When Silence Is Calamitous

'Music, Politics, and Violence'

by Elisabeth Woronzoff

6 March 2013

“We cannot use music to keep our reflections on violence at some respectful distance. Indeed, we must uncover precisely how music does its cultural work, which is what the essays in this volume seek to do” (12).
cover art

Music, Politics, and Violence

(Wesleyan University Press)
US: Oct 2012

Music may trigger violence; violence may be rooted in music. The relationship between the two is frequently considered linear and causative. Often this connection is left unexplored and it is mistakenly assumed that music is intrinsic to many conflicts. The consideration of the larger social, political, and economic conditions that intersect with and inform music and violence is infrequent. Until now. This collection of essays, Music, Politics, and Violence, edited by Susan Fast and Kip Pegley, untangles the mercurial intersection of music and violence as constructed and shaped by politics, national boundaries, ethnic identification, and global change etc. As the editors contend in the introduction, “We cannot use music to keep our reflections on violence at some respectful distance. Indeed, we must uncover precisely how music does its cultural work, which is what the essays in this volume seek to do” (12).

In the introduction, Fast and Kipley attempt to draw connections between the essays and situate the volume within a theoretical framework. The first framework uses Slavoj Žižek’s categorization of violence and the subsequent constructions of identity and nationhood as related to notions of otherness and belonging. Next is a revisiting of Judith Butler’s and Gayarti Spivak’s consideration of the nation; a framework that draws connections to Wendy Brown’s deconstruction of tolerance and sovereignty. Finally, the editors put Butler’s analysis of media frames in dialogue with Sharon Rosenberg’s analysis of public memorials.

The introduction is theoretically dense and built upon the works of theorists whose writing is at times seemingly incomprehensible. Apparently, the editors realize this and attempt to render the theories more readable, breaking down the theories and summarizing the larger arguments. Yet at times it becomes tedious and difficult to follow. However, once the actual essays begin, the readability and accessibility increases while the academic jargon diminishes.

The book is divided into three sections. Part I: Objective and Subjective Violences examines the connection between music, violence, and war and the role of music in causing emotional and physical harm. The creation of the categories defining difference, othering, and social, emotional, and political severance are prevalent throughout this section.

Part II: Violence and Reconciliation scrutinizes the use of music as a means to bridge cultural and political expanses, challenges oppressions, and demonstrates the multiplicity of communities. Interestingly, this chapter also discusses the use of fictitious cultural harmony as a means to reinforce tourism and governmental programs. For example in “Choreographing (against) Coup Culture: Reconciliation and Cross-Cultural Performance in the Fiji Islands”, Kevin Miller suggests that “music and dance, whether ethnically marked or deliberately cross-cultural, [is] a critical site for nation making in Fiji” (172). It thereby shapes Fiji as a harmonious state ripe for foreign consumption. 

Part III: Musical Mermorializations of Violent Pasts identifies the ways in which music enables but also immobilizes memory. Here the authors also see music as a factor in shaping current political and social affairs while enabling the erasure of past turmoil. For example, Amy Lynn Wlodarski’s essay suggests that the reappropriation of the musical composition Jüdische Chronik was less about remembering the holocaust and more about harboring support for the Cold War.

The other essays vary in themes ranging from the politicization of musical life as a means of delineating symbolic violence and constructing the socially problematic categories of German and non-German; a chapter analyzing the WWII song “Lili Marlene”; an exploration of the diegetic and non-diegetic sound in American news broadcasts; a deconstruction of the protests songs in the Al-Aqsa Intifada; and a comparative analysis of the narratives generated by the Peruvian Truth Commission as a means to control not only memory but also remembrance. The connective trope throughout demonstrates how music is often utilized as a tool to cause political and social separation and violence. Nonetheless, it also influences our engagement in conflict and affects our ability to create communities, emphasize, remember, but also to heal.

In general the essays demonstrate a balanced perspective between the historical, musical, and theoretical contexts. This serves as one of the volume’s strengths, as many essays evoke historical events and political regimes that might not be familiar to all readers. For example, the short descriptions of the tensions and conflicts between Islam and the West in Pax Mevlana’s “Mevlevi Sufi Music and the Reconciliation of Islam and the West” are particularly helpful.

Another essay that expertly demonstrates this point is “The Afterlife of Neda Ukraden: Negotiating Space and Memory through Popular Music after the Fall of Yugoslavia, 1990-2008” by Catherine Baker. This is a revisionist history of Yugolsavian folk singer Neda Ukraden, whose music “was used in the service of symbolic violence [as] songs were revised to make certain artists disappear and erase a history” (36). The time devoted to historical context serves to position the readers within the standpoint of the author and case study thereby very clearly elucidating the authors’ thesis. Baker, as well as Mevlana, both flawlessly engage the history, social, and political events as entwined with music: this clearly engenders the entire purpose of the collection.

More so, as each essay is constructed around a case study, this skillfully exhibits the overlap of theory and practice and ultimately expresses the importance of music in everyday lives. This is well reflected in the afterword, “From Voice to Violence and Back Again,” where J. Martin Daughtry considers the voice in conjunction with music and violence. As Daughtry contends: “the things we say and sing and shout generate effects in the world. They can inspire and intimidate, tickle and infuriate. Their vibrations set other bodies in motion… provoking thought, bemusement, pain, confusion, and other sundry delayed reaction. At its most powerful, vocal performance contains within itself the notional possibility of reconfiguring the world” (247). The same can be said of music, violence, and writing which expresses and communicates narratives “when words leave off” (8) but silence is calamitous.

Each section of the book is compromised of only three essays at most. In many cases, especially Part III: Musical Mermorializations of Violent Pasts, the inclusion of more essays would only strengthen Music, Politics, and Violence by further unpacking the subject matter. The consideration of extensive subject matters such as objective symbolic violence, reconciliation, and memorialization fit together, yet at time it is too theoretically unrestrained. A more narrow point of focus could aid readers who are unfamiliar with this subject or the musical and critical theory. This would also widen the audience, which from the beginning is limited to those who want to wade through highly coded language.

Arguably, each section of the volume could be developed into self-defined books. Though a pithy analysis of the subject is not an issue with Music, Politics, and Violence, brevity is one of the problems with a text that breaks new ground. Similarly at no point do the authors or editors suggest that Music, Politics, and Violence is a complete collection and thus it should not be judged as such. The fact that this book only begins to broach the subject of the entwinement of music and violence serves to open the area to further investigation, personal reflection, and deeper scholarship. Much as the authors suggest that “we afford space to think about music intellectually as an active agent rather than as a passive art” (27), this text also serves to empower the reader to consider the creative, violent, and political possibilities developed by music.

It is likely that readers will engage the subject matter with questions that directly reflect their standpoints and our relationships to music. Since the entire book is centered on global case studies, readers will find similarities and contrasts across the essays but also within their own personal perspectives. This is the joy when discovering new subjects.

When I asked to review this book, I thought that this text might reflect the larger conversations examining how music causes violence; essentially the linear understanding mentioned earlier in this review. However, this volume immediately made clear the need to reconsider this relationship as much more complicated and interconnected with larger social conditions. Thus, I realized that my position was completely lacking and only reflecting the narrowness of the established scholarship.

Accordingly, Music, Politics, and Violence  makes room for developing new discussions and considerations. This collection of essays facilitates a critical and nuanced approach to understanding music and violence and the points of convergence with society and politics.

Music, Politics, and Violence


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