STATEMENT by John Tilbury, March 2003
Yes, I am talking about a predatory, aggressive, individualistic, dominant culture whose avowed aim is to impose itself, through threat of annihilation, on the rest of the world. It is a culture I have experienced, or perhaps more precisely, endured on every visit to the US. I often feel ill at ease there and (like Sam Beckett!) am relieved to leave.
Now, as for the suggestion by some of my friends that 'the greater totality of peoples and culture within its (the US) borders might be of other (and more important?) dimensions (than the US administration)' - the fact is, as we have experienced ourselves many times, people in the US are kept in abject ignorance in relation to the world at large. (A young English friend of mine, teaching in North Carolina for a year on a teachers' exchange programme, was hauled up in front of the Director of the school, the day after the US attack had begun, for unfurling a map and pointing out to her 7 year-olds where Iraq was) Even those that have/had 'reservations' have been hoodwinked by the propaganda that the US has striven to cooperate with world governments through the UN (which we know they control through all manner of skulduggery, bribery and corruption, threats - which all boils down to the simple watchword: be bought or be slaughtered), whilst those who claim to oppose it have sunk into a shoulder-shrugging quietism. And I say this in full knowledge of, and respect for, those activists in the US who are struggling to stem, if not reverse, the tide of permanent war which is at the core of the US Imperialists' (yes, let us choose our words carefully and accurately) agenda.
But what the shoulder-shruggers can do is to organise paid seminars, workshops and festivals for the likes of us in the noble pursuit of sharpening the sensibilities and deepening the emotional responses of a relatively privileged audience. While in our name, in relation to the current crisis, possibly or probably, at that very moment, with our money and through our labour, the most appalling atrocities are being planned and perpetrated. Because this cannot be war. War is a misnomer. It is mass slaughter.
My contention is that by submitting oneself to the formal procedure of entering the US, by presenting oneself and one's passport to American custom officials for acceptance and approval (and now to be finger-printed: 21.1.04), one is conferring a status of legitimacy, of normality, on a situation which is abnormal. (Nor, for that matter, would I knowingly travel on an airline which hires 'sky-marshals') Furthermore, in making music there we are not 'informing and enlightening the peoples of the USA'; we are in fact providing them with an alibi, a temporary escape, a haven, from the harsh realities of the consequences of the ideology in which they are subsumed. Just as the Orchestras who played Beethoven in the Third Reich did. ("Art is a substitute for action, especially good action; it need not be diligently assimilated or transformed into our own personal understanding and practice." Iris Murdoch. )
By going to the US at this point in time, by contributing to cultural life, it does send out a message, it seems to me, however the musician may rationalise his/her act and its consequences, that in the US, when it comes down to it, 'everything is alright', i.e. culturally, pluralism and normality reign. More contentiously, going to the US might even be construed as an act of indifference to US crimes against humanity ( by the way (!), one of the few countries in the world which executes children and mentally-handicapped people) - at worst, perhaps, complicity (there's only the thinnest line between indifference and complicity). For the unspeakable Blair the appearance of normality, of 'business as usual', is certainly important. Let there be concerts, of anything, especially in London, at the Warehouse and the Conway, as well as Opera and Orchestral concerts.
Furthermore, I can imagine that during the (on-going) elimination of 'rogue states' Republic (and Democrat) intellectuals may well enjoy a quiet evening with the music of Morton Feldman. We know how deeply involved the CIA was in the promotion of American Modern Art during the Cold War. We may recall that the Nazis, too, found solace and inspiration in Beethoven's Ninth, that paean to universal brotherhood. Some members of the SS showed great tenderness and solicitude for their foreign (sometimes Jewish) mistresses. The love was mutual. Their taste in Art, Literature and Music was sophisticated. They were men of culture. Curiously, for them there was no contradiction between their appreciation of Art and their duties towards the Third Reich. I'm afraid Art cannot be trusted, can all too easily fall into the wrong hands. And I agree with W.G. Sebald: "Art is a way of laundering money." Yes, I am equating the aims of US Imperialism with the aims of the Nazis: the imposition by terror of an alien and, to some, repugnant ideology on the rest of the world. And in the Thirties talented violinists put aside their violins, pianists closed their piano lids and drummers put away their sticks in a brave attempt to prevent this from happening. Many of them lost their lives in appalling circumstances.
It is not the case that I would feel 'uncomfortable' having to work within such an overall political environment' (the U.S.), as has been suggested. This would not be an issue. On the contrary, this can be challenging and exhilarating; but I would feel frustration and despair at the counter-productive nature and consequences of my (musical) actions. (This is not the time to engage in a debate as to whether the present US administration's foreign policy is defensible or not, but rather to engage in active opposition to it) My refusal to go the US is not absolute; on the contrary, it is eminently pragmatic. If I could be persuaded that the positive consequences of my spending time, in whatever capacity, in the US would out-weigh the negative consequences, I would go. If, for example, I could make music for those brave Americans incarcerated for opposing the madness of their rulers, I would go.
Regarding my 'stand' the crux is simply: how effective, or ineffective, will it turn out to be. Of course I may be wrong and I have read that there are some who claim to be quite underwhelmed by my action. Yet I am still encouraged by the signs and responses, including the fact that the U.K., too, will be a target for boycott. And in the aftermath of this slaughter? (in Iraq the degradation of the people, the mayhem, continues: 21.1.04)
What then? The media will lose interest; refer in passing to yet another 'success'. Meanwhile, during the preparation for the next series of war-games will the level of intensity of opposition be maintained? Or will the 'lull' be used to revert to 'normality' and, for us artists, to continue, or resume, our visits to the laundry? (no sign of a 'lull': 21.1.04) March 2003
As for opposition and defiance around the world at large, I read recently the following telling exchange: "What obstacles", the American Noam Chomsky was asked, "now stand in the way of Bush and Co.'s doing as they prefer, and what obstacles might arise?" To which Chomsky replied: "The prime obstacle is domestic. But that's up to us." (my italics)
It is not, and has never been my intention to lead a boycott campaign. Nor was my own decision prompted purely by events of the last two months; it was in fact a private initiative which I mentioned to a few friends as long ago as the summer of 2002. In January 2003 I was persuaded to make my views public and for better or for worse that is what I did.
22 Questions is a 'piece' I produced for an anti-war concert in London. The questions pertain to the Twin Towers and are read out. They are accompanied by a collage of Protestant church music. It is a kind of court; but the accused, Bush and Blair, are not in the box because they do not recognise international law. They are represented, appropriately, by the religious music.
In my introduction I dedicated the piece to the victims, to the people who died that day. I was referring to the 25,000 people who died in the most appalling circumstances, many in excruciating agony: the 25,000 people who died, in abject poverty, of starvation , a number which is repeated every day of every week of every month of every year. The unfortunate 3000 people in the Twin Towers were also victims, but there was a difference. In the aftermath of the deaths of the 25,000 people nobody asked their names, their age and nationality, enquired after their families, their education, their taste in Art, their aspirations. There was no roster, no commemoration. On the contrary they were, in their deaths, consigned by the rich and powerful, to anonymity.
How much of the Pentagon was destroyed?
What had been the function of those parts that were destroyed?
Of the parts of the complex where day-to-day business took place what was the nature of that business?
What kind of decisions were taken?
What were the criteria for these decisions?
How have these decisions, say during the last five years, determined or influenced the policies of governments of other countries around the world?
How have these policies affected the lives of the people in those countries?
In general, could one say that, in relation to the poor of the world, the Pentagon and what it represents is a force for good?
The Twin Towers
What, in the main, were the professional pursuits of the 3000 or so unfortunate people who were killed?
In the various rooms, offices, departments which were destroyed what kind of activities took place and, more specifically, were taking place on September 11th?
What kinds of deals were being negotiated?
What kinds of plots were being hatched?
What results were anticipated?
Who would have most benefited from these activities?
Who, in world-wide terms, would have been affected by these activities?
How would the lives of these people been influenced, determined or in any way changed by these activities?
What role could these people have expected to play in these changes?
In general, could one say that, in relation to the poor of the world, the Twin Towers and what it represented, was a force for good?
Is it conceivable that if such questions were to be answered honestly, that is, objectively, a final question might be validated?
Reflections on Art and Politics
George Steiner wrote: "Not very many have asked, or pressed home the question, as to the internal relations between the structures of the inhuman and the surrounding, contemporary matrix of high civilization ... Why did humanistic traditions and models of conduct prove so fragile a barrier against political bestiality? In fact, were they a barrier, or is it more realistic to perceive in humanistic culture express solicitations (my italics) of authoritarian rule and cruelty?"
Now consider the following:
A CIA agent arranges, facilitates, the 'taking out' of a trade union leader in a Latin American country. What is his state of mind? It's his job, his duty? His vocation? Does he believe in his assignment? He knows the man is popular, a hero perhaps, loved by the people, an icon. You can continue the dialectic yourself. At a party that evening at the US embassy the conversation may turn to higher matters, perhaps artistic ones - depending on the educational background of the operative concerned. Meanwhile, that night, the trade union leader has been decapitated, his head stuffed into the vagina of his murdered mistress, a common treatment of dangerous elements in that country.
The operative knows this. Later that night, in the early hours of the morning, in his luxury flat down-town in a heavily guarded part of the capital, slightly inebriated, but his critical awareness and consciousness not seriously impaired, he flicks through his CD collection; he comes across Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury's much-vaunted CD, discrete moments, highly recommended by a friend. He puts it on. It refreshes, cleanses, a kind of therapy. It makes life worth living, even providing a meaning (justification?) for arbitrary and violent death.
So is the relationship between the slaughter of the trade unionist and the music of Prévost and Tilbury closer than liberal sensibilities dare to consider? Is this an example of that ghastly marriage of humanism and barbarism to which Steiner draws our reluctant attention? Both the SS and the CIA prided themselves on their cultural knowledge and appreciation. The SS officer would provoke ideological argument with their prisoners. They liked to flaunt their intellectual superiority; they enjoyed worsting their opponents in debate. The CIA operative is no philistine; he and his fellow American liberals scorn the tastes of the masses; indeed they consider themselves the guardians of a superior, Western culture (Titian, Shakespeare, Beethoven). Their involvement in the promotion of American modern art during the Cold War has been documented. This is extremely complex.
Steiner again: "Nothing in the next-door world of Dachau impinged on the great winter cycle of Beethoven chamber music played in Munich. No canvases came off the museum walls as the butchers strolled reverently past, guide-book in hand"
Imagine: the setting is an elegant musical venue somewhere in America; fortuitously it happens to be in the flight path of those huge, long-distance American bombers. Keith Rowe and I are poised to begin our music-making; our sensitive and alert ears detect a rumbling overhead; my left hand, in a complicitous gesture, accompanies, embraces, aestheticises the sound of that murderous hardware, embarking upon its deadly mission. Our fertile imagination tempts us into further artistic collaboration, accompanying the bombers to their final destination; Victor Schonfield, describing the range and quality of Rowe's sound world in Town Magazine in April 1966 referred to "sounds like those made by electrified cats or babies."
p.s. Maybe, with the advent of the new 'dark ages', we may indeed disappear or, in George Steiner's words, "be confined to small islands of archaic conservation." Yes, artistically, that is what I am already doing.