Book Review: "Music, Politics and Violence"

Music, Politics and Violence. Edited by Susan Fast and Kip Pegley. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012. [viii, 308 p. ISBN 9780819573384. $35.00.] Bibliographical references, index.

Reviewed by Michael A. Figueroa

The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented boom in publications, conferences, and academic organizations devoted to the study of music and violence. Although throughout the history of the discipline ethnomusicologists have attended particularly well to the political nature of music making across the world, the intersection of music, identity, and acts of violence—military conflicts, genocide, or otherwise—is by comparison a relatively new phenomenon. The burgeoning of this field is due, in part, to the Society for Ethnomusicology’s decision to make its 2005 international conference theme “War, Peace, and Reconciliation,” followed by the release of a then-controversial “Position Statement on Music and Torture” in 2007 (Society for Ethnomusicology 2007). Since then, many new publications have appeared that focus primarily upon music as a form of resistance amidst armed conflict (e.g. Harrison 2008, McDonald 2009, Kartomi 2010, O’Connell and Castelo-Branco 2010) or as a state-sponsored weapon for use in offensive strikes and torture (e.g. Cusick 2006 and Pieslak 2009). This movement is not, however, without its predecessors, as figures such as ethnomusicologist Svanibor Pettan (1998) and anthropologists Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds (2000, 2001) had previously assembled landmark edited volumes promoting the academic study of violence. These early attempts at theorizing violence—one of the seemingly universal forms of human behavior throughout the world—laid much of the groundwork for a new crop of scholars to produce full-blown dissertations and ethnographic monographs.

In a sense, then, the intellectual history of music and violence is grounded in multivocality—the inherent multivocality of human conflict, of edited volumes, and of the ethnographic enterprise itself. Owing in no insignificant part to this last form of multivocality—that is, through the presentation and representation of multiple voices through ethnographic writing—there has also been a shift in scholars’ awareness that violence is itself multifaceted and indeed multivocal. There are many forms of violence: objective and subjective violence (Žižek 2008), symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1990), and of course the violence we enact through physical force. There are forms of spatial injustice (Harvey 2009) that we identify as its own kind of violence—the violence of oppression or immobility. Violence does not only happen on battlegrounds, killing floors, or in the gun-crazed United States. It is no more universal than music—certainly, it may occur in every corner of the globe, but to consider violence a unified or even broadly qualifiable field of practice is to commit a critical violence to the sheer diversity of practices for which we may use “violence” as short-hand. It is fitting, then, that Music, Politics, and Violence (2012), edited by Susan Fast and Kip Pegley, should embrace this multivocality and indeed turn it upon the concept of voice itself.

In their introduction, the editors present a clear theoretical framework for the volume. The discussion here is based around the work of a few well-known theorists: Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Susan Sontag. The authors’ technique for breaking down these sources is instructive for how ethnomusicologists ought to engage outside critical theory. They do not simply find a useful concept in Žižek, for example, and then attempt to extend all of his ideas to areas of music making to which those ideas do not offer much explanatory power. Instead, the authors identify overarching themes in the philosopher’s work that are helpful to the discussion while taking him to task on his rather uncritical attention to music. This method of inquiry is not a “gotcha” tactic for neutering critical discourse; on the contrary, it is a convincing method for unseating the ways in which music has been “naturalized,” “figured outside the social,” and limited in much critical discourse to the role of evocation—or worse, as the thing that “comes in when words fail” (see 7-12). The authors suggest that this tendency to deny or side-step social meaningfulness (8-9) is due either to the Romantic legacy or to those thinkers’ simple lack of technical facility with music. These critiques are integral to arguing a place for music’s and musicians’ capacity to intervene in situations marked by violence; these critiques, in other words, play a major role in explaining the very purpose of the volume.

