In Wieland Hoban’s composition “Hora’ot Pticha Be’esh (Rules of Engagement I),” from 2013-14, we hear distorted microtones, low glissandi, plucking, instrumental squealing. This music accompanies testimony by a Sergeant First Class in the Armored Corps of the Israeli Defense Forces during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, in the winter of 2008-9. The soldier speaks in Hebrew about the lack of concern given to civilian lives during the operation, while the composer translates into English. “The rules of engagement were to shoot,” he says. The quotation is sampled and repeated, as the underlying music moves closer and becomes more dense in texture.

Hoban followed this work with a piece entitled “Al – Shifa (Rules of Engagement II)” (2014), for string quartet and tape, premiered by the renowned Kairos Quartett. Named after a hospital in Gaza, the composition has no words, working with microtonal open-string textures, increased bow pressure, and motivic material from “Hora’ot Pticha Be’esh.” On May 8, Hoban pitched the third and final work in this cycle to Björn Gottstein, the artistic director of the Donaueschinger Musiktage, Germany’s premiere new music festival. But in a private email from July 16, Gottstein wrote that he would rather give other composers a chance, adding that no composition critical of Israel will be performed in Donaueschingen as long as he is artistic director.

Hoban responded with an open letter to Gottstein, which was since gathered around 170 signatures. “I consider it unacceptable for a public debate to be prevented by censorship, whatever the issue. As an employee of a public broadcaster, Mr. Gottstein should not be in a position to prevent discussion of a particular topic due to his own personal convictions,” Hoban wrote. (Donaueschinger Musiktage is presented by Südwestrundfunk, a public radio station financed by the German government. You can read the complete open letter and view the signatories here.) The letter has since become a topic of emotional debate in the new music scene in Germany and abroad.

Early this year, Stefanie Carp, the new artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale festival, became embroiled in a similar controversy. She invited the Scottish hip-hop trio Young Fathers, which advocates for the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction, in regard to Israel) movement, to perform. After protests alleging that BDS is by nature anti-Semitic, Carp disinvited the band, only to swiftly invite them back, writing in a press release, “I believe that we need to allow the different perspectives and narratives, because this openness is the dramaturgic credo of our program.” She was again harshly criticized until the Young Fathers backed out of their own volition. Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union, the center-right political party of Angela Merkel, whose regional government is the main sponsor of the Ruhrtriennale, decided he would not attend the festival anyway; he in turn was criticized by the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, who said that he was “pursuing a kind of political symbolism that makes all reasonable debate impossible.”

Can contemporary classical music serve as a useful framework for negotiating one of the most contentious political issues of our generation? The genesis of the Israel-Palestine conflict is extraordinarily complex; untangling the series of actions ranging from well-intentioned to pure evil on both sides, and how those actions affected military, economic, and political outlooks in the region, is a task best left to journalists, historians, and experts inside and outside of government. Even contemporary classical compositions that deal with human rights atrocities in nuanced ways, such as John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” and Claude Vivier’s “Wo bist du Licht!” (lamenting the Vietnam war), fail to take into account the entire complexity of the issues at stake, and leave some listeners with the feeling of being manipulated. (György Ligeti criticized Vivier for being “naive” and falling for Soviet propaganda in the piece, though he praised the music.) Hoban’s “Ora’ot Ptich Be’esh” is not a persuasive argument for the core evil of the IDF, because though the music picks a side, the text does not make it completely clear that the soldier speaking was dealing with more than a single bad-apple superior. The YouTube video of the soldier is more convincing—the story is told more neutrally. “If you’ve got a hole in your roof you’ve got two options: either you write an epic poem about how terrible it is that the water’s dripping in and your ink is getting smudged; or you get on a ladder and you fix it,” said the composer Jakob Ullmann, a victim of Stasi surveillance, in reference to the inability of political art to create concrete solutions.

Criticism of Israel and particularly its government, military and settlement policies is necessary, and certainly not anti-Semitic by definition, whether in the press or in the arts. But anti-Semitism is still widespread, and a curator, choosing to present work that criticizes Israel, has a responsibility to make sure that it does not avail itself of anti-Semitic tropes. When you add the emotional baggage of the criticism coming from a festival in the country responsible for the Holocaust, and arguably many of the traumas present in Israeli society today, Gottstein’s decision to avoid the topic becomes understandable, if overly broad. (When we reached Gottstein by phone, he said that his remarks were intended as private and casual, and not as a blanket curatorial statement. He had no further comment.) The effectiveness of boycott as a catalyst for change, the danger of partisan entrenchment, and our attention spans for tragedy—we haven’t come across compositions about the ongoing human rights catastrophes in Yemen and Myanmar—are huge, latent issues that a piece or pieces at Donaueschingen have no chance of solving.

As the U.S. abandons what the reporter Masha Gessen brilliantly termed its historical “aspirational hypocrisy,” including advocacy for human rights abroad and mild criticism of Israel, Germany, as one of the most prominent Western democracies, must decide what role it will play in our current geopolitical situation. The ferocity of the Ruhrtriennale and Donaueschingen debate shows how deep the divide is. While this discussion is an essential one, the world of contemporary classical music is ill-equipped to solve it. Hoban’s music is full of passion. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has enough of that already. ¶

Updated 8/16/2018

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.