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Archive for July, 2016

A piece of mine has been withdrawn from performance. Some local people found the title of the piece offensive. The orchestra took the view that this, along with what they saw as a wider potential misunderstanding of the title, was sufficient reason to pull the piece from a concert programme. A different piece of mine was substituted in the concert programme. While I am grateful to the orchestra for programming it, I am concerned about the implications of the withdrawal of the first piece.

Not offending a group in the local community, and avoiding possible misunderstanding arising from the title, were seen by the orchestra committee as more important than performing this piece of art music.

The details are that:

A community orchestra had programmed a piece of mine for June 2016. The piece is called Prelude: Guernica-Gaza, 1937-2009: Remembering the civilian victims of modern warfare. The orchestra committee discussed the potentially controversial title of the piece when I put it forward. I learned subsequently that several orchestra members had consulted Jewish friends to establish whether the title was felt to be offensive due to its reference to actions of the Israeli government in Gaza. The outcome was that the Committee decided to go ahead with the performance.

The programme note of the piece reads as follows:

“In January 2009, when living in Spain, I read an editorial in a Spanish newspaper. It compared events taking place at that time in Gaza to the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War when a large number of civilians were killed – the subject of Picasso’s most famous painting. My piece reflects a sense of horror at the way civilians have become the principal victims in modern warfare, beginning with Guernica and continuing to the present day. No comment is begin passed on the origins of the conflicts or the motives of this taking part.”

Rehearsals began and many orchestra members complimented me on the piece.

The orchestra Chair then received a message from the Vicar of the church where it was to be performed, saying that he had been contacted by the local Council of Christians and Jews objecting to the performance of a piece with that title, which they considered to be offensive. A meeting was held with the Vicar and the Chair of the CCJ. It was explained that the objection was to the title, and that unless the piece were withdrawn from the programme or the title changed there would be further representations.

I am not willing to change the title since I see it as an integral part of the piece. The orchestra Committee then came to the conclusion that, since the title was felt to be offensive by some in the local community and could possibly be misunderstood, the orchestra should not perform the piece.

The reason why I am not willing to change the title is that it gives a sense of immediacy and relevance to the piece through its reference to a recent high-profile conflict. To change it would also be to deny the origin of the piece in a comparison made by a Spanish journalist.

I could give the piece an anodyne title relating to the question of civilian deaths in war. That would take away the sense of immediacy which results from the reference to a recent conflict. I could refer to more distant events – perhaps the bombing of Coventry and Dresden in the Second World War. Some would be offended by the implication that they were morally equivalent acts. To change the title would, I think, neuter the piece and take away its sense of modern relevance.

I make it plain in the programme note that I am not taking any view on the rights and wrongs of any conflict, simply reacting as an artist living in a world where we encounter horrifying information such as the reports of the 2009 conflict in Gaza. I don’t accept the concern of the orchestra Committee that performing the piece could imply engaging in a political debate. For the record, I accept the right of the state of Israel to exist, but I am critical of some of the actions of its government.

These events raise serious issues. Should a musical ensemble give a higher priority to the avoidance of offence and misunderstanding than to artistic expression? Art, at times, is bound to offend some people.

I can understand the wish of the orchestra Committee to avoid possible offence, to maintain good relations with their performance venue, and to steer clear of any possible controversy.

However, nowadays there does seem to be a widespread assertion of a ‘right not to be offended’. This is capable of putting a damper on controversial or provocative art. While I can see how people might be offended by my title, I do not think that the historical facts behind the comparison implied give valid grounds for that sense of offence. In both events referred to in the title it is documented that civilians were deliberately targeted. I am implying no more that that.

I am therefore looking for an orchestra which gives priority to artistic expression over the possibility of causing offence, and which would consider performing the piece.

More information on the piece, including the instrumentation, and a computer-generated recording, can be found at:

http://at.orpheusweb.co.uk/ataylor/?page=scores&id=18

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