Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Classical Music As Social Control

The other day I was coerced into discussing my personal likes and dislikes in music by my piano teacher (yes the pewster is a first year student). She noticed pained expressions appearing on my face as some composers names were mentioned. No, she did not mention Frank Zappa, but there are a number of 20th century composers and compositions that I found too painful to endure when taking "Music Appreciation" in college and they still affect me to this day. I did not appreciate the atonal experiments, nor did I care for things based on certain mathematical formulas. I think there is a place for cacophony, just not an entire suite based upon it.

What sounds annoy kids these days? I have witnessed aversion to classical music in some members of the younger generation, but I suspect that most of this dislike is feigned, or at the very least it is a problem with the different approach to sensuality that classical music takes compared to rap, hip-hop, rock and roll, etc. Or it may have something to do with the need to slow down and actually listen to classical music.

My piano teacher and I discussed the use of Beethoven in "A Clockwork Orange" to try to change the lead character, Alex's, behavior.

"Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!"(Alex listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony)

Later, she sent me this piece entitled "Weaponizing Mozart: How Britain is using classical music as a form of social control" by Brendan O'Neill of "Spiked" in London.
"In January it was revealed that West Park School, in Derby in the midlands of England, was 'subjecting' (its words) badly behaved children to Mozart and others. In 'special detentions,' the children are forced to endure two hours of classical music both as a relaxant (the headmaster claims it calms them down) and as a deterrent against future bad behavior (apparently the number of disruptive pupils has fallen by 60 per cent since the detentions were introduced.)

One news report says some of the children who have endured this Mozart authoritarianism now find classical music unbearable. As one critical commentator said, they will probably 'go into adulthood associating great music—the most bewitchingly lovely sounds on Earth—with a punitive slap on the chops.' This is what passes for education in Britain today: teaching kids to think 'Danger!' whenever they hear Mozart’s Requiem or some other piece of musical genius."

I wish I were a kid today. Back when I was in school, a special treat was a trip to a concert by our local symphony orchestra. Of course, some kids cut up, some were just there to get out of class, but some of us actually got something out of it.

Punishment, on the other hand, was something to be feared. The most dreadful thing was a trip to the Assistant Headmaster's office where, behind closed doors, all manner of horrors were said to be done to hapless youngsters. Sometimes they punished us by making us write 200 times, "I will not make paper trinkets in Mr. Stewart's class," or they made us drag a wire screen around a cinder track all the while chasing us in a school bus and yelling "Run you dogs!" at us through a megaphone. Oh, the tortures they devised, but Mozart!? Never that!
P.R. Deltoid: "I've just come from the hospital; your victim has died."
Alex: "You try to frighten me. Admit so, sir. This is some new form of torture. Say it, Brother Sir."
P.R. Deltoid: "It'll be your own torture. I hope to God it'll torture you to madness." (from "A Clockwork Orange")

The article goes on to remind us of Alex's complaint about his reprogramming in "A Clockwork Orange."
"Pleading with his therapists to turn the music off, he tells them that 'Ludwig van' did nothing wrong, he 'only made music.' He tells the doctors it’s a sin to turn him against Beethoven and take away his love of music. But they ignore him. At the end of it all, Alex is no longer able to listen to his favorite music without feeling distressed. A bit like that schoolboy in Derby who now sticks his fingers in his ears when he hears Mozart."

O'Neill apparently thinks that the use of these "special detentions" will have similar, sinful, long lasting adverse effects on the wayward youngsters of today's Britain.
"The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness...
...they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Now I know why I can't appreciate track and field telecasts.

I think O'Neill will be proved wrong, but there lies hidden in most pieces of commentary on the subject of punishment the question of the end justifying the means. I quote again from "A Clockwork Orange."
Prison Chaplain: "Choice! The boy has not a real choice, has he? Self-interest, the fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. The insincerity was clear to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice."
Minister: "Padre, there are subtleties! We are not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime and with relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the heart at the thought of killing a fly. Reclamation! Joy before the angels of God! The point is that it works."
Good classical music has enduring, endearing charms that can soothe a savage breast and can transcend generation gaps. Is it torture? Does the end justify the means? Is irreparable harm being done to today's youth, or is harm being done to classical music? Could it be any worse than embedding classical music in a violent film?


  1. Meaty stuff here. Alas, I've not the time to comment appropriately, other than to say all music inspires emotion. Those emotions can either be productive or not, depending on the state of one's own soul, methinks.

    I must ponder this some more.


  2. Fascinating post, Pewster.

    I heartily recommend Thomas Allen Nelson's book Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. The essay on A Clockwork Orange ("The Perfoming Artist") does an admirable job of contrasting Burgess's basically Augustinian novel against Kubrick's post-modern film treatment.

  3. Thanks guys,

    I just had a thought, I wonder if we played classical music to the Gitmo "detainees?"