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La petite musique des territoires

Nicolas Canova
Philippe Bourdeau
Olivier Soubeyran

Troisième partie. La musique : un outil réflexif pour les sciences du territoire


Stanley Waterman

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1Why, as a geographer, I should have an interest in music – the simple answer to which is that it relates to places and to the people inhabiting those places and helps in appreciating differences among them. Like others, geographers are interested in music because sounds evoke images, which resound and echo our thoughts. Though much of what we hear around us is unorganized or just loosely structured some scarcely ordered sounds such as the sounds of nature or those created through human activity can make sense when people learn to interpret them.

2Music is a human invention, consciously developed over the centuries to reflect thoughts and emotions. (Though birdsong is occasionally referred to as music, strictly speaking it is not; it is our interpretation that makes it seem such). Music is an art form and like other art forms, people express their innermost feelings through it. It is a medium enabling people to interact with their fellow humans, often more effectively than language, which frequently proves a barrier to contact. Music is regularly called a universal language, though this is often quite far from the truth, for like language, music can be and often is divisive. Music genres are myriad, reflecting diversity in human societies, cultures and ingenuity. And, as with all cultural artifacts, sociofacts and mentifacts, music is in flux. From diverse points of origin it diffuses by adopting and adapting elements originating elsewhere, metamorphosing and augmenting as the genres meld.

3How we relate to music in the contemporary world differs from our relationship with it in the past. Music is now ubiquitous and indirect: many more people listen to it than make it. Recorded music has been available for over a century in a variety of formats and today it is relentlessly broadcast on radio and TV; it can be heard in shops and hospitals, in buses and bathrooms and is in your ears walking in the park or travelling. Through the Internet, almost any genre of music is accessible whenever we choose to listen. This is worth putting into historical perspective. Music performed specifically for a public dates from only the 18th century, and even then it was not for mass audiences.

4Music has often been associated with the performance of religious rites; in Europe, the church was its main patron. However, it has long since become a secular art form and becoming secular, patronage became an issue. The pool of potential patrons broadened with fierce competition for the prestige offered through supporting music. People in important positions used music to embellish their status. As the state appropriated patronage and, more recently, as corporate business became a major sponsor, some genres of music particularly became a tool in the hands of the powerful.

5As a tool for maintaining power and control and one that stirs the emotions, music thus becomes a natural target for “guardians of culture” or cultural policemen who wish to set the tone for society or even to control it. The suppression of music performance by authorities and the censorship and outright banning of particular genres of music are political statements, similar to the adoption and replacement of national anthems. Examples are the Soviet authorities persecution of Dmitri Shostakovich for composing ‘formalist’ music, unappealing to the masses, Singapore’s campaign in the 1980s against English rock and pop music for causing a ‘ moral panic’and the deeply-rooted anathema to the music of Richard Wagner among some sectors of Israeli society, linked to his strong anti-Semitism, and how his work influenced and was used by the Nazis. Of course, it goes without saying that not all music genres need either patrons or policemen.

6The case of Wagner – a special musical bête-noire – in Israel is interesting. Like others before, Zubin Mehta, the musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra attempted and failed to perform Wagner in Israel in 1981. Mehta’s colleague, Daniel Barenboim, almost caused a real riot 20 years later when he conducted a Wagner bis. He responded to hostile audience members by saying that he had simply promised not to present Wagner as part of the programme. The Education Committee of Israel’s parliament voted to boycott Barenboim, to make him “a cultural persona non grata” until a public apology was forthcoming. This generated an angry exchange in the newspapers in which one correspondent wrote that not only would most of the committee not be able to distinguish Wagner’s music from that of Mahler but doubted if they had even heard of either.

7What aggravates this story is an underlying political issue: a debate between the public sensibilities of some and liberties taken by an elitist often wont to scoring political points in his struggle to influence Israelis to “normalize” their political views re Palestinians. The Wagner issue has little to do with the music per se but with the music enveloped within a political issue. It is emotive precisely because the music is secondary to national feelings. Mehta was “forgiven” as a foreigner unappreciative of public sensitivities. As an Israeli, Barenboim should have “known better” despite his view that Wagner’s music should not be confused with Wagner the man.

8The hullabaloo over whether to perform or ban Wagner was real but was irrelevant for all but a small – and declining – minority of the population, mostly German-speaking Jews from Central Europe who immigrated in the 1930s. After statehood in 1948, Western art music was perceived as a tool for raising Israel’s profile abroad but in the 65 years since, the position of “classical” music has been eroded, the loss stemming from three sources: its association with a social elite, competition with popular art forms and entertainment, and the general demise in school curricula of subjects deemed “less than practical” – among which music is one. The Israeli music scene became more problematical in the 1950s and 1960s when the music establishment not only found it difficult to involve immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa in Western art music but also to absorb them into most existing music institutions. There was a strong belief that immigrants should be carefully guided along a mapped-out route that would convert them from Jewish immigrant to Israeli citizen, a policy that was resisted, amplifying the kulturkampf. Moreover, purveyors of popular western culture worked hard to make their “products” more readily available and pop cultures, contemptuous of tradition and all forms of art culture, added further spice. As the very essence of art music was to remove it from the mundane, this enhanced sensitivity to it as an elitist enterprise.

9Far from being a universal language, music seems especially divisive when compared with other art forms. Differences in musical practice and tastes exaggerate distinctions. In comparison, theatre is ecumenical, reflecting social diversity; dance and the visual arts have long been used to promote non-European facets of Israeli culture.

10All this aggravates dilemmas in the state’s allocation for arts support. Western art music now has to compete openly for funds with other musical genres that may have come into in political – and cultural – favour. As functionaries from new political elites assume power, genres such as Mediterranean music or cantorial music benefit within this zero-sum game. Likewise, festivals of distinct music genres attract discrete populations. Furthermore, Israelis are increasingly in contact with global popular cultures, a process abhorred by nationalists, as it exposes Israelis to harmful foreign influences, though countering it is hardly practicable in an open democracy.

11There is a struggle for the hearts and minds of music followers in Israel for music is not a universal means of communication. Separation is the means by which it is carried on.


Université d’Haïfa

© CNRS Éditions, 2014

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