Martial Music

Culture, civilization, humanity: all these things are far too important and sensitive to be left to the judgement of the endless parade of smug, amoral assholes who, somehow, have an opinion on every conceivable thing that might briefly dazzle their eyes or vibrate their smart phones. Yet there they are everyday, in the papers and magazines, on the computer and television screens.

Twelve years ago, men who had found a cause greater than themselves — terrible as it was — flew planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. Shortly afterward, men whose causes were exactly themselves began a program to spy, torture, murder and destroy. For a short time, there seemed the chance that the terrible cause of 9/11 might be answered with a far greater one that would triumph both strategically and morally. But it took only the slightest bit of thinking things through to realize that George W. Bush, who spent that day in hiding after showing the world the face of abject fear, was a coward, and he had surrounded himself with fearful old men and courtiers like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. The establishment class believes in the corporate-hierarchical structure of organization, and when the boss is terrified witless, even those who don’t emulate him sure as shit are not going to stick their necks out. When his cause is revenge, it becomes theirs.

Of course, Bush et. al. were just our rulers, with a minor and ephemeral effect on culture and civilization. It’s our asshole class who do the permanent damage. Ever notice how everyone in the Political-Media Industrial Complex uses that stupid word “folks” for “people?” That came from Bush, but without everyone repeating it on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and everywhere else, it would have left with him. Now we’re stuck with it. Just as we’re stuck with Afghanistan, Iraq, Gitmo, kidnapping, torture, the NSA security state. We are stuck witnessing the end of the American experiment in representative democracy, we are left with the maimed, the dead.

There’s been nothing in mass culture to point this out, respond to it, say “no,” say there are other things. In the culture of words, there are of course the obvious criminals like Bush, Rummy, Cheney, Rice, Colin Powell, Judy Miller, Michael O’Hanlon, Anne-Marie Slaughter, but their profession was the simplistic, orgiastic celebration of the destruction that could be reaped by high explosives and high velocity projectiles, so they are guilty of fulfilling their own inhumanity. The culture or writers who get paid money because of their personal relationships with certain editors is guiltier. People like Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and George Packer claim a greater ability to think critically than you or I, and on the most important question they faced, they somehow could not find the caloric energy to turn one more newspaper page, look at one more source or story. No one was paying me to write or talk in 2002 and 2003 when I was seeing how the IAEA kept asking the CIA for the WMD sites to inspect, and the CIA kept not telling them. But my words come free of charge, so what do they matter to the business of journalism or media?

The point of the Iraq war, the political and strategic goal, was put clearly and eloquently by, of course, America’s foremost foreign policy pundit, Thomas Friedman:

Revenge, bullying, intimidation. Kill a bunch of people so they’ll be scared of us. Such a goal would have been properly effected by killing such massive numbers of Iraqis that the population would have been cowed like slaves. The only thing that prevented this was Rumsfeld’s wet-dream of high-tech warfare and reluctance to spend money on soldiers rather than machines.

There was no other goal. There were the slogans about WMD and Saddam and torture rooms. Just slogans, catchphrases. If they had been set to music by some enterprising right-wing Hanns Eisler, they might have even been hummable. And there were the Kleins, the Yglesias’, the Packers, and the horrible, repulsive Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, stroking their chins with one hand and their dicks with the other, both spurring and quenching their bloodlust (as long as it was non-White, non-Christian blood), quivering with the combination of their fear and their self-importance. They dreamed of being big, important voices amidst important events, but they were and are small, forgettable, and they have diminished our era.

You don’t respond to this successfully with words, which is why the surprisingly quick release of anti-war movies (and the fascinating one-season series Over There never had a strong or lasting effect — the Political-Media Industrial Complex had the monopoly on words, and the exhaustion of hearing them over and over again on the twenty-four hour news cycles left no room to turn them back around.

There has been, amazingly, little music with any reach that has tried to counter the losses of the last dozen years. I’ve heard and seen a few things during that stretch but nothing that was any better than agreeable sentimentality. Yes, war is bad, it’s worth saying but doing so doesn’t guarantee compelling music. The problem isn’t that war is bad, the problem is that the war was launched in part by cultural forces who then turned their backs on it, like a ship shoved out to sea, adrift and inevitably to run into something and crush it. But that would be someone else’s problem, not worth airtime and column inches. Saying war is bad doesn’t cut it, because the usual dreary suspects will agree and drop the rest down the memory hole. Music needs to say something different and do something else.

And now it has. There are two CDs out this year that are about how we get to wars and how we end up after, these wars and all wars, the music on them coming out of very different ideas and means. Together they make a dialogue with each other and the listener. One recording is Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s latest collaboration, Holding it Down, and it is utterly great, the other is David T. Little’s dramatic composition Soldier Songs, for baritone and chamber group, and while it’s not as consistent, it achieves points of important, profound greatness.

Holding it Down is the third work from Iyer and Ladd, following In What Language? and Still Life With Commentator. These are all records, but they’re also music drama works that are meant for the stage, hybrids of jazz and pop styles, poetry, rapping and singing that are quasi-operas and also some sort of new form. We need more observation and evidence before that can be identified, because these are the only examples of it, and the progress from the first to the newest disc and shows that Iyer and Ladd are still exploring the possibilities.

