Soundly Organized Humanity


Gage Averill, New York University

  1. My first reaction to the eloquent testimony of Lorraine Sakata is to be thankful for my own illuminating acquaintance with Afghan music, mediated by four remarkable colleagues. I studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, and my initial graduate seminar was Lorraine Sakata’s “The Music of the Near East.” My first job was at Columbia University, where I taught alongside John Baily, and where I got to know John and his wife Veronica Doubleday, both insightful Western scholars of Afghan music. I left Columbia for Wesleyan University, where my senior colleague in ethnomusicology was Mark Slobin, whose doctoral research and first book also concerned the music of Afghanistan. And so, in only a few short years, I was fortunate to learn firsthand from four of the most knowledgeable Western scholars of Afghan music. I became a fan of John and Veronica’s lovely performance of Afghan traditional love songs and mystical poetry on rabab and frame drum, which I first heard at the faculty club at Columbia. I was fascinated by the Afghan weddings recorded on John’s documentary films. I listened to many field anecdotes about musical traditions and ethnographic sites that had been closed to all of these scholars after the Soviet invasion. How extraordinary, I thought, that all four of them had been so deeply shaped by a musical tradition that had largely disappeared. The culture they had known, and with which they had fallen in love, had been silenced by a very loud conflict that convulsed Afghan life. The silences of Afghan music formed a disturbing presence in subsequent public talks of, and personal discussions with, these four scholars regarding Afghanistan.

  2. I recalled many of these interactions on a trip last spring to the UK, where John Baily introduced a keynote speech I gave on “Music and Power.” At the party following my talk, John and Veronica once again performed, and were joined by a popular singer of Afghan music. On the following day, John was scheduled to give a press conference on artistic censorship under the Taliban, a llittle after the Taliban were carrying out their campaign to destroy Afghanistan’s many extraordinary Buddhist sculptures. I found it ironic that the world began to pay close attention to this issue when representational or visual art (which UNESCO identified as a world artistic heritage) was at stake, but that the systematic eradication of a profound musical heritage had been all but ignored. Photos of statues reduced to rubble and huge empty stone vestibules seemed to be able to reach people through print and broadcast media in a way that the silences created by the erasure of music could not.

  3. Now, with the rapid political changes in Afghanistan—following the Soviet occupation and the tyrannical Najibullah years, the chaos of the mujahedin triumph, and the grim fundamentalism of the Taliban reign—there are indications of a passionate embrace of musical sounds long stifled in the region. It is possible to imagine that musical knowledge, and even the contexts in which it flourished, could take hold again, like wildflowers springing up in volcanic ash after a cataclysmic eruption. Ethnomusicologists have a role to play in this kind of efflorescence of musical performance after periods of repression, war, and censorship. We should also play a role as vocal critics of these repressive measures in the first place, cultural relativism aside! Ali Jihad Racy’s poignant reaction to the attack of September 11 and its aftermath also challenge ethnomusicologists to respond to the kinds of intolerance and bigotry that followed in the wake of the attacks and in the buildup to war. He provides moving testimony of music’s ability to unite, heal, mourn, cope, and uplift.

  4. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, having been eyewitness to an unimaginable tragedy, I found myself asking the kinds of questions so many were asking: how could a cause, no matter how passionately felt and fanatically pursued, justify such a cruel eradication of so many innocent lives? How does terror justify itself? And within a very short period of time, I was engaged in an internal dialogue about my own early support of terrorism.

  5. In 1971, the year before I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin to begin studies in forestry, a group of four antiwar activists had exploded a bomb in the University’s Army Math Research Center, killing one researcher (Robert Fassnacht) who happened to be working late over the Easter vacation. It was a watershed moment in the antiwar movement, splitting pacifists off from those willing to escalate the confrontation and “bring the war home.” The event also brought the FBI more directly into the investigation of the movement itself. Meanwhile, the Army Math Research Center sat roped off, draped and boarded, as a reminder of a distant, and not-so-distant, conflict in my first year at college.