Fast and Pegley do not devote much space to explaining the volume’s place within the context of the growing music and violence field but instead focus on defining in positive terms what the volume does seek to accomplish moving forward. In one sense, I find no major fault with this, as theoretically ambitious introductions like this one often become overwhelmed by attending to what has been written in the past. The authors do engage another recent, related volume that is also noteworthy for its overt multivocality: Music and Conflict (2010), edited by John Morgan O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (see Wissner 2012 for review). In an attempt to perhaps distance the two volumes, Fast and Pegley write:

[W]e come to understand [conflict] as a relative concept that is intrinsically dependent upon the context within which it is situated. For instance, conflict could be identified as such for strategic purposes rendering it plausible that what might be considered as conflict within one cultural setting might be overlooked within another. It is for this reason that musicological and ethnomusicological studies are needed to more fully understand the multifaceted ways in which conflict is expressed and interpreted cross-culturally. (2012:2, emphasis in original)

Further below, they add: “[O]ur choice of the term violence in this volume, over the more commonly used conflict, is a deliberate departure from existing literature” (ibid., emphasis in original). The irony of this statement is that what the volume precisely does is continue, rather than depart from, a young but rich tradition that we might call “ethnomusicologies of violence” (again, preferring the pluralism that such an approach requires). In that sense, the editors do not adequately engage the growing ethnomusicological literature, merely paying it lip service in a kind of plainly bibliographic narrative (2). While this list is somewhat wide-ranging, I believe it falls short of approaching comprehensiveness. This is not to say, however, that the book does not contribute to ethnomusicology in significant ways; on the contrary, what it does offer is a real attempt to consider the aforementioned ontological questions of violence and voice across a true variety of musical case studies.

As a reader, I appreciate how the editors (both Fast and Pegley and their editors at Wesleyan University Press) structure the book, which comprises nine chapters, divided into three parts, and an afterword. The editors offer thoughtful, concise mini-essays to introduce the individual chapters and overarching theme of each section. The close proximity of these summaries to the chapters themselves prove to be an effective way of weaving the volume’s otherwise disparate case studies into something of a coherent narrative. When casting a wide net for a volume such as this one, this must be a difficult endeavor. But if anything, small incongruities draw attention to the heterogeneity of violence as a human practice, especially as diverse musics come into play in its realization.

Part One, entitled “Objective and Subjective Violences,” explores the role of music during and after wartime—that is, off the battlefield. Spanning across two World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Yugoslav Wars, and the invasion of Iraq, the four chapters presented in this section offer a practical diversity of approaches to the study of music in times of war. Another way of framing this section, rather than employing Žižek’s “objective violence” formulation (2008), might have been to highlight the critical roles played by media and nationalism in these chapters.

In Chapter One, Nicholas Attfield investigates the activities of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik during World War I, displaying a careful attention to both the content of the newspaper and the various kinds of agency involved in its publication, from vested interests to the public power of the paper itself. Catherine Baker’s chapter on the complex ethnic symbolism of singer Neda Ukraden after the Fall of Yugoslavia demonstrates how “[a] representational ‘media war’ . . . accompanied and facilitated the violent ‘ethnic war’” (Žarkov 2007: 2, quoted on 64). In Chapter Three, Christina Baade offers a cross-cultural reception history of the popular song “Lili Marlene” across enemy lines during World War II. In particular, Baade’s synthesis of information about international radio programming with analyses of singers’ vocal performativity and vivid accounts of listening in the barracks is an effect vehicle for showcasing the song’s intensity of meanings for soldiers during the war. In Chapter Four, James Deaville traces the evolution of theme music and other sounds accompanying American news broadcasts, from the Vietnam War to the War in Iraq. Not only does this chapter present a comprehensive account of the people and pieces deployed on the major television networks—laying groundwork for future studies of these soundtracks—but it draws attention to how and why sound worlds of war are constructed by certain actors and experienced by the public.

As in Part One (and, as we shall see, in Part Three), the three chapters comprising Part Two (“Violence and Reconciliation”) span great cultural and geographical distances. In Chapter Five, McDonald presents a historical context for violence associated with the al-Aqsa Intifada by drawing on moments from his ethnographic fieldwork on protest music in the Palestinian territories. Using phrases like “echoes of the Jenin invasion” (130), he effectively demonstrates the strong relation between memories of violence and everyday life as well as the potential for future violence created by that relation’s very instability. This is perhaps best exemplified by his description of a scene in which a concert, meant to revive popular resistance ensemble al-cAshiqin, falls into inter-factional discord and even physical violence (138-39). Many of the contributions to this volume are at their strongest and most illuminating when they draw on ethnography to observe the banality of violence in everyday life. McDonald’s chapter is followed by a wide-ranging study of medieval Sufi music in modern Turkey and beyond by Victor A. Vicente and an overview of music, dance, and so-called “coup culture” in Fiji by Kevin C. Miller. Both of these chapters approach the subject of violence and reconciliation through the prisms of representation and identity, filling out a trio of essays that attest to the multiple valences that violence can take in moments of reconciliation.

