that what happens in them has little consequences in the “real world.” For deeper discussion on a phenomenological approach to virtuality, see here.

Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly pleasures
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Pleasures (1500), oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado, Madrid

There’s also a strongly music-related term pertinent to this discussion. “Virtuoso” stands for someone with excellent skills in some area, but most often the term is connected to musical skills. This is rather interesting considering the changing valuation of music and musicians. I’ve previously discussed The Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch, which places music – through musical instruments – in the depiction of hell on the right. Even more interesting, however, is perhaps the way in which musicality – depicted through musical instruments – became a highly valued skill a century later and is displayed in a much more positive light in some paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The virtues of music and musicians have since varied, also depending on the context, but it seems that this connotation of “virtuoso” has been established rather recently.

Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Musical virtuality

Music as sound is by nature – if not by definition – virtual. Assuming the view of Heideggerian phenomenology, I’ve discussed before, the already-in-the-world nature of music meaning – and I would extend it in this case to experience – exists in our minds without a material counterpart in the “real” world. As professor Henkjan Honing would say, music is a cognitive phenomenon; there’s no music without a listener.

The abstract nature of music enables it to conjure images and impressions of “other” realities. In other words, sounds are very effective in triggering our imagination. Certain instruments, scales, harmonies, etc. call up associations. Due to the abstractness of sound and the constant evolving of cultural practices such associations always remain “virtual” to some extent. They’re of course also dependent on the listener’s prior experience.

Recorded music is a prime example of musical virtuality. It’s the art of creating an illusion that what you’re listening to is an actual performance of actual musicians in the way you hear them. What you listen to, however, is a result of production processes where musical performances are recorded together and/or individually and the recordings are edited, mixed and processed in many ways, resulting in the final product you hear.

I’ve previously discussed Janelle Monae’s Tightrope and how it references – creates virtual connections – with the past, present and future in various ways. Next, I’d like to discuss a song that takes up the topic of virtuality quite literally.

Virtual insanity

Futures made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound for we all live underground

Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity is an excellent commentary, but also a demonstration, of the steadfast belief in technology we hold in the western world and beyond. The title is a funny word game, referring – in my interpretation – to the way technological mediations remove our experiences of the world further away from the “real” into the virtual realms. People have the tendency to do what they can, and technological advances – or “innovations” – are often inspired by aspirations to do something not previously possible or to do it in a new way. Sometimes these innovations result in “useless, twisting” gadgets, other times in something more lasting.

The way the last phrase of the refrain is sung makes me always think of how sound – in my experience – is often the first victim when something goes wrong with these new gadgets, whether there’s a gable loose or a software glitch. But the song text is actually talking about a more serious scenario, possibly even an apocalyptic one where people have had to retrieve living underground – perhaps due to something gone seriously wrong with our blind trust on technology.

Mixer 2

The refrain also talks about “futures”, in plural. An essential aspect of virtual reality technologies is that multiple “realities” – and also “futures” – can be created with them. It’s not hard to imagine how too deeply submerging into these alternative realities might result in difficulties dealing with the “real” world, i.e insanity.

The video combines the various meanings of “virtual”. The room with its soft walls could be a mental asylum for the “insane” but there are also various “virtual”, illusionary, things going on. While the floor seems to be moving, it’s actually the walls that move. The cuts between the scenes when the camera shows the floor remind moving between levels in a computer game – a sort of virtual reality. There’s also some early CGI in the video with the bugs crawling around and the crow bursting to flight.

Oh this world has got to change
‘Cause I just, I just can’t keep going on
In this virtual, virtual insanity
That we’re living in, that we’re living in
That virtual insanity is what is…

Virtual insanity is what we’re living in
Yeah, well it’s alright now

Towards the end, the protagonist of the song seems to come to terms with the conditions of the world. While he’s determined to see the world change, he realises that it’s not going to get back to the way it was. There’s no turning back the time. For the full text and further analysis, see here.

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