Singing in the Lion's Mouth: Music as Resistance to Genocide (A Reflection)

Fri, 10/30/2015 - 3:24pm

During the weekend of October 10-11, the University of Southern California gathered international academics, musicians and members of the Los Angeles community for a symposium and series of events, collectively called Singing in the Lion’s Mouth: Music as Resistance to Genocide.  Hosted by Professor Wolf Gruner of the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, and Professor Nick Strimple of the USC Thornton School of Music, the symposium, film screening and concert were also  sponsored by USC’s Vision and Voices arts and humanities initiative. The following paragraphs are a reflection on the individual events that made up the weekend, and an exploration into the larger ideas raised in discussions over the course of the weekend.


It was clear at the outset that the conference would not be bound by a single idea, style of music, or academic field of study.  During a preliminary lunch, casual conversation among the participants quickly turned to ideas of trauma and intergenerational memory; filmmaker Carla Garapedian broad background in Armenia, Rwanda and Darfur helped bridge discussions of regional examples and led the assembled scholars into a weekend of cross-cultural considerations.  Participants were formally welcomed by professors Strimple and Gruner, who framed the symposium in academic theory, and the scholars walked onto a USC campus ready for a weekend of thoughtful interactions.


The conference opened with two film screenings at the Ray Stark Family Theatre, within USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.  Carla Garapedian was on hand to screen and discuss Screamers, her 2006 documentary about the impending 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  The film uses archival footage and interviews with members of the rock group “System of a Down,”  as well as others in the Armenian community, to push the U.S. government into recognizing the 1915 Armenian Genocide.  The symposium continued with Kerry Candaele, director of the 2013 film Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony.  Candaele’s film explores the cross-cultural uses of Beethoven’s iconic symphony,  especially the role of the “Ode to Joy” score in moments of musical resistance around the world.


Screamers is a blunt and powerful film, with gruesome archival footage and unfiltered language from the band “System of a Down.”  After the screening, Garapedian said that her ongoing engagement with the genre of documentary filmmaking mandated that she leave in the shocking aspects of the film, even if it deemed an “R” rating.  Responding to a student question about language in the film, she said that the 33 “F-bombs” and resulting adult rating kept the work from being easily accessible to students, and that a “bleeped out” version facilitated a lower rating and better audience exposure to the subject matter.  As a former BBC World News anchor, Garapedian noted that the project had BBC involvement, which also demanded objectivity and an avoidance of censorship.  Garapedian went on to mention that the Turkish government continues to deny the genocide, and may be doing so to avoid both feelings of guilt and calls for financial repatriation.  In the film, there are passing allegations that House Speaker Dennis Hastert had taken bribes to block a resolution on the genocide, and Garapedian suggested that potential lawsuits prevented her from exploring the issue, but in hindsight she would have liked to pursue the issue further.

Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony brings to the discussion the role of this iconic piece of music in moments of resistance.  Kerry Candaele brought to his film instances of the piece in protests around the world: in Tiananmen Square, in Chile as women protested the disappearance of men during Pinochet’s rule, and under the baton of Leonard Bernstein during the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Candaele had accidently run into the Ninth Symphony in the tape deck of a borrowed car and fell in love with the music.  When asked why he thought Beethoven’s Ninth - and “Ode to Joy” in particular - has become such a universal theme, Candaele said that “One simple answer is the music is so great, period.  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.”  Following the Ninth brings together a number of interviews that support this view, and in the questions after the screening he elaborated,

In general (Beethoven) is an advocate for the rights of man. 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!


When asked why he felt compelled to make this film, he noted that he “heard this music and fell in love with it.”  In a larger sense, he also wanted to convey this celebration of hope.   “Erring on the side of chastened hope is where I sit with all of this stuff. 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.”


Sunday’s symposium on music and resistance to genocide began with a call from the organizers to actively listen – to use the opportunity to engage with the scholars and the ideas presented.  Gruner and Strimple encouraged scholars and attendees alike to ask questions and bring their experiences to the discussion.  Attendees from the Jewish community of Los Angeles were in strong attendance for the first panel, and included the former Director and Curator of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Marcia Josephy; UCLA’s Music Programs Coordinator for the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music, Neal Brostoff; and Los Angeles’ own Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom.


Lorry Black of the USC Thornton School of Music introduced the two speakers in the first panel of the day.  Bret Werb presented a paper entitled “Censorship, Sabotage, and Self-Subversion in the Yiddish Shoah Song,” in which he investigated the strategies songwriters in the ghettos used to avoid censorship and punishment while integrating subversive ideas and calls to action in popular song.  He argued that textual changes to existing popular songs, and newly-created songs spread quickly by ear and functioned as both entertainment and subversive resistance to “an otherwise unassailable enemy.”  Werb, who is the Music Curator of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, brought to the presentation an assortment of examples, both print and recorded, to illustrate his points.  Discussions around the topic brought to light the subtlety required of the song writers to avoid identification and punishment, and the need for topical songs to quickly gain anonymity and enter the local oral tradition.  Werb also discussed the role of musical and political resistance in changing the lyrics of popular song to overt political or aggressive messages, and the reception these songs had in the ghetto and beyond.


Tina Frühauf presented the second paper, “Sounds before Surrender: Theory and Actuality of Jewish Musical Resistance under Nazi Rule,” in which she refigured the idea of a collective identity in musical resistance, demonstrating that musical resistance is usually the result of individual agency, and often can only be considered an act of collective resistance in retrospect.  Frühauf supported her thesis through a number of examples of musical moments performed by Jews in hiding or not yet deported.  Discussions quickly turned to ideas of collective identity in resistance, and the role of music in acts of resistance, with clear parallels to the Civil Rights era in the United States.  Both Frühauf and Werb discussed the role of archival materials and firsthand accounts in such recreations, as only a small fraction of such musical moments have been documented, saved or remembered.


Scott Spencer of both the USC Shoah Foundation and the USC Thornton School of Music introduced the second panel of the day.  Barbara Milewski of Swarthmore College presented “Ludwik Starski’s Forbidden Songs and an Overlooked Narrative of Polish Jewish Experience in Occupied Warsaw.” Starski’s film was originally presented as a fragmented documentary about Polish songs of resistance during Nazi oppression.  The eventual extended version premiered on January 8, 1947 to severe criticism, and was withdrawn three months later with strict instructions to include more German brutality and a stronger emphasis on Soviet liberation. Milewski used the film and its reception to discuss the differences between private and official memory, and the role of folk song in public memory and collective processing.  Some of the most poignant moments involved Milewski’s research into the film’s musicians.  Though the singers were presented as anonymous in the film, each had a complicated history and trajectory through the war.  Discussions of film censorship included Milewski noting that Chopin's “Śpiew z mogiłki” [Song from the Grave] was the only song cut from the original version, and Starski’s own "Warszawo ma" [My Warsaw], though highly critical, became an important anthem of the suffering of the people of Warsaw during the war.


Alexandra Birch of Arizona State University presented “Jewish Themes in the Music of Shostakovich: Commemoration and Resistance,” in which she discussed the role of ethnic musical motifs used by Shostakovich in his compositions, and his delicate dance with the state censors.  Birch was kind enough to bring her violin, and demonstrated many of the themes for the attendees.  Her paper analyzed Shostakovich’s limited range of acceptable modes of musical resistance within the bounds of Soviet ideology, and his subtle use of cantorial themes to evoke ideas of resistance to those listeners who could identify these themes, while avoiding widespread recognition of his compositional acts of resistance and subsequent censorship.  Birch’s musical examples on the violin were stunning, and she was prevailed upon for an encore, performing an excerpt of a Beethoven violin concerto to great acclaim.


Aleksandra Visser, a former music student at the USC Thornton School of Music and currently with the USC Shoah Foundation, introduced the third panel of the afternoon.  Janie Cole of the University of Cape Town presented “We the Black Nation: Music as Resistance in the

Struggle Against Apartheid in South Africa,” in which she traced the history of songs of resistance in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  Drawing from her moving interviews with women who had been imprisoned for political involvement, Cole demonstrated how “freedom songs” in South Africa changed with social movements and responded to the political climate of the day.  Of particular impact were accounts by women who shared songs while incarcerated, using the melodies to bridge ethnic, language and political differences and create common bonds of experience and identity.


Sandya Maulana of the Department of English, Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung, Indonesia, then presented “The Song, Not the Singer: ‘Gendjer-gendjer’ Today and the Changing Perspective on Indonesian Communist Purge.”  Maulana traced the history of “Gendjer-gendjer,” a popular song about suffering and hunger during the Japanese occupation, and its changing meaning and popular embrace over time.  Originally composed by Muhammad Arief, it became an icon of the Indonesian Communist party in the early 1960s, and was banned in the communist purge after the failed coup d’état of 1965.  The song became available again after the collapse of the New Order in 1998, and today each performance of “Gendjer-gendjer” is fraught with layers of political and historical meaning.  Maulana explored performances by a few modern musicians, including the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever, as he unpacked the song’s history and associated stigma through the musician’s own words and instances of audience reception. 


Discussions following the panel turned to the popular association of song with political movement through mass media (“Gendjer-gendjer” had been used in a political propaganda film and a number of generations in Indonesia associated the song with a particular instance of political torture) and the role of time and context in disassociating those relationships.  Both panelists went on to discuss the reconceptualization of resistance song in popular musical forms, including Paul Simon’s use of protest song in Graceland, and the new role of “Gendjer-gendjer” on the internet and in the Indonesian diaspora.


Daniel Newman-Lessler, a former student at the Thornton School of Music, introduced the last panel of the day. The final paper, “The Resistant Soundtrack: The Role of Film Music in Promoting On-screen and Off-screen Resistance to Genocide” was presented by Matt Lawson of Edge Hill University in the U.K.  Lawson presented moments from four films, Nuit et Brouillard (1955), Life is Beautiful (1997), The Grey Zone (2001) and Fateless (2005), in an attempt to theorize the place of resistance in film music.  In particular, Lawson explored the impact that contextualization in a film could have on ideas of musical resistance.  The paper rounded out the symposium perfectly, as it raised more question than gave answers.  An extended conversation among panelists and attendees questioned the role of interdisciplinary approaches to understanding musical intentions; the nature of musical resistance and reproduction of moments of resistance; the plausibility of using music which was not composed as an oppositional act in a broadcast moment conveying musical resistance; and the source of musical resistance in both theory and practice.  Professors Gruner and Strimple ended the day with a discussion of the topics raised over the course of the symposium, and made a call to develop a greater theory and definition of musical resistance which could be applied across musical genres and regions.


The symposium ended with a concert by members of the USC Thornton Chamber Singers, a variety of Thornton music students, and archival clips of poignant musical examples presented by Lorry Black. Of particular note, the Chamber Singers performed simultaneously “The Internationale” and “Buchenwald-Lied,” as was done in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1938.  In addition to a magnificent string ensemble performance, USC students from Thornton School’s Popular Music program presented a version of George Harrison’s “Bangladesh,” tying ideas of musical resistance to multiple time periods and political movements.


Article by Scott Spencer, PhD, Program Manager, Shoah Foundation