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Cyprus Internet Directory [ Liberty and music ]

Liberty and music

NORTH Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is one of the world’s most oppressive, closed, and vicious dictatorships. It is perhaps the last living example of pure totalitarianism – control of the state over every aspect of human life. Is such a place the right venue for a Western orchestra? Can one imagine the New York Philharmonic, which performed to great acclaim in Pyongyang, entertaining Stalin or Hitler?

All totalitarian systems have one thing in common: by crushing all forms of political expression except adulation of the regime, they make everything political. There is no such thing in North Korea as non-political sports or culture. So there is no question that the invitation to the New York Philharmonic was meant to burnish the prestige of a regime, ruled by The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, whose standing is so low – even in neighboring China – that it needs all the burnishing it can get.

Interviews with some of the musicians revealed an awareness of this. A violinist was quoted as saying that “a lot of us are… not buying into this party line that music transcends the political.” She was “sure that it [would] be used by Pyongyang and our own government in attempting to make political points.” The conductor, Lorin Maazel, who chose a program of Wagner, Dvorak, Gershwin, and Bernstein, was less cynical. The concert, he said, would “take on a momentum of its own,” and have a positive effect on North Korean society.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But could he possibly be right? No one, not even Maazel, pretends that one concert by a great Western orchestra can blow a dictatorship away, but authoritarians’ wariness of the subversive power of music dates back to Plato’s Republic. In Plato’s view, music, if not strictly controlled, inflames the passions and makes people unruly. He wanted to limit musical expression to sounds that were conducive to harmony and order.

This, more or less, has been the line taken by dictatorships as well. The officially prescribed musical diet of North Koreans consists of patriotic hymns to the Communist Party, odes to the Dear Leader, to his father, the Great Leader, Kim Il-Song, and to the heroic spirit of the Korean people. Almost nothing else is permitted – except in the inner sanctum of the rulers themselves. The Dear Leader’s son, Kim Jong-chol, is said to be a fan of Eric Clapton. An invitation has now gone out to the British rock star to perform in North Korea, which really would be something new.

Rock music was severely restricted in Communist dictatorships, just as jazz was in Nazi Germany, for all the Platonic reasons: uncontrolled passions were seen as a threat to the perfect order of the state. Precisely because of this, “forbidden” music was politicized. Subversive youths in Hitler’s Germany – the “Swing Jugend” – secretly listened to jazz.

The air of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was electric with the imported sounds of the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. After the Soviet tanks put an end to the Prague Spring, a Russian policeman threatened one young Czech that he would “beat the Zappa music out” of him.

V?clav Havel was a fan of Zappa. So was a Czech rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe, who so upset the commissars that they were thrown in prison – not because they were engaged in political activities, but because, as their singer, Milan Hlavsa, put it, “we just wanted to do what we liked doing.”

Of course, that was the point. Hlavsa and his long-haired fans, celebrated in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, Rock n’Roll, didn’t want the state to spoil their party. They didn’t care what the commissars thought. They wanted to dance to their own tunes.

Obviously, Dvorak and Wagner are not Zappa and the Stones. And if Clapton came to Pyongyang at the government’s guest, he might not have enough “street cred” left to light the fuse of rebellion. When the Stones themselves finally performed in China, in 2003, they agreed to cut some of their racier numbers from the programme, because, as their local promoter put it, “They know there are differences between Chinese and Western cultures. They don’t want to do anything against the Chinese government.” So much for the spirit of 1968.

Nevertheless, Maazel may have a point. Performing good music in North Korea just might have a positive effect. Stalin’s empire needed no foreign classical orchestras. They had enough of their own. China no longer needed the Stones, either. There are plenty of rock bands in China already. But the stranglehold of North Korea’s dictatorship is based on total isolation.

For half a century, the North Koreans have been deprived of any art, ideas, or music not authorised by the state. They were told that North Korea was a heroic little country besieged by Satanic enemies, led by the United States. This permanent diet of paranoia has created something akin to a nationwide insane asylum, where ignorance, terror, and suspicion rule.

In such conditions, even a conventional programme of classical music by the New York Philharmonic comes as a gust of fresh air. It may not topple the dictatorship, but it will offer some solace to those who are forced to live in it. And that, for the time being, is a good enough reason to play.

n Ian Buruma is Professor of human rights at Bard College. His most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Killing of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.

© Project Syndicate

(Source: Cyprus Mail)

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