In the final section, Part Three, “Musical Memorializations of Violent Pasts,” Jonathan Ritter and Amy Lynn Wlodarski tease out the “politics” term from the volume’s title, in terms of overt political affairs in their respective field sites of Peru and Germany but also on the order of cultural politics. Both chapters serve to contextualize dubious official discourses of violent histories and demonstrate how non-state actors (performers and composers, among others) offer counternarratives and alternate forms of remembrance through their musical activities. To be sure, these chapters do not offer fantasies of music’s liberatory potential but instead complicate that idea by tracing the many histories a song or a composition can generate after the flames of violent conflict die down and new generations emerge from the ashes.

Martin Doughtry’s afterword forms a powerful counterpoint (in the musical, rather than argumentative sense) with the editors’ introduction. Using the metaphor of breathing—and a prose structure of numbered statements punctuated by accounts of breathing—he masterfully engages a wide range of thinking on voice, subjectivity, metaphysics, and violence. Among his basic principles is the simple notion that the relation between voice and violence is not as it seems—echoing Fast and Pegley’s cautionary statements described above. In a single breath, he summarizes, “[I]t is clear that we need a definition of violence that does not put it in opposition to voice, or to music” (257). This is really the key to the whole book—that music, its performance and envoicement, and violence are all multi-faceted and intertwined phenomena that confound attempts to broadly theorize them as universal. One of the main arguments of Daughtry’s essay—explicitly stated on the final pages (259-60) is that while many people have tried to articulate the revolutionary or cathartic power of music, and of voice, this is a falsehood predicated on the idea of a peaceful world and of absolute, democratic, and liberal agency. The reality is that much of the world, and indeed much of human history, is composed of war zones. In Daughtry’s words, “War zones are noxious places, and they often bring not the enlightening breath of the other but the stench of death into your lungs” (260). Indeed, as the various authors present in this book have demonstrated, music’s ability to “take our breath away” is a phrase with many meanings.

Looking to the volume’s back matter, I feel that readers might have been better served by an additional “suggested readings” list that pairs down and perhaps supplements the book’s bibliography, which here is really a reference list rather than a fully comphrensive list of works dealing with the subject at hand. Notwithstanding this small editorial criticism, Music, Politics and Violence is a welcome contribution to the literature and, indeed, presents a chorus of powerful new voices in the meaningful discussion of violence in ethnomusicology.



Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 [1980]. The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de Musica/Transcultural Music Review 19: 1-18.

Das, Veena, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, eds. 2000. Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1-18.

———. 2001. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Harrison, Klisala. 2008. “Heart of the City: Music of Community Change in Vancouver, British Columbia’s Downtown Eastside.” PhD thesis, York University, Canada.

Harvey, David. 2009 [1973]. Social Justice and the City. Revised edition. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Kartomi, Margaret. 2010. “Toward a Methodology of War and Peace Studies in Ethnomusicology: The Case of Aceh, 1976-2009.” Ethnomusicology 54 (3): 452-83.

McDonald, David M. 2009. “Poetics and the Performance of Violence in Israel/Palestine.” Ethnomusicology 53 (1): 58- 85.

O’Connell, John Morgan and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, eds. 2010. Music and Conflict. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Pettan, Svanibor, ed. 1998. Music, Politics, and War: Views from Croatia. Zagreb: Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research.

Pieslak, Jonathan. 2009. Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Society for Ethnomusicology. 2007. “Position Statement on Music and Torture.” 2 February (web).

Wissner, Reba. 2012. Review: Music and Conflict edited by John Morgan O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press). Popular Music 31 (2): 327-29.

Žarkov, Dubravka. 2007. The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity and Gender in the Break-Up of Yugoslavia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador.


Michael A. Figueroa is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, where he is completing a dissertation on the contentious figure of Jerusalem in Israeli song and poetry following the Six Day War of 1967. This project brings together his various research interests, which include music and collective memory, music and violence, analysis of multimedia, politics of canon formation, critical geography, and philosophy of musical experience, with a broad regional specialization in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

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