In What Language is a great work concerning the place and status of Americans not blessed by the accident of birth with white skin, living in a country that is suspicious and fearful of anyone with a funny name, a funny accent, a funny religion, political views not mirroring the non-existent range between the numbing pablum of Sunday talk shows and the flop-sweat idiocy of Fox News. It grows in power with each listen, not only because its themes will be vital as long as America endures, but because Ladd’s libretto is beautifully, skillfully evocative and elusive. He has had a middling hip-hop career, mainly because he is too fine and complex a writer to be contained within the simplistic rhyme schemes and the materialistic, egocentric pop culture concerns the genre demands in what is turning out to be a long decadent phase.

Holding it Down is even better, musically and lyrically, and is some kind of necessary masterpiece. In What Language had Ladd writing for multiple voices, the new work is made by multiple voices, with the veterans Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill joining Ladd. The subtitle is “The Veterans Dreams project” and that’s the subject, dreams of war before, during and after: kids playing at war, the hallucinatory experience of war, the dreams that come ever after. Decaul and Hill wrote and perform the bulk of the material, and the range of experiences and attitudes pushes the weight and depth of the piece to the sad limits. Iyer’s music is unobtrusive, simple, subtle, blending genres rather than crossing them. It’s a thematic focus with a quiet, inexorable power.

The plainspoken language is its core strength, and along with Phil Kline’s great Zippo Songs affirms for me that in musically depicting war, plain language is a necessity. Holding it Down although an entirely different genre, joins a universe that includes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem I am an apostate in stating that Britten’s piece is a failure, and it’s a failure because it uses the incredible poetry of Wilfred Owen. The poet found his voice in World War I, and wrote about the unspeakable and the horrific in plain, exacting language set in simple, formal structures. It can’t be improved upon, and the distortions that come in when setting words to musical line in art music damage and weaken the point, the meaning.

What Holding it Down does is set the language of the memory of war, plain spoken language of everyday people with metaphors about neighborhoods, friends, pop culture, to music that sounds like you might hear from a passing car or open apartment music. It’s the sounds of everyday life, except the people who are living that life next to yours went through an extraordinary experience that the Political-Media Industrial Complex (including the supposed ‘good guys’ at MSNBC) don’t want you to know about. If we all knew war was murder and maiming and destruction, or if we were all conscripted like in the past, and got to experience the stupidity and incompetence of the men and women in suits and uniforms that we are supposed to respect, then war might not be such a casual, telegenic thing for America, it might be a serious thing, meant for the worst possible occasions. And everyday Americans might find that there really isn’t such a things as an existential threat from terrorists, that it’s just the fearful chatter of cosseted cowards.

The language of Soldier Songs is very different, but belongs to the same universe. Little wrote the words himself, based on conversations he had with veterans of five wars — think on that, in the supposedly enlightened contemporary era there are Americans who are veterans of five wars. Little may not think of himself as a librettist, but his text is superior in content, expression and musicality to what Royce Vavreck supplied him for the recent opera, Dog Days. It’s also, in context, superior to the War Requiem, because it’s made to be sung out of spoken words. Like Holding it Down, the record comes out of direct personal experience. Unlike it, it is dramatic music in the Western Classical tradition, and so has a deliberate artifice. This sometimes hurts the piece. Little at times gets caught in the accepted styles of classical art songs, which in this context come off as arch and weak. This is a centuries old problem composers face when making songs with forceful content, and I think Little would have been better served to trust his usual instinct for immediacy. His roots are in hardcore music, and when he sticks with them, as he does for the most part, they serve the meaning vigorously.

It’s a sad, angry, clear-eyed piece, unsentimental. The long epilogue that layers the voices of vets trying to talk about their experiences over a dark drone reaches into the body and squeezes the soul. The highpoint is the tenth song, “Two Marines,” the song of a father who sees two Marines come up his walk and knows they have come to tell him his son is dead. So he goes out the back, pours gasoline on their car and sets it on fire. The few minutes this takes encapsulates the moral offense and outrage, the necessary fury that we should feel about people who send others to kill and die so they may feel a vicarious sense of power and purpose. From the ancient Greeks to us, from before and beyond, there is no way to explain, justify or apologize for that crime.

What this music can’t do, what nothing can do, is bring back those dead. Perhaps it might soothe the maimed, I have no idea. This music doesn’t soothe me and I sure as hell don’t want it to, I don’t want to be soothed, I want the notes and words and sounds to run like razor blades through my mind, to fuel a hard center of anger at the people who turned this country into just another place defined by borders, color, language and blood. Thanks to you, Rummy, we’re old Europe, really fucking old Europe. Thanks to you, Dianne Feinstein, for telling us we should be grateful that our every communication is being gathered by the NSA.

I hold no illusion these things can be fixed, made better. The dead can’t see our anger and tears, hear our apologies. How can we apologize anyway? We sent them to kill and die and destroy. That’s what war is, what it has always been. It’s also something that seems to come easily to men and women in suits and sinecures, Ivy League grads and affirmative action legacy hires who have to live with the enduring shame of not having actually earned their place, of not having to test their abilities and maturity through events. And so they lash out by proxy because, being fearful cowards, it makes them feel tough. This music won’t help them, because they are deaf and dumb and blind. All they have is their war toys, and all they are is children, and the world must suffer from their narcissistic infantilism.

UPDATED: fixed the name Decaul and a typo.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.