Music in a conflicted world

One of the things that made the post-conflict environment of Bosnia-Herzegovina such an intense and compelling place to be for me in 1998 was the way that music apparently held a position of such tremendous importance in people’s everyday lives. This was a place where music mattered, enormously, and as a newly-arrived musician and music leader, I felt welcomed, valued, and stimulated by the intense creative environment.

BOSNIE-VIOLONCELLISTE

There were many challenges in people’s daily lives. People were surviving on very little, living in makeshift or temporary homes, with few opportunities to earn money. Some younger people hoped to continue their education, but the young adults – people my age, or a bit younger – often felt a strong sense of responsibility to care for the other members of their families, and so to be finding ways to earn an income, however meagre. Some were recently returned to Mostar after living as temporary refugees in other parts of Europe.

Looking back, I can imagine now that because I was based at the Pavarotti Music Centre I was meeting and interacting with people for whom music mattered. Presumably there were others, whose paths I never crossed, for whom music held a place of less significance. But among the people I worked with and hung out with, music was everywhere and everything.

David Wilson, British journalist and humanitarian, was the director of the Pavarotti Music Centre at the time. He has written about his experiences in war-time Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Sarajevo and in Mostar. In these articles he describes sitting in underground bars near the frontlines in Sarajevo during the height of the siege there, where music-making was an act of defiance – especially by young people – against those determined to shoot and shell them to smithereens. The louder the gunfire, the louder the music.

He describes places where there was frequently no power, but where people would sing and play in order to have music. If a generator could be found, playing loud music was a high priority. In a city where people had little food and faced death every day, acts of music and other creative endeavours dotted the city. These creative acts allowed people to maintain their humanity in an inhumane situation, to reclaim dignity and an element of control over their environment, and to integrate something about their current experiences with their whole selves.

Recently I have been considering, “Why music, in this context? What might music offer people existing in one of the most extreme of human experiences – war and conflict – that playing sport (for example) does not offer?” The epistemology of music interventions in conflict-affected areas is not well-established in scholarly literature, but there is definitely a consistency in the reports of people like Wilson that correlates with empirical knowledge from other areas of music research.

For example, music therapists know that when we make music, we are connecting with the part of ourselves that remains whole, undamaged by illness or injury, even while our bodies and minds may be battling all kinds of debilitating challenges. Music invites, and accepts.

Music also creates beneficial social outcomes. When people play music together, they connect their ideas and ideals in some way. They engage with others, and connect in ways that are not dependent on words or conversation. You can take part in musicking without uttering a word. You can be fully present in the music, and yet still protecting those parts of yourself that require protection. Musicking also takes place in a kind of liminal space – it allows participants to experiment and explore alternatives responses, alternative patterns, or to experience alternative versions of others, without fully committing to that alternative.

Nigel Osborne, an inspiring and charismatic musician, composer, and music leader that I had the privilege of working alongside in Bosnia in 1998, describes some of the physical benefits that participation in music-making can offer people suffering from the traumatic effects of war and conflict. Physical coordination, respiratory systems, and neuroendocrine systems all move towards optimal functioning when people engage in music-making over repeated occasions or extended periods of time (Osborne 2009).

Christopher Small, in ‘Musicking’ (1998) suggests that when people “music”, they are engaging in a kind of ritual, and human rituals are a way for us to experience our world as we wish it to be. It is an idealised representation that is deeply satisfying. Rituals are created in particular for those aspects of our lived experience over which we have less control (such as the weather necessary for crops and food security), or life points that are transitions from one stage of life to another (such as the rituals marking birth, death, marriage, child-birth, or the transition from childhood to adulthood). Shared rituals for these significant life events create a sense of unity, self-efficacy, and courage. It is much easier to face life’s challenges if you feel you have the strength of a community behind you; furthermore, the social bonds that are created through the shared ritual experience make people more effective and functional in what they do after.