  6. The first event I recall at my housing co-op the following year was a benefit square dance for the four bombers. Later that night, winding our way along a trail between buildings that we called the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” my friends and I talked about the importance of violence in exposing Americans to the kinds of pain that the government and its military were inflicting on others. My closest friend at the time confessed to me that he was living underground with an assumed name after a series of incidents to which he had been linked (blowing up an ROTC building, counterfeiting to finance revolutionary activities, and the discovery of a cache of guns). He and I began discussion groups around the recent manifesto from the Weather Underground. When the FBI seemed to be getting close to my friend’s location, I would spirit him across state lines to safe houses in places like Ann Arbor. I was captivated by the heady espionage of it all: building cells, releasing manifestos, generating fake ID’s, and avoiding the FBI.

  7. My Irish band, The Irish Brigade, offered to play at the Waupun Federal Penitentiary in order to meet and show support for Karl, the “ringleader” of the Army Math Research Center bombers. During our performance for the maximum security prisoners, after an old Irish man got up to dance a jig, we sensed an opportunity and broke loose with an old anarchist favorite, “Banks of Marble,” which talks of blowing up banks and shooting “the guards at every door,” and pandemonium resulted. Most of the auditorium was on its feet, clapping hands, and eyeing the very nervous guards at the doors. Lights came on and the warden gave the signal to stop the performance, but we played on until they cut off our electricity. We never received another invitation to play at Waupun and we avoided whatever punishment was meted out to our rowdy, but still captive, audience. My sympathy for terrorist tactics came from a guilt-ridden sense that people around the world were struggling and dying violently in response to American imperialism and that America shouldn’t be exempt. This, at least, was my justification. But my fascination with terrorism also had a performance component. Aware of the revolution in performance art launched by Fluxus in the 1960s, comrades of mine in the New Left saw mass-mediated coverage of outrageous political performance as the quickest way to break through the mind-numbing comforts of North American pop culture. A form of political theater crept into the practice of the New Left, from the Weathermen’s Days of Rage to the Yippie presidential campaign for a pig, to Patty Hearst robbing a bank for the Symbionese Liberation Army with that cool beret (what a performance!), to the bomb planted by the Weather Underground at the Capitol Rotunda. The Weather Underground bombings were meant to send a message that said “we” can and will strike anywhere; and beware: the revolution is coming.

  8. Although my dalliance with the violent wing of the antiwar movement lasted only a couple of years, this all seems frighteningly current to me now. We have all now experienced the attack on the World Trade Center in multiple television replays. The perpetrators and their sympathizers justify the violence because it “brings the war home” to America. After the first jet crashed into the World Trade Center, and as Al Qaeda militants, who were gathered around television sets, were beginning to celebrate, Osama bin Laden is now reputed to have told them to “just wait”—wait, that is, for the second jet, the finale, the last act. The attack made use of a kind of performativity and seems to have been at least in part inspired by Hollywood disaster movies, as others have pointed out. It is now clear that the second attack was timed for maximal television coverage. The attack and its global mediation was supposed to send a message about the vulnerability of America, intimidating the superpower and encouraging anti-American activists (now of a disaffected fundamentalist Islamic stripe) to support or engage in terror.

  9. I had once been complicit in a way of thinking that excused or rationalized the loss of innocent lives in the exercise of terror for political ends, and I had countenanced the aestheticization of violent political action in the real world as performance. Never had my irresponsibility been more viscerally real to me. In the weeks and months following September 11, I coped with my grief and shock, but also with this unsettling sense of complicity and guilt. This is perhaps the kind of painful breaking of a “shell that encloses our understanding” that Ali Jihad Racy had in mind in quoting from Kahlil Gibran. Karlheinz Stockhausen, in controversial comments following the attack, considered the event as a pure performance, akin to musical composition. What I found shocking in his remarks is not that he used the term “great,” or that he admired the disciplined practice for performance among the terrorists, but that he could distance himself sufficiently at that moment to deal with the attack as performance intellectually rather than empathetically as an immense and inconceivable tragedy that would ripple out for years in grief and pain. We will be richer if we allow this tragedy to focus our attention on our own humanity and to learn from the self-sacrificing and humane examples of global response that followed in the wake of the tragedy. I have my own personal failures of humanism to confront, but as an ethnomusicologist, I hope to challenge myself to criticize the nefarious uses to which the power of music is put, to continue to campaign against censorship and political regulation of music, and to encourage the rich exploration of music as a connective tissue in human interaction and as a medium that makes clearer our shared humanity.

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Ubiquitous Listening

Draughon and Knapp:
Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity


Musical Perspectives on September 11

Reflections on September 11

Soundly Organized Humanity

Photo Essay

Review Essay

Allen Forte