Monday, 26 August 2013

Gillian Howell: Music in a conflicted world

Gillian Howell, Australian Musician, Facilitator & Educator recently wrote about her experiences in 1998 in the post- conflict environment of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 She was struck then at how important it was for people to make music even in the most challenging circumstances. We might think that just the effort of finding enough to eat and drink in a war-torn country would overwhelm people and leave them without energy for such a frivolous and unproductive activity as making music. She details her experiences at the Pavarotti Music Centre and compares them with accounts written by David Wilson, who was the director of the centre at the time.  She goes on to explore what making music really is and why we “do music ”, and summarises some important recent research on the subject.

I will not rewrite her work here, better you go to her blog  

I mention it because my holiday reading treat has been  The Rest Is Noise  by Alex Ross and in his harrowing chapter on Music in Hitler´s Germany: Death Fugue he describes how music provided a lifeline, a faint reminder of normality for prisoners when orchestras were formed in Auschwitz. In 1941 and 1942 men´s orchestras were established to entertain their captors and in 1943 a women’s orchestra was formed. 

Alma Rosé, Mahler’s niece, was one of the prisoners, and when she took over the direction of the women’s orchestra she raised the standard by applying her perfectionism even in these extreme circumstances. Ross tells of a Polish cellist who recalled that Rosé had violently criticised her for missing an accidental. “At the time the young musician was furious; in retrospect, she thought that this seemingly futile resistance on perfection had saved her from insanity.”

This excerpt chimed with Gillian Howell’s observations about Bosnia-Herzegovina: that there is something about practical, active music making that is basic to our existence and that can offer healing even in the most appalling situations. Music takes us beyond the here and now.  

Here is one of her quotes:

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

I just re-read some of Gillian´s earlier writing on her time in Timor L’Este, which moved me so much as I followed her diary over the weeks on my safe and easy journey to my safe and privileged school. Here is what she and her partner were working on with local children one day in 2011: 


Yesterday we focused on the idea that from the moment a person is born they have the same human rights as every other person.

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