Monday, 16 November 2015

Music and Murder: Have our ears changed after the Paris attacks?

There are few moments where music has a direct semantic reference to concrete things: Beethoven did it in the various overtures to Fidelio - an off-stage trumpet meant an approaching army. With Napoleon at the gates of the city, most hearing this trumpet call in the Theater an der Wien in 1805 would have taken it as an explicit sign, rather than an abstract constituent of the music. Birtwistle has a telephone ringing in The Second Mrs Kong (ironically with a traditional bell which in its contemporary setting would now be be a kind of anachronism).

What we have now is the sound of rock music, heavy whining guitars, amplified vocals blasting out, with the entry of an arhythmic cork-popping rat-tat-tat sound accompanied with screaming. In the months and years from now, will we be able to hear this without making a direct association to the terrible events of the weekend? Have our ears changed?

That rat-tat-tat sound becomes a dull, terrible trope. Just like when we hear 'La donna e mobile' in Rigoletto, we know that trouble and tragedy are coming (Verdi's genius is to give his 'sign' the best tune!), so when we hear Palestrina, Beethoven, Bach or Mozart with a rat-tat-tat entry, it will stand for the opposite of what is expressed in the music.

9/11 afflicted our eyes with real-life images which we already knew from disaster movies. Paris may have changed our ears. That is a more profound thing.

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