Rock 'N' Revolt

Article excerpt

ROCK, a musical and social phenomenon of unprecedented scope and intensity, raises in acute form the question of the relationship between music and violence. Its history has been fraught with violence. Jim Morrison, leader of The Doors, apostle of sex, alcohol and LSD, died young, of a heart attack in his bathtub in Paris. Stars Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both died of drug overdoses. Acid rock has become synonymous with punks and English football riots. The fans of Metallica and Guns and Roses have burned cars, and during a recent concert in Montreal they wrecked a stadium and injured twelve people. The Sex Pistols proclaimed in their song "Anarchy in the UK": "I wanna destroy passers-by, for I wanna be anarchy". John Phillips, a member of The Mamas and The Papas, was reported by musicologist David Tame as claiming that any rock group can whip a crowd into a hysterical frenzy by carefully controlling a sequence of rhythms. In 1967 he went ahead and did just that in Phoenix. When Hell's Angels roughed up spectators during a Rolling Stones concert in California, rocker Mick Jagger remarked that "Something like this happens every time I play that song."

Although physically less conspicuous, violence is also expressed in the lyrics of urban music such as rap (a recent hit by star rapper Ice T is entitled "Cop Killer") and free jazz ("We are not angry young men, we are enraged!" proclaimed saxophonist Archie Shepp in the late 1960s). Here, violence is palpable in lyrics, song titles, public statements by musicians, and in the music itself: the mega-volumes, "fuzz" effects and distortions of rock, the hammer beats of rap, the shrieking saxophones and cascading notes of jazz, and the amplified bass of reggae. Violence is also associated with other types of music. In Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange, the hero, Alex, driven crazy by the sounds of Beethoven, jumps out of a window. In Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s, concerts by rival bands playing the popular music known as son degenerated into brawls which had to be broken up by the police.

Violence, in more controlled forms, is present in many musical traditions, old and new: in the wailing of women in the funeral lamentations of Macedonia; in certain Senegalese songs whose lyrics pour out a stream of bitter invective against new wives brought into a household; in the drumbeats of African griot storytellers which once stimulated the ardour of warriors and today perform a similar role for the participants in traditional wrestling matches. It is found in martial music, in hunting calls, and in filmed thrillers where it plays a crucial role in setting the mood.

Violence is also present in classical music such as Handel's "Saul", Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, in operas generally, such as those of Verdi, who once said that he sought to express "passions above all else" and almost all of whose heroines die tragic deaths, in Mahler's Fourth Symphony, in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with its dramatic Dies irae, and in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, in which a virgin, sacrificed to the gods, dances herself to death (a riot broke out during the first performance). One could continue the list indefinitely.

AN EXTRAORDINARY POWER

Is it possible, asks musicologist Gilbert Rouget in his book on music and trance, that music may be endowed with a magical power capable of whipping people into the state of madness which the ancient Greeks called "mania"? Or does it have no objective reality? Rouget cites Timotheus of Miletus, who lived in the fourth century BC and once said that music "was capable of tempting Alexander away from a banquet to take up arms, and then of luring him back again to his guests with a lilting harmony". Rouget also quotes Boethius, who claimed that the Dorian mode inspired virtue, whereas the Phrygian mode aroused passion and violence, and refers to Aristotle's theory of the ethos of modes, which was similar to that of Boethius. …