Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Symphonic Propaganda

Daniel J. Wakin's New York Times account of the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang, the largest contingent of Americans to visit North Korea since the Korean War ceasefire, is now available on the Times' web site. However, for all the advance work around arranging a program that would feature both Antonín Dvořák's "New World" symphony and George Gershwin's "American in Paris," Wakin's report began with extended coverage of a modest encore that attracted the most attention:

As the New York Philharmonic played the opening notes of “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song, a murmur rippled through the audience. Many of the staid spectators at this historic concert Tuesday night perched forward in their seats.

The piccolo sang a long, plaintive melody, cymbals crashed, harp runs flew up, the violins soared. And tears began forming in the eyes of the sober audience, row upon row of men in dark suits and women in colorful traditional dresses, all of them wearing pins of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding leader.

And there, the Philharmonic had them. The stirring performance of a piece of music deeply resonant for both North and South Koreans ended the concert in triumph.

“This is difficult to describe,” said one journalist’s government-assigned minder, who was sitting in the audience. “My heart is booming. It’s too exciting.”

The audience applauded for more than five minutes and orchestra members, some of them crying, waved.

People in the seats cheered and waved back, reluctant to let the visiting Americans leave.

“Was that an emotional experience!” said Jon Deak, a bass player, moments after the concert ended. “It’s an incredible joy and sadness and connection like I’ve never seen. They really opened their hearts to us.”

The “Arirang” rendition also proved moving for the orchestra’s eight members of Korean origin.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Michelle Kim, a violinist whose parents moved from North Korea to Seoul during the Korean War and who later moved to the United States.

This could easily be described as propaganda of the highest order; but, were we to do so, we would also have to acknowledge that this was one of those rare occasions in which the connotation of the noun "propaganda" was positive. For those who do not dig into such details, the origin of this noun comes from a seventeenth-century committee of cardinals founded by Pope Gregory XV, called the congregatio de propaganda fide, the "congregation for propagating the faith." The visit of the New York Philharmonic involved a propagation of faith that takes place whenever musicians perform before an audience, the faith that music can achieve bonds of understanding that are beyond the reach of words. If Wakin's report is to be accepted at face value, then this faith was propagated with overwhelming success.

One reason for that success may have to do with the recognition that understanding is a two-way street. Understanding is not "dictated" from speaker to listener. Rather, it is a mutual condition achieved by both parties establishing a platform upon which further conversation may take place. On the one hand the Philharmonic was "telling" their North Korean audience about an American mindset grounded in Dvořák and Gershwin; but that quest for mutuality was achieved by their modest attempt to perform the music of the culture they were visiting. That performance appears to have pulled all the right strings, making it no different from a performance of Dvořák in Manhattan that pulls the strings that enable the audience to tap into what that music is expressing. In other words achieving those bonds of understanding in Lincoln Center is not in any way substantively different from achieving them in Pyongyang. In both cases the bonds are sealed because they extend "beyond the reach of words," which is particularly important in our relations with a country like North Korea, where it appears as if (on both sides of the conversation) words are being used primarily as a weapon to thwart understanding.

This is not to suggest that the performance of music is a viable alternative to statecraft (preferring the noun promoted by Dennis Ross to "diplomacy"). Nevertheless, a paraphrase of Georges Clemenceau may be in order if we are to recognize that mutual understanding between radically different cultures is far too serious to be entrusted to political leaders, most of whom would prefer to think of leadership in terms of domination rather than understanding. Perhaps the most important lesson from this concert has to do with that metaphor of the platform upon which conversations of statecraft may take place. Just because the platform is necessary, that does not mean that those who are supported by it need be the ones who build it. We should recognize that performing artists (as well as ping-pong players) have "better tools," so to speak, for building the platform. After the platform has been built, the expressive powers of musical performance can leave that platform to be used by those who must suffer under the limitations of mere words.

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