Stige (2012) sees musicking as a form of interaction ritual and that its benefits are similar to those experienced in shared human rituals the world over. Interaction rituals (as termed by Collins, 2004) have characteristics of mutual focus of attention and emotional entrainment, rather than formal procedure and stereotyped actions. Entrainment of emotions, along with the entrainment of pulse and rhythm achieved through shared music-making, encourages greater social cooperation and a deep sense of connectedness with others.

Ellen Dissanayake examines why humans make art. Why is it that art-making – “making special”, she calls it, or “artifying” – is a cultural universal, observed in human cultures around the world, throughout the ages? She too, sees the link between art-making and human ritual to be of great importance. Rituals involve the formalisation and embellishment of everyday gestures, and are traditionally arts-rich, multi-modal, participatory endeavours that generate a shared sense of well-being and burden.

Because music is a social activity, action, emotion and cognition intertwine. Researchers such as Wallin et al (2000), Cross (2003), Cross and Morley (2009), have established the psychobiological foundation for musical participation. This foundation is supported by the social-musical motivation system described by Dissanayake (2000), Trevarthen (2000), and Trevarthen and Malloch (2009), suggesting that human evolution has provided us with a basic protomusicality, “a psychobiological capacity for relating to sounds, rhythms, and movements” (Stige, 2012, p. 189). Malloch and Trevarthen call this communicative musicality.

It is communicative musicality that enables, even compels the infant to seek out, engage in, and prolong interactions with other humans. These interactions are pleasurable for both parties, making helpless infants infinitely attractive to their mothers, which ensured the high level of care that ancestral human babies needed to thrive, survive and perpetuate the species. Today, human’s communicative musicality is an innate capacity that begins the journey of cultural learning and meaning-making. This supports Dissanayake’s hypothesis that participation in music is a human need related to the experience of meaning. Through the early shared experiences of sounds and gestures, musicking and musicianship develop.

Dad and baby engage with music (Nests 2013)

Then there are the neurotransmitters and hormones that start firing up when we engage in communal music-making. Brain imaging research has shown that music listening and participation is linked to the section of the brain associated with reward, motivation and emotion. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released, triggering production of  oxytocin (apparently known as the ‘cuddle chemical’) which in turn reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin is associated with social bonding, mother-infant bonding, and orgasm. In other words, it’s a powerful natural drug that makes people like each other and feel good physically and emotionally. And we get it every time we sing or play with others!

I find these ideas fascinating, but ultimately, no amount of science or evolutionary hypothesis can substitute for the reports of those who have lived through war and conflict and made the choice to turn to music when the rest of their lived experience was marked by deprivation, fear, and violence. In a few months time I will be embarking on my first period of fieldwork, returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the city of Mostar for the first time since 2007, and meeting up with some of the people who took part in music projects at the Pavarotti Music Centre from its opening in 1997. By collaboratively exploring the question of why they were drawn towards music-making at that time in their lives, I hope to be able to add their voices and understanding to David Wilson’s observations, and my own experience, of that intense human hunger that music seemed in some way to nourish.

Works cited in this post:
Dissanayake, Ellen. What is Art For (1988), Home Aestheticus (1992), Art and Intimacy (2001)
Osborne, Nigel. (2009). Music for children in zones of conflict and post-conflict: A psychobiological approach. In S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Communicative Musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship (pp. 331-356). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Small, Christopher. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Stige, Brynjulf. (2012). Health musicking: A perspective on music and health as action and performance. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 183-195). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, David. (2000). Music and war: Some comments on the Pavarotti Music Centre and Its work. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 15(1), 147-152.
Advertisements

2 comments so far

  1. timothyjonesiswriting on

    Hi Gillian, I really enjoyed reading about music in conflict zones. I happen to be reading The Rest is Noise and made a few notes on my blog. Glad everything is going so well for you, Timothy Jones

    • Gillian Howell on

      Hi Timothy, great to hear from you! I hope your work is going well. I visited your blog earlier this week, but I think it must have been before your post on the Rest is Noise. I look forward to reading it (the post)! That book is inspiring isn’t it – so much music to explore anew.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: