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On Music and Torture

By · Date 05/26/2016

A few nights ago, I sat in Berlin’s Philharmonie listening to the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin under the direction of Kent Nagano. The program was practically a Greatest Hits of German romanticism and late-romanticism: Wagner’s “Tristan” prelude and “Liebestod”; the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”; Schubert’s Unfinished; Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.”

I thought about many things that evening. I thought about instrumentation: how Schoenberg managed to keep the raw edge of the sextet version in his orchestration of “Verklärte Nacht”; how the harp in Wagner’s “Liebestod” was about as far removed from the harps any real Isolde would have known as July is from December. I thought about equality, and inequality: how the orchestra in front of me was as much female as male; how putting a mezzo in front of a large orchestra is great in the best seats in the house, not so good in the cheap seats. I also thought about Wagner’s nordic mythologies, and their relationship to ideas of white supremacy; about Schoenberg, the most prominent victim of Nazi vitriol against Jewish composers; and I thought about Strauss’s complicity in the rise of Nazism, and wondered what he was feeling as, with hindsight, he composed his swan-song, a work so seemingly at odds with post-war realities and with the music being written by other European composers around the same time. Wagner, Schoenberg, Strauss: on this program, only Schubert seemed safely removed from the narrative that developed in my mind, placing each of these composers in very different types of relationship to Nazi atrocities.

And yet Schubert, too, entered the narrative, leading me back to thinking about my task earlier that day: writing about music and torture.

The use of music in torture and ill-treatment has a long and global history, and can take many different forms. Possibly the most widespread is to force prisoners to sing or dance, often in such a way that deliberate physical harm is caused in addition to the psychological harm of humiliation, or of being threatened with immediate execution if the performance is lacking. People may also be exposed to constant loud music as part of a bundle of techniques aimed at so-called sensory deprivation or sensory overload, techniques that quickly destroy prisoners’ mental health through isolating them from any sensory contact with the world around them. Music often sounds in the context of other forms of torture, as well: as a method of sleep deprivation; as a way to humiliate prisoners; and many more. A Mexican survivor of torture, interviewed by Amnesty International, spoke of how music would begin to play every time she was exposed to electric shocks. This is just one example of many. The assumption is often that in such cases, music is used to drown out other sounds of torture; closer analysis generally reveals, however, that in fact, music is an additional weapon used against prisoners, not least when they begin to associate the music with the torture. When that happens, music triggers anticipation, thus fear—one of the most significant contributory factors in traumatization. It also brings with it the risk of retraumatization through the same triggers in the future.

This aspect of music and torture was dramatized in Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden,” one of the most famous and effective artistic representations of the experience of torture. Later turned into a highly successful film, the play focuses on Paulina, a survivor of torture in an unspecified, South American state, who was raped repeatedly by a doctor while Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 played in the background. Over the course of the play, in which Paulina confronts her rapist, she explains how the piece became indelibly linked in her mind with her experience of torture.

Dorfman’s play is a fictionalized account, but informed by the testimony of survivors of torture. Recent research by Katia Chornik has provided evidence of the use of music in torture in Dorfman’s own home country, Chile, under the Pinochet dictatorship. Dorfman’s choice of Schubert specifically may have had much to do with the Quartet’s alternative title, which became the title of the play. But it could equally have been inspired by another, non-fictional doctor. According to Holocaust survivor Fania Fénelon, who was a member of the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Schubert and Schumann were personal favorites of Josef Mengele, who like many SS officers enjoyed listening to classical music. Juliane Brauer, who discusses this in a recent article, provides another Schubert connection as well, recorded in post-war criminal investigations into guards at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1942, two drunk SS guards beat up prisoners outside their barracks; one of the guards produced a gun and demanded that a prisoner sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” That the SS guard concerned was also the composer’s namesake, Wilhelm Schubert, may be a complete coincidence; it is equally possible, however, that this influenced his choice of music, adding another level to the power he felt and celebrated in forcing others to sing for him while committing violence against them. This is only one of countless documented examples of forced singing in Nazi concentration and extermination camps, where making musicians play as a form of forced labor was also systematic.

