So who’s writing In Memoriam Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?
Come on. I’m sure it’s at least crossed somebody’s mind. His death has been a huge headline; I find it hard to imagine that no composer has considered addressing him in a piece. I have no doubt that the recent passing of György Ligeti will prompt a spate of memorial pieces, efforts that the memory of such a brilliant composer richly deserves. However, the public is vastly more aware of Zarqawi than of Ligeti (who seems to be most widely recognized through his connection to 2001: A Space Odyssey), so why not turn your attention to him instead?
One answer, of course, is that Ligeti was an eminent artist, and Zarqawi was a monster responsible for the deaths of innumerable innocents. Although we are inclined to think of Ligeti in a favorable light and Zarqawi in, to say the least, an unfavorable light, few would argue with the fact that Zarqawi has been a much larger figure in world events than the aforementioned composer. Why shouldn’t a piece decrying an unspeakably evil person be every bit as valid as a piece celebrating the achievements of a great one? Let me reach back to last week for an even better example: Why, in 2006, would you write a piece (of the sort that more than a few composers wrote a couple of months back) about how great Mozart was when you could write a piece about how awful Zarqawi was?
In his recent post “The Times They Are a-Puritanical,” Randy Nordschow identifies “signs of unruly chaos pacified into orderly insipidness” as a stylistic shift symptomatic of a musical response to “dire political times.” I would submit that such pacification is a withdrawal from real-world discourse not conducive to the “revolutionary musical renaissance” that Nordschow speculates might be imminent. Call me naïve, but I wonder if our responsibility isn’t to make our music sound more relevant but rather to make it about more relevant things. The thought of writing a piece about the estate tax, for instance, might seem hopelessly pedestrian, but it’s a real issue—an issue which most Americans are grossly underinformed. I recently read an article in The Washington Post about an incipient boom in German sex slavery concomitant with the World Cup. That’s terrible! How come nobody’s writing a piece about that?
We fret to no end over the problem of how to cultivate an audience for new music. I’m convinced that accessible-sounding music is not the solution: The ugliest piece in the world will move listeners if it tells them something they need to know. The world has never been more full of things that listeners need to know, and a lot of those things are pretty ugly themselves.