Nonclassical & Freedom from Torture presents: KAFKA FRAGMENTS

We’ve been very privileged to help out in the programming and organisation of a super-exciting event in aid of the charity Freedom from Torture. As part of a whole month of gigs, including Iceage at the Shacklewell Arms and Bombay Bicycle Club at KOKO, the charity are working with biting point faves Nonclassical to bring a programme of contemporary music to the legendary Dalston experimental venue Café OTO, engaging specifically with the charity’s work in providing therapy, support and assistance to survivors of torture. the biting point‘s home team – Carmen Elektra Opera Collective – were also brought in to help out…

freedom a3 poster NONCLASSICNEWOTO-01


  • selections from Kafka Fragments (Kurtág) – Shie Shoji, soprano/Aisha Orazbayeva, violin
  • Restraint for Handcuffed Pianist (Harry) – Eldon Fayers, piano
  • Scars (Whitley) – a new chamber opera presented by Carmen Elektra Opera Collective
  • new chamber pieces by Laurence Osborn, William Marsey, Gregor Riddell and Thom Andrewes, based on texts written by survivors of torture and organised violence as part of Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life workshop

Freedom from Torture’s month-long festival, scheduled to coincide with International Human Rights Day last Monday, features a huge number of artists and performers working across different genres, volunteering their time and talent to raise money and awareness. But in programming this event, we wanted to engage more directly with the particular work of the charity, in ways that the other nights weren’t necessarily able to.

Our starting point was the idea of collaborating with Freedom from Torture’s writing therapy group – Write to Life – a workshop in which survivors of torture and organised violence are provided a creative outlet for their experiences. It was suggested to commission a series of new works setting texts written by Write to Life writers, on the theme of the ‘Kafkaesque’ in relation to the UK asylum process, and the often-dehumanising, alienating bureaucracy faced in dealing with the Home Office.

Music and Human Rights

As I’ve stressed repeatedly on this blog, classical music is oddly reticent to deal with such issues on a specific, personal or political level. It is assumed (and constantly restated) by many in the classical world that their music has a lot to say about the ‘human condition’, about the overcoming of adversity, about resilience and strength of ‘spirit’, about how our humanity will win through and how there’s always hope to be found, etc etc. Basically universal humanist ideas which can be vaguely linked to most political backgrounds in some way. Even at its most ‘political’ or ‘engaged’, canonical classical music rarely has much to say on a specific or personal level (beyond what can be mapped onto the composer’s own biography). While a work might make a statement ‘against war’ or stand as a monument to a particularly horrific event, or to victims of violence or suffering, it normally makes these statements in very broad affective strokes – ‘horror’, ‘outrage’, ‘hope’, ‘reconciliation’. It’s very rare that a work seems to feel capable of taking a more nuanced stance, or making a more complex argument, about such events or experiences, beyond: ‘this was bad’, ‘we must remember’, ‘there is hope’, ‘they couldn’t take our humanity/pride/faith’ or whatever. And even these works are pretty few and far between, even in the twentieth century. [initiate rant… feel free to skip over…]

[Of course, for many, it’s the very abstractness – the ‘universality’ – of such stances which make them worthwhile, and prevents them from being turned into propaganda for, or against, a particular political movement. Such pieces are instead supposedly autonomous repositories for transcendent humanity – grief, sorrow, anger and reconciliation – which are open to all, providing no solutions besides catharsis and an opportunity to feel collectively. Classical music is supposed to have the virtue of communicating across political ideologies (speaking instead to some kind of innate, shared ‘humanity’ which is supposedly separate from society but also more spiritual than biological), and for this to function it would need to be absolutely apolitical, and outside of ideology (which is, according to theorists such as Louis Althusser, impossible – we’re all always already within ideology). There might be some value to this kind of autonomous ‘bipartisan’ space (were it actually possible), but it would also be very limited indeed, and – as far as I’m concerned – far more susceptible to co-option as propaganda: glossing over the vital specifics of historical events, their material causes and effects, the real people involved and affected, in favour of an impartial ‘Well of Affect’.
For example, in an old New York Times article: ‘What “high art” music can resist better than other comparable art forms is being used as a specific instrument of propaganda. The adoption of the Beethoven Ninth by the Nazis, grotesque as it was, did not damage that work’s power to function in the future as a celebration of human solidarity.’  But what is this ‘human solidarity’ that is apparently still being ‘celebrated’ by Beethoven’s Ninth? Is it democratic liberalism? Is it the integrating powers of free-market capitalism? Is it globalisation? Is it socialism? Is it the United Nations? Is it just good old-fashioned Republicanism? It is, of course, all and none of these things, although I would argue that most humans on the planet don’t know what Beethoven’s Ninth sounds like, and a good number of those who do wouldn’t necessarily recognise its melodies immediately as ‘a celebration of human solidarity’, until they’re taught that that’s what it is, and even then the specifics of who is included in this solidarity, and who is even considered a ‘human’ (fans of Beethoven?), are unclear. If classical music is so autonomous and free from the material world of society and politics, why shouldn’t it be as suited to Nazi ideology as it is to Western humanism? Beethoven’s Ninth was only ‘not damaged’ by the Nazis because we say it wasn’t (or the Classical establishment says it wasn’t), just as it’s only a ‘celebration of human solidarity’ rather than a ‘celebration of German supremacy’ because that’s what we want it to be. Because we like the piece, and want to keep hearing it, and we also like human solidarity (but not communism, of course. There is such thing as too much solidarity…). I’d concede that it’s a ‘celebration’ of something, but the specifics are purposefully evaded, in order not to disturb the universalism (which is, by the way, in some way ‘innately’ humanist-liberal-democratic). In this way, its ‘ethical’ or ‘political’ value is highly debatable. And some people prefer it that way, I’m sure, but to say that that’s how classical music ‘should be’ is unnecessarily restrictive, especially if you believe that art can be used as a force for positive progressive change in the world.]