Torture is always about power, it is never simply an extreme form of violence. Torture is characterized by the absolute powerlessness of one human being in the face of the absolute power of another. This is why torture is so devastating an attack on human dignity and human subjectivity. As I have explored in more detail elsewhere, this is also the main reason why music can become such an effective instrument of torture, because music can be used to express and reinforce this relationship of power. This is an advantage that music specifically has over other forms of sound used in the context of torture. It is also why the music used in torture cuts across genres and styles: it is almost always directly related to the historical, cultural and political contexts in which the torture is taking place, but by no means limited to the types of music so often portrayed as inherently “violent” or “aggressive.” It does not even need to be loud, except in those forms of torture where loudness is part of the technique.    

An increasing body of evidence is pointing to the ubiquity of the use of music in connection with torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; through survivor testimony, it is possible to understand and document the devastating impact that music can have. This work is of fundamental importance not least since many people find it hard to conceive that music can become a weapon of torture. To an extent, this is also true of other methods of so-called psychological torture (a term which is to an extent misleading: all torture has a significant psychological component, and psychological torture also leaves its mark on the physical body). But the way that we tend to think about music also plays a role. We are so used to attributing positive values to music, associating it with so many happy and significant experiences in our lives, that it can be difficult for us to conceive of music becoming a source of devastation, trauma, and pain. This problem is exacerbated when we are dealing with repertoires which, like the music I heard last Friday, are closely tied up with ideas of transcendence and redemption, and are routinely presented in both academic and general discourse as constituting the pinnacle of human musical achievement. When it was suggested that the German musicologist Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, as a young soldier, may have been implicated in mass murders of Jewish people in the early 1940s, at least one musicologist argued in his defense that the fact Eggebrecht had talked in his letters home about playing Beethoven showed he simply could not have been involved in anything so inhumane. That is a bizarre argument to make, but by no means unusual. It is, after all, much easier to divide the world into those who are civilized and those who are not, than to question the basis of this division and our own self-appointed claim to be on the side of good.

Such divisions have become critical, again, in the light of the current refugee crisis, where even centrist politicians are turning their back on the most fundamental provisions of human rights and humanitarian law. And what many have termed a race to the bottom in terms of changes to asylum law in Europe is having a direct and devastating impact on survivors of torture. Recent changes to German asylum law which aim to speed up the process and make deportation easier will disproportionately affect and thus discriminate against people who are traumatized. In part this is because, as therapists have argued, it often takes longer to build a picture of what has happened when a person is traumatized; but more significantly, it is because post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) will no longer carry the same weight, or indeed any weight, in asylum hearings. PTSD, the legislators argue, is difficult to diagnose to any degree of certainty and therefore is often used to prevent deportation. This logic is as faulty as it is cynical, given the number of diagnostic manuals and guidelines available for therapists and clinicians, the fruits of long-standing research and practice in dealing with the health impacts of torture. What these changes mean in effect is that those who are suffering the most will also be the most likely to be returned to the countries which persecuted them.

It is relatively recent that forms of what is often termed psychological torture were legally accepted as torture at all. Even within the human rights community, there is still too little awareness of the impact of certain types of torture, including those involving music—this despite widespread media coverage of the CIA’s use of music torture in the “War on Terror,” and extensive research on this topic, most notably by musicologist Suzanne Cusick. The debate on what does and does not constitute torture continues to develop, in tandem with our understanding of mental health and wellbeing more generally. The trend we are now seeing in very many countries towards belittling and challenging the evidence of torture risks negating all of the advances made over the past decades in the fight against torture. It plays into the hands of those who torture, who know that the worst scars torture leaves are often also those that are most difficult to prove in court. And this is not the only way in which we are failing survivors. In a report published in 2013, the British NGO Freedom from Torture drew attention to the impact of poverty on the life of many survivors of torture living in the UK. The report contains stories of people unable to afford to travel to therapy appointments, and one severely malnourished survivor who was unable to afford enough food to put on weight—something which, according to his doctor, was essential for his recovery.

The UN Convention Against Torture does not simply prohibit torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It obligates states to prevent torture and to help rehabilitate survivors—including those who are seeking asylum or have been classed as refugees. In steering a course which demonstrably makes this less possible, governments can become complicit in acts of torture committed by other states, acts that for many survivors do not, cannot simply stop when they are released. A few years ago I spoke to a man whose uncle had been forced to sing the songs of the political opponents that had imprisoned him. When released, he continued to sing the songs in private: he was terrified in case he was rearrested, and had forgotten how to sing them. No final resolution for him, no perfect cadence, only the constant encore of his trauma, unfinished. ¶