A Conflict of Interests

A blog by Benjamin Graves, RSNO Composers’ Hub 2016:17

When one thinks of war music it is usually the descriptive nature of the pieces themselves that comes to mind: an incessant “andante marziale” or absurdist scherzo. What one doesn’t immediately think of – in comparison to, say, the war poets – is how directly conflict has affected the life of the composer, and affected they were: Stockhausen’s parents disappeared during the Second World War and only much later did he learn of their murder; Ligeti’s entire family, except his mother, were killed in concentration camps and George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney never returned from World War I.

So bearing this loss in mind, how does, or can, a composer who has never seen action, except on television, and unburdened by war’s emotional baggage set about composing a piece evoking war? How can the music he or she writes – music having the potential to be the most direct form of emotional expression – be seen as anything except passing off the turmoil of others: an appropriation of emotion?

Consider contemporary warfare: the constant bombardment of Aleppo, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan or the struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. What these conflicts all have in common is an advancement in remote warfare.

An interesting approach could be to draw parallels between contemporary artistic portrayals of war by disconnected composers and those that fight remotely. They, like the composers, live at home, perhaps with their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and children, they walk out of their front door each morning, get into their cars and drive to work, some have never seen a battlefield.

The potential controversy surrounding the composing of a piece reflecting on the cost of war, emotional or otherwise, by a composer who has never seen it is paralleled in the eventual scrapping of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, a medal introduced for remote warriors. What right, argued members of Congress, veterans and serving combatants, do individuals who have never set foot in a war zone, let alone risked life and limb in service of their country, have to receive a medal for valour? Likewise, what right does a composer have to receive a grant and all the congratulations and adulation that comes with composing a work for a world class orchestra, all for a piece about a war he/she has never entered?

One could argue further parallel: studies have shown drone pilots suffer similar emotional damage to fighters on the ground, they are acutely aware of the lives they end and the cities they destroy, despite attempts at desensitising. But this does not seem to resonate with many active personnel: remote warfare is held in much lower esteem, due to a lack of direct action. In fact, The RAF claim it is in fact workplace stressors such as overwork or a poor working environment that affects drone operators, rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.

A young composer could claim a deep, potentially damaging, feeling of emotional connection with the images he/she sees in the news, or perhaps knows someone at war, but surely this pales into insignificance when compared to the losses Stockhausen, Ligeti, Butterworth and Gurney suffered, but is it any less valid?

The main difference is, of course, that by composing a work for orchestra a composer is not directly or indirectly involved in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, many of whom are innocent casualties, and so my comparisons shall go no further.

Personally, without wishing to tie myself down to too rigid a narrative, the main approach I believe to be the most appropriate is to display, in musical form, a level of detachment to the subject I’m dealing with, a potentially tricky solution and one I’m still contemplating. One option is to compose a piece which employs (musical) drones. These, if by name alone, could represent, well, drones, but the problem is that a musical drone only represents a flying one because I, the composer, said so. Another, and the option I am exploring at the moment, is a musical representation of bombed out buildings: think Coventry Cathedral. Remnants of conflicts past inhabiting a contemporary, largely war free, space. These husks are what war has left me: they represent stories of war told to me by my grandparents, wars fought years ago spoken of in history textbooks and the images that flash up on news programmes of wars being fought thousands of miles away. All of which punctuate the contemporary landscape of my everyday life.

Ultimately in addressing the issue of so called emotional appropriation, the question I have to ask myself is: if by writing a piece of music about war is it only me who stands to benefit from its production? If so that piece should not be written. If instead I can encourage even one member of the audience to ask questions, whether moral or otherwise, of themselves, me and others then I believe the piece was worth writing.