As I’ve also said repeatedly on this blog, I really do think that classical music is incredibly well-placed to make these arguments, to get into complex issues and combine the affective with the intellectual and the ethical, in ways that other art-forms are expected to do. And so it might need some sort of linguistic frame – either a text to be set, or titles, or a written text to add specific associations or contextual details to a musical model or rhetoric – but you have to stop expecting that all of the potential of music must be expressed completely abstractly in sound for it to be valid, just because some of its potential can be interestingly and uniquely expressed in that way.

Much of canonical classical music’s potential for ‘political’ comment comes from the manipulation and combination of its most established ‘affective’ materials: minor keys vs. major keys, larger forces vs. solo voices, military tropes vs. lyrical, song-like tropes, borrowings from nationalist, traditional or religious musics which are the most obvious way of referring to a particular group or context. This kind of thing might have spoken volumes in the revolutionary 19th-century period, during the turmoil and wars of the early 20th-century period and (as is most commonly cited) in resistance to Stalinist totalitarianism, but such techniques can only say so much about a situation or scenario and can (ironically) be culpable of severely simplifying, to the level of propaganda, some very complicated political situations and eras – the perfect artistic equivalent to war memorials and monuments.

Getting specific, getting personal

Since its beginnings, pop music has been a lot more interested in exploring the extremely complicated politics of our age than classical music has, and the use of original lyrics has, of course, been crucial to that. But there are plenty of exciting instances, very recently, in which composers have taken ‘verbatim’ texts and set them in order to bring out political nuances or make statements both critical and emancipatory, or just accord these texts the particular significance of ‘performance’. Examples of this include Ted Hearne‘s Katrina Ballads, David T. Little‘s Soldier SongsCorey Dargel‘s Last Words from Texas and Melissa Dunphy‘s Gonzales Cantata, and also Steve Reich‘s WTC 9/11. Even on the relatively apolitical UK scene, on the Nonclassical label itself, we can hear Tansy Davies‘s ‘Greenhouses’, a setting of an email home from activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed while defending a Palestinian family’s home from illegal demolition by an Israeli military bulldozer.

It is with this recent tradition of ‘verbatim’ text settings in mind that we should approach the five new works being written for this event. There are very particular and interesting differences to these settings and their performance on Thursday, of course. The texts themselves are poems and accounts written to express terrible experiences and difficult emotions in a creative, constructive manner, not recorded statements. The writers will be present at the performance, and will themselves read some of their work. The whole process in this way is more collaborative, yet there is potentially an even greater potential for misrepresentation, since these texts were carefully composed (and published in anthologies) to stand as testimony of the writers’ memories, impressions and interpretations of their lived experiences.

So the process of transforming them into performed musical events is a similar one to the verbatim texts explored in the pieces listed above. It is a process of restatement, of re-engagement, of constantly returning to these accounts not as evidence to be acknowledged but as personal cries of outrage or defiance, telling of present, ongoing tribulations rather than memorialising past events. Performed musical or theatrical works cannot exist as documents filed in a cabinet somewhere, they only exist in their reiteration (be it live performance or playback of a recording), and it is in this reiterative aspect that the core value of such projects must lie.

I like to think that this process will also invite a reassessment of the importance of the writing as poetry, not just as the byproduct of therapy or as a record of past injustice, but of its role in the work of this ‘human rights’-focused charity and especially in implicating the personal (and therefore political) aspects which cannot be dealt with simply by the charity but must be highlighted and targeted through society if positive change will ever come, in this country and internationally.

The composers that have been commissioned to write these pieces come from quite different stylistic backgrounds, while the ensembles involved vary quite drastically, and I’m very excited to hear the different ways in which this undeniably challenging composition brief is met by each.

Kafka-esque Fragments

Minding the Gap by Amina Abdalla
Some days 
it is harder than others
to Mind the Gap
between life
and death.

The ‘Kafkaesque’ theme of the writings selected immediately suggested having György Kurtág‘s Kafka Fragments as our headline set. In its full form, Kurtág takes forty fragments from the writer’s letters and diaries, and forges them into miniatures for soprano and violin, which play with the syntactic and grammatic forms of these beautiful little aphorisms, as much as with their content. About half of the fragments deal in some way with the writer’s trademark alienation and quiet, laconic nihilism, while there are a good deal of more upbeat images and witticisms.

It was the ‘fragments’ aspect, as much as the ‘Kafka’ aspect, which turned me on to this as a lead piece. The autobiographical musings, wrought in fantastically poetic, sometimes proverbial form, seemed to rhyme meaningfully with a lot of the Write to Life poetry, which give us fragmentary glimpses into lives and memories which we know to be full of hidden troubles and probably more complex than we could conceive of. Kurtág’s settings, which take a few listenings to get into, take each fragment as a standalone idea rather than searching for some more significant biographical place within the bigger ‘work’ that is the writer’s life. The concatenation of fragments, linked by instrumentation, does give us the impression of a larger form, but it is an impression which comes from the multiplicity of fragments, rather than from the sense of something bigger which remains unheard.

This is all that these new pieces can hope to achieve. There is no ‘bigger work’ which is the lives of any of these individual writers, far too real and expansive to render into a mere musical composition. We have only these poems and stories, and what they add up to, and that is more than enough – I believe – to show us something of the huge problems facing statehood, nationhood, international migration and the ‘global community’ when it comes to deciding what or who is to be considered fully ‘human’, when we become ‘asylum-seeker’, ‘citizen’, ‘person’, and the problems that such categories might cause as the sea levels rise and resources diminish…

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