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Torture at Harvard’s “Hearing Modernity”


If you have been on a subway having to put up with someone else’s loud music you might have called it torture, though under the legal definition of torture, that description would not hold up. Irritating, maybe it was annoying, but not torture. So we were informed at Harvard’sHearing Modernity.” After a hiatus of six weeks, the series was again underway, momentum clearly unimpeded. All seats in Holden Chapel were occupied Monday for Session 3, “Sound, Torture and Surveillance.”

Leading off, Suzanne Cusick, Professor of Music College of Arts and Science, New York University, summarized her paper distributed earlier online, “Resoundings Hearing Worlds from the Global War on Terror.” Better known for her extensive work on gender and sexuality in relation to musical cultures, Cusick has recently studied the use of sound in detention and interrogation of prisoners held during the 21st-century’s “war on terror.”

Following her, Thomas Y. Levin, Professor of German, Princeton University, who teaches media theory and history, cultural theory, intellectual history and aesthetics, summarized his “Music, Torture and the Aesthetic Politics of the Playlist.” He conceived and curated an exhibition Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, which opened at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruche.

Though both Cusick and Levin live on the same street in New York City, the former told us that they had not consulted each other on the papers they had prepared for this series. At times, however, they did find themselves agreeing. Their succinct and speedily delivered summaries were not always easy to grasp. But with the questioning and conversing taking on a more informal tone from both, plenty of clarity and comprehensibility surfaced.

Of the salient points made during the question and answer session lasting an hour and one half, many had to do with playlists. How were they created? Were they curated at the top or bottom, ordered or randomized lists? The presenters were not privy to such information. What we learned was that there are two staples in the use of music as torture: how loud and how prolonged the music is played. Cusick suggested that playlists had to avoid certain pre-selected compilations of music, ones, say, that might have prisoners “grooving.”

Technology has dramatically increased the use of music as torture, shuffling, looping being the most used. One pre-50s example was cited, a gramophone record bent in order to create distortion had some degree of effectiveness in causing pain. Levin had us recall Nicholas Slonimsky’s “Lexion of Musical Invective,” in which the reader finds a plethora of references to pain experienced through music going back several centuries.

Another key issue was the effect of sound torture on detainees. Both Cusick and Levin referred to subjectivity, the undermining or loss of it during sessions of pain induced by sound, or music. A detainee had reported welcoming the sound of his own voice and that of the interrogator after being subjected to prolonged sonic torture, this, even with the music still being heard during his interrogation but from some distance. Counter intuitive was the case of a recovering ex-detainee who had previously endured intense sound torture asking his wife not to turn down the volume on the TV.

One questioner put forward the notion that highly dissonant, painful music could become “legible” in the context of a horror movie. Imagery contributes to legibility in music.

Finally, activism and ethics vis-à-vis our privacy entered the conversation. Germany, Levin informed us, has strict legislation on sound environments. If you think your neighbor is too loud, you have a legal right to ask for quiet. Not so in our “wild west” where our right to a private sound space does not yet exist.

So, what does one do on an American subway where there is loud music playing?

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David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.






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