Can music explain a place or a situation? We all know the experience of looking for the right music at a point in time and inadvertently setting the wrong mood. I’ve said “Sorry, that’s not the right mood,” countless times when looking for the right album or song to help elevate or represent a moment. Likewise, we can all relate to times where a certain album or song can be so perfect you are brought to tears. I remember many certain experiences where there was some piece of music that helped explain the feelings through the beauty of music. For example, I recall a night in New Orleans with a friend of mine, where we both were revealing our hearts and our most unexposed secrets into the late hours of the night. He put on Coltrane’s “Naima” and the explanation of the searching, of the opening, of the yearning, was right there before us, for us to hear in a tone; in notes. Similarly, I can remember certain pieces explaining feelings of joy, peace, fear and even anger through music during life experiences such as childbirth, love, tragedy, relocation and more.
This is how music can be so subjective yet enlightening. In Leonard Bernstein’s classic “Music for Young People,” he asks “What does music mean?” In the TV episode, he discusses how it’s the simple combination of musical notes that gives us feelings. He describes songs where the composer has told us specifically what the song is about before we hear it, setting us with preconceived sets of emotions or feelings. For example, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is a walk through the pastoral countryside. The score even writes out what is happening; ie. what meaning you are supposed to be taking from the composer’s writing and what you’re supposed to be feeling. In the symphony, the flutes literally represent birds chirping on your walk. Yet, take away the story you are being told before hearing the piece, the music would still provide you with a mood.
This is mostly regarding music without words, as the words inform you of what you should or may be feeling. But even music with words and music with specific spelled out meaning has endless combinations of the meaning you can derive from it as it is your own unique experiences that inform how things impact your senses. This may seem like a small or meaningless perspective to assign such weight to music, but for anyone who does not believe that we have a soundtrack to our lives, try to envision a day with no music. Try to find one day where you don’t hear any. It won’t happen, it’s everywhere; in the grocery stores, at the laundromat, our cars, the schools, restaurants. It’s everywhere. We are living with music and music has a unique role in explaining feelings and meaning in our moments where often words alone fail.
One such believer and lover of music is the late photojournalist Chris Hondros. The work of Chris is incomparable. Some of his most recognizable photos are of a bloodied girl in Iraq screaming for her parents who had just been murdered, a child soldier in Liberia raising a weapon, running in the heat of the battle and many, many others. He’s seen it all. Chris talked about the role music had in both comforting him as well as in explaining the environment he was witnessing. He was killed in 2014, during shelling in Libya alongside Tim Hetherington. Months prior, I chatted with him at a party in Brooklyn and over emails about his project “Sound and Vision:” which explored Bach and Iraq, about Mahler and Beethoven and more. Chris was a music lover and a life lover. In 2015, Chris wrote this essay about what music represented and how it explained the war in Iraq to him. Christina Piaia, his fiancee and founder of the Chris Hondros Foundation was kind enough to share it. Chris is a testament to the bravery of truth-seekers everywhere and has given the world glimpses into places and people that cannot be seen by the masses. The following essay describes his attempt to explain the combat of the Iraqi war through music.
The Music for Iraq by Chris Hondros
25 June 2005
I’m looking for the music that best captures the tragedy of Iraq. This is not an academic question for me, writing, as I am, from a dusty Marine base on the edge of Fallujah, in 120 degree heat and surrounded by madness, fingering my iPod at night while mortars crunch all around, searching for the compositions that can make sense of it all.
For awhile I thought the answer self-evident: Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s ten or so symphonies seemed perfect; with their famous grim marches and bombastic brass. Especially in the Sixth Symphony, it’s all seemingly there: the armies on the move, the tanks rolling, and fighter jets screaming through the sky. (Indeed, the “up-we-go-into-the-wild-blue-yonder” Air Force theme would be right at home in the Sixth Symphony, though Mahler would surely have had fun with the melody once he belted it out straight once or twice: turning it upside down, perverted it in minor, orchestrating it with something bizarre like oboe, harp and xylophone in unison.)
But try as I might, I’m finding that there isn’t much Mahler in Iraq, just like there isn’t much Air Force. Iraq, perhaps, is too ambiguous for Mahler. Mahler wrote in the first decade of the 20th century, and died in 1911, but he foresaw much of the catastrophes that would engulf later decades: he gave us the music of the World Wars before they happened, like a soundtrack available in advance of a movie’s premiere. He saw the chaos, the extremes, the unprecedented scope of the carnage, and even included hints of the Cold War in the bitter ironies of his later works.
Still, Mahler’s world was one of uneasy nationalism and firm absolutes; of conventional armies squaring off on titanic battlefields. Not even Mahler, I don’t think, quite anticipated wars like Vietnam, Algeria, and this mess in Iraq. (Though in the Ninth Symphony he comes close. If you had to look for the smoking ruins of Fallujah in Mahler you’d find it best in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony.)
So we search elsewhere for the music for Iraq. Bartok? Perhaps. Maybe some of the more nihilistic Stravinsky? Almost. Shostakovich would seem like another natural, but there’s a nervous quality that’s not quite right, apropos for the Soviet era but not seamlessly adaptable to ours. Yes, we complain about misinformation and government secrets in the run up to the war, but all in all the U.S. escapade in Iraq is remarkable in its openness, as wars go at least, as my presence here in Fallujah illustrates.
Basically, the military is saying, loudly and without apparent irony: Hey, guys, come check us out as we kill the evil people that dare have a problem with us occupying this country, and ain’t it fun? And the worse it gets, the more upbeat is the prognosis from Washington: Failure is Success, Pain is Progress. Orwellian, yes, but cheerfully so–Orwell with some cando American spirit. Probably it’s hopeless.
Finding the right music for Iraq as the war is still raging is probably as difficult as trying to completely take over civil policing in an Arab country of 25 million people with 100,000 boys who don’t speak Arabic. Perhaps, for now, we can do as people have for nearly two hundred years when seeking out music to explain the unexplainable: the late Beethoven string quartets.
Certainly the relentlessness of the Grosse Fuge works as well as anything to recall the swirling fury of urban battle (believe me), while the sonorous harmonies of the sixth movement of the profound Opus 131 quartet used to run through my mind, unbidden, whenever I photographed one of Saddam’s exhumed mass graves. And the long, ambiguous, introspective elegies so characteristic of these late quartets—like the Lento assai of the F major and the Cavatina of the B-flat—oddly, in their stillness and intimacy, might come as close as we can get to comprehending the madness of war.
One night last week, I was out with the Marines before an offensive in an utterly remote desert of Anbar province, sleeping in the open on the sand, my flak vest spread under me as a bed. The moon had set, and it was ethereally dark and quiet, and I listened to the Cavatina as I stared up into a black sea sprinkled liberally with the lights of the cosmos.
And I felt, for just a moment, that I almost understood why I was there, and what it all meant.