Saturday, 2 February 2013

Acoustic Artillery: Songs of War

Regular readers of this blog will know of my sincere admiration of, and love for, the work of The Children's Television Workshop. Sesame Street  and its local variants provide education through fun, visual entertainment and song for millions of children throughout the world; and it also teaches them about difficult social issues that may be specific to their locale, the need for tolerance, love and friendship, and these programmes can help to break down cultural and social barriers between people from different societies and backgrounds (Sesame Street in Pakistan; More on Sesame Street;US to Fund Sesame Street Remake for Pakistan).

In May 2012, Al-Jazeera broadcast a programme called Songs of War which discusses how music has been used as an instrument of psychological warfare, torture and as the soundtrack for Americans engaging in combat in Iraq (Songs of War). The programme follows Sesame Street's resident composer, Christopher Cerf, as he discovers that his own music for the programme has been used as part of the interrogation of captives held at Guantanamo Bay. Victims are held in claustrophobic conditions, hooded and shackled and forced to listen to music turned up to full volume. The same songs are repeated over and over again. Cerf talks to the interrogators, the victims, American marines, psychologists and the musicians themselves to understand the development of "noise" as a weapon of war - Acoustic Artillery.

The dominant theme of the programme is how noise, including music, is a method of controlling the environment in which the detainees find themselves. It is part of an intensive programme of sensory dissonance which is designed to isolate and weaken the captive, deprive him of his sensory capacity, interfere with his cognitive processes, and ultimately increase his vulnerability and dependence on his interrogators. The idea is not to torture through noise, but to push the captive to a point where he demands relief from it and thus becomes a willing participant in the interrogation process. The western music played at Guantanamo, a mixture of heavy rock and the otherwise good-humoured songs of Sesame Street - with both being played at the same time to amplify the unpleasant nature of discordant noise - also strengthens the cultural dissonance the victims experience.

Cerf discovers that music and warfare have a long history, and the marines in Iraq are consuming music for the same reason warriors have listened in centuries past: as a bonding exercise before battle, or to feel the adrenaline pump through their bodies as they go into combat.

This is a very disturbing programme that contributes to our understanding of modern psychological warfare. Congratulations to Al-Jazeera for making and broadcasting it.  

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