"Singing in the Lion’s Mouth: Music as Resistance to Genocide" Conference Sparks Debate and Inspiration

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 5:00pm

USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research invited scholars from around the world to its academic conference Singing in the Lion’s Mouth: Music as Resistance to Genocide at USC Oct. 10-11, 2015. The weekend included a night of films, an academic symposium and a concert, all exploring music as it has been used as a form of resistance to genocides throughout history. Read on for a recap of this fascinating event.

Saturday, Oct. 10 – Film Screenings of Following the Ninth and Screamers at Ray Stark Family Theatre

Chinese student demonstrators blared it over the loudspeakers on Tiananmen Square.

Chilean women sang it during protests in support of the men who’d been “disappeared” by the Pinochet Regime.

Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of it at the Berlin Wall as the divider was being knocked down.

In each of these disparate experiences, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was used as a rallying cry for the oppressed in opposition to an established order.

The 2013 documentary “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” highlights this through-line in a series of interviews with central characters and dramatic footage from each conflict.

After a showing at Ray Stark Family Theatre on Saturday night of Oct. 10, the director, Kerry Candaele, was on hand to answer questions about the critically praised film, which chronicles this recurring use of Beethoven's Ninth, whose final movement is sung by chorus using lyrics from the poem "Ode to Joy."    

Asked why Beethoven’s Ninth -- composed in the twilight of Beethoven's life in 1824 -- has been so transcendent across cultures and continents, Candaele had to pause.

“One simple answer is the music is so great, period,” he said. “Another simple answer that the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme is simple: it is not complicated. Any person can play it, hum it or whistle it -- any child can get at it.”

But Candaele also offered up a more complicated answer.

“In general (Beethoven) is an advocate for the rights of man,” he said. “You can hear it … at the end you want to get out of your seat. It’s a surprise that people don’t dance to this thing when it’s performed at Disney Hall. You want to get up and you want to shout and you want to celebrate -- you want to celebrate hope!

“Erring on the side of chastened hope is where I sit with all of this stuff,” he added. “I mean, you can open the paper every day and see the misery and the killings and the destruction and what humans are capable of doing to one another. But I can’t live in that cynicism.”

“Screamers” is not for the faint of heart. The 2006 documentary weaving concert footage of the Armenian rock band System of a Down with a grassroots effort to persuade the U.S. government to recognize the 1915 Armenian Genocide includes graphic footage of mass graves from various genocidal events and profane commentary from band members.

An audience member praised the film but noticed the lack of an overt call to action. The film’s creator, Carla Garapedian, said she consciously decided against including one because she wanted to refrain from editorializing. She added that the BBC was involved with the production and generally strives for objectivity.

As for Turkish denial of the genocide, although Garapedian grants that psychology might offer a partial explanation, she attributes it chiefly to fears that an admission of guilt would lead to costly reparations.

She believes that if Turkish and Armenian leaders address the question of reparations in direct fashion, perhaps Turkey will be more amenable to changing its position.

Sunday, Oct. 11 – Academic Symposium

The first speaker, Bret Werb from USHMM, spoke about the use of Yiddish songs as a mechanism of resistance. He played sections of the song “It’s Good,” and other songs that were sung during the Holocaust. Werb noted since the songs were in Yiddish that many times Jews sang these songs to mock and make fun of the Germans in the ghetto, and they gave common cause to partisans and Jews.

Tina Fruhauf’s presentation focused on music outside of ghettos and camps. She noted that musical resistance did not stop genocide but it was more of a way to refuse or react to certain policies like discrimination and deportations. She also mentioned that singing these songs of resistance was a way to stand up to the authority by defying the Nazi orders. The discussion with the audience led to the idea that music was like a form of passive resistance, and Fruhauf said giving testimony after the Holocaust is also a form of resistance. Music was also an important tool to prevent specific emotional states like despair and provide almost a sign of hope, she said.

Barbara Milewski spoke about the Polish film Forbidden Songs, which was the first post-war Polish film that included light humor with a shadow of the war, In the film a woman, who was an actual survivor, sings a song about hiding in Warsaw and how her heart breaks for the city. It is not well known the actors and singers in the film are actual survivors of the Holocaust.

“Resistance can only live on, if oppression lives on,” Milewski said.

Musician and historian Alexandra Birch analyzed Shostakovich’s resistance compositions and played a sample on her violin from each piece. She also played an entire Shostakovich piece as a special treat for the audience. She discussed how Shostakovich used Jewish dance pieces and Jewish folk poetry within his compositions. 

Musicologist Janie Cole, who teaches at the University of Cape Town, spoke about the impact popular music had during the Apartheid era of South Africa. Blacks, who were treated as second-class citizens in the country, turned to aggressive “struggle songs” to make their voices heard.

“The principal role of music as a mode of resistance in the anti-Apartheid  movement spanning 1948 to 1994 cannot be overestimated,” she said “In South Africa, where singing is the primary cultural expression …  it was a natural for marginalized and oppressed community to find a vehicle in song.

For his presentation, Sandya Maulana of the Universitas Padjadjaran in Indonesia focused on the impact of one song during his nation’s community purge during the 1960s. When the government banned popular music of the times, local musicians created a local style called Lenso. It was during this time that the song “Gendjer-Gendjer” grew in both popularity and political meaning. Used as a protest against the government, the song was banned, which only gave it more currency.

“Even though there are no specific legal grounds to ban the song, there is a law stating that Indonesia rejected all forms of communism,” he said.

The final presentation of the day was by Matt Lawson, from Edge Hill University in England. Lawson showed clips from Schindler’s List, Night and Fog and The Grey Zone and spoke about how the music in each clip underscored themes of resistance. The conference participants engaged in a lively debate about whether the music in a film that portrays genocide counts as resistance if the film was made long after the genocide itself ended.

Sunday, Oct. 11 – Concert Featuring Students from USC Thornton School of Music

Students from USC Thornton School of Music brought real songs of resistance back to life at the concluding concert, part of USC's Visions and Voices series, at Alfred Newman Recital Hall. Hosted by Lorry Black, conference co-organizer and PhD candidate studying music as resistance to genocide, the concert took the audience on a musical journey through the Holocaust, Armenian Genocide, Indonesian Genocide and even the genocide in Bangladesh.

The USC Thornton Chamber Singers performed several pieces of music composed and/or performed in concentration camps during the Holocaust, including the Finale of Elijah, performed in Theresienstadt, and Zog Nit Keynmol, as performed in the Vilna Ghetto. The group also sang The Internationale, a socialist anthem, and Buchenwald-Lied, a piece composed by Buchenwald prisoners for a camp contest, simultaneously, since the tradition in Buchenwald was for prisoners to sing Buchenwald-Lied to mask others singing The Internationale.

Another highlight was a lone male singer who stood up in the audience to perform Mozart’s In diesen heil’gen Hallen. The lights in the theater were turned completely off to simulate how the song was sung in a Hungarian synagogue when hundreds of Jews were trapped there in 1943.

A string/oboe quintet performed Fantasia on a Provençal Christmas Carol by William Hilsley, and a group from the pop music program at USC Thornton performed George Harrison’s Bangladesh, which he performed at his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.

While the concert was intended to introduce the audience to songs of resistance they may not have heard before, Black and USC Thornton professor of music Nick Strimple made a remarkable discovery of their own.

Strimple explained that Wolf Gruner, director of the USC Shoah Foundation Center of Advanced Genocide Research, had discovered a small scrap of sheet music from the Holocaust while doing research in Czech Republic but after much investigation could not identify what the song was. A pianist played the song – a simple, pretty piece – and Strimple asked if anyone in the audience could help recognize the melody.

“It’s a Jewish lullaby,” one man in the audience said immediately.

Black and Strimple appeared slightly stunned that their appeal had been answered, and they eagerly made plans to talk further with the man after the concert. Seventy years on, it appears there is still much to be learned about music and its role in the Holocaust and other genocides.