Tuesday, March 06, 2007

on bad music

As I wrote yesterday, I really believe that listening to great music can make people better - kinder, braver, wiser, more compassionate - just as it changes the character Wiesler in the movie The Lives of Others. I wouldn't be doing what I am if I didn't believe music can have a transformative effect on people, often more powerful and far-reaching than any other art form.

Then again, I wonder if this is a double-edged sword. Does bad music, or music badly played, make people more cruel, fearful, narrow-minded and selfish? Even wondering about this is a little disturbing, since it raises the specter of what is "bad music". From there it seems like a short leap to "degenerate music" and the artistic censorship of '80s East Germany, or Stalinist Russia. I'd much rather think that music can only have a positive effect - or that bad music will purge itself, since no one will continue performing and listening if it is actually harmful.

Even if we decide a certain music is bad for us, though, it seems clear that we can't declare it unacceptable for anyone else. As MTT discussed in his talks on Shostakovich's 5th, different people can hear the same music in very different ways - and sometimes the more true message of a piece is not the most obvious. In the last pages of Shostakovich's 5th, a long and apparently triumphant march emerges from the brass, with the upper strings repeating a high shrill note and the timpani blasting the same two notes that begin the theme. Many conductors follow the swell of the music with an accelerating tempo, though the music only says "ritenuto". It's not a ritardando - a natural slowing - but a forcible pulling back, as if the whole orchestra is struggling against a force we can't control!

Early in the film, Wiesler's Stasi friend (and now his superior) Grubitz calls Georg Dreyman "our only non-subversive artist". It's a funny line - there is a lot of these ironies in the film - and I think it underscores that every artist, in a sense, is subversive. Wiesler himself is a kind of artist, as we see at the beginning of the film. His art is interrogation, spying, and uncovering others' secrets, and he practices with all the dedication and determination of the most devoted actor or writer. And yet all this skill and craft, he soon realizes, is being used for terrible ends - ruining lives, destroying careers. Perhaps that's the final standard of bad art - it makes the artist himself ashamed of what he's created.

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