Sunday, 18 January 2015

Nazis and Sci Fi: Issues of Humanity and a Musical Soundtrack

A number of differing and yet, I think, related issues have been troubling my mind this last week. Partly, this is because this last week included my birthday, a once yearly chance for me to contemplate my mortality as the life clock gets another year added to it. Further to this, I came to the end of my tether with Twitter which has seemed to me increasingly pointless.  The sense of pointlessness it engenders is something that's happened to me before with other social media. Its fair to say I have a love/hate relationship with such things. I tend to amass thousands of followers then wonder what the point of it all is before deleting everyone, one by one, followed shortly after by the account.

On a more positive note I was doing research into the Nazi concentration camps (Konzentrationslager or KZ in German) of the Second World War which is a harrowing subject to say the least. This is partly because I've grown fluent in German over the years (thanks to living there) and as I have aged studying this period of history, in the language of those who were on the Nazi side, is something that has become very meaningful to me. You start to get nuances of meaning that its impossible to do in translations or through the official records of the war from the other side. In addition, whilst living in Berlin I had seen Nazi architecture such as Tempelhof Airport or the Prora "Kraft durch Freude" holiday apartments on the island of Rügen which stretch for 3 kilometres in one huge building and wondered at the mindset of those who would build such things. I find it fascinating to wonder at the mind of such people and ask what this says about humanity.

Also this last week I watched a number of great films. The most impactful of these was a film called "Under The Skin". Its quite hard to describe the film because whilst ostensibly it is a sci fi film about an alien who comes to Earth to lure men to their deaths and what happens to her (the alien in question is played by Scarlett Johansson), it ends up being so much more than that. It is openly an arthouse film not intended for general or mass consumption and it shows no interest at all in exposition or explaining itself. Aside from a quite bare plot the viewer is very much left to decide what the film was for, what it was about and what it means. The answer seems at least partly to be that this film is concerned with ideas of humanity, what that is and seeing us as just another species. (The film might be said to view humanity from the perspective of the alien.) Perhaps the key idea in the film, on my initial understanding of it anyway, is the moment the alien feels some empathy with her prey, men looking for sex with her in her alluring female disguise. For when she does feel empathy she lets one of her prey go and deviates from her mission. The idea seems to be that once you feel empathy with someone you start to see them differently. I would talk more about the film but wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone who might want to see it. It is perhaps the most thought-provoking film I have ever seen. But its not an easy watch. Viewer reaction appears to be that you either love it or hate it. There is no in between. Either way, its left me with more questions then any other film I've ever watched.

So how else could I react to all these various stimuli except by making more music? In the last 48-72 hours I have been busy creating a 2 hour suite based around ideas of humanity informed both by my reflection on the film and the Nazi death camps. It is in 2 parts, roughly of an hour each, and each part is named after a German phrase usurped by the Nazis for their propaganda purposes. The first section is called "Jedem Das Seine" (German: To Each His Own). The Nazis had this phrase wrought into the iron gate at the entrance of Buchenwald concentration camp where tens of thousands were murdered. Under Nazi ideology the meaning of this phrase was "You Get What You Deserve" and the slogan was visible to those inside the camp, silently mocking them as a virulent piece of psychological warfare and torture. The second section of my project I called "Arbeit Macht Frei" (German: Work Sets You Free) which was famously the sign at the entrance to Auschwitz but also, before that, wrought into the gate at Dachau, the first concentration camp of them all which is 10 miles north west of Munich. This was yet more Nazi psychological warfare as the only way millions got free in these camps was by being forced to inhale Zyklon B cyanide gas.

I'd like to say a little about each of the 8 songs in the project and the ideas behind them in a moment. The project overall is entitled "Human/Being" and the musical style here is largely informed by the Berlin School of music, long synthesizer pieces containing electronic noise, synthesized patterns and so on. Everything is synthesized in the music and there are no samples or drums. The pieces are of appreciable length and all are between 13 and 18 minutes long. I wanted to treat the subject seriously and create a piece of artwork that acted as a soundtrack to the ideas I was focusing on. So I was consciously making a thoughtful soundtrack and crafting my ideas on this occasion. Let me briefly go through the project, track by track:


A. Jedem das Seine

1. Jedem das Seine

I have already explained what this phrase meant but I haven't explained just how horrific it seems to me. The idea that you might forcibly incarcerate people based on ideology (and this ideology was not merely racial. The Nazi ideology included the forcible death of many who were homosexual, disabled, with incurable medical conditions, the mentally ill, the ideologically opposed and others who didn't "fit in") and then tell them that they are in a death camp "because they deserve to be there" is, to my mind, sick and horrifying. It is illustrative of an idea that is key to the thinking of both the Nazis and the protagonist in the film. Its the idea that in order to hurt someone or kill them you must first think that they deserve it or think nothing of them at all. You must dehumanise them, see them differently to how you see the things or ones you love. If you saw them as the same then how could you hurt them? But see them as nothing, as less than nothing, as things who deserve what they get, and you can kill them without emotion or mercy. Noticeably, in the film the female killer at first kills her male prey in an almost emotionless state.

And there is another idea involved here too. Does everyone "get what they deserve" in life? I don't think they do. As a biblical writer says, "The evil prosper and the good suffer".

2. In Memoria Hominum

The phrase is Latin and means "In memory of Humanity". I wanted to write a piece here that soundtracked the idea of humanity and what it is. What, indeed, is humanity? What does it mean to be human? The film addressed this in an interesting and unique way by having some other being look at us as a class. Through the film you start to ask yourself as you watch who we are, just some strange species on a planet, not special, not particularly moral or good. Just other creatures. And yet do we feel there is something inherent to being human? Can we lose that? And then you think about the men and women who fought for the Nazis, who killed millions, so many men and women that they needed industrial machinery to bury them all. One story I read told of the liberation of Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. There were around 13,000 emaciated bodies openly lying on the ground around the camp when The British Army liberated the camp. Where was the humanity in that? Was there any humanity left? I ponder in this piece on the question of if humanity even exists anymore in an age when we can kill millions at the press of a button, safely shielded from even having to see the death we can deal.

3. Gut und Böse

This piece takes as its starting point the idea of good and evil which is what "Gut und Böse" is in German. It comes from something attributed to the Jewish Austrian concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl who is, as an aside, also a famous psychologist. His psychological method was honed in a number of death camps, Auschwitz and Dachau among them. Not all his family were as lucky as him to survive. At the end of the war he resumed his medical practice and one of the things he said has stuck with me. He noted that wherever you go there are basically two types of people, decent and indecent or, in my terminology, good and evil. These are found, so Frankl says, in all walks of life, all groups and all classes. So there would have been both good and bad prisoners in the camps and good and bad Nazis. This piece is me pondering on that thought.

4. Endlösung

It is common today to talk of "The Holocaust". But this is not a term from the war itself. Neither Nazis nor Allies would have any idea what you meant if you went back in time and referred to this term for it is not a contemporaneous one. It came into fashion some years later in the late 1970s. At the time the Nazi term for the serial extinction (especially of Jews) was Die Endlösung. Endlösung means "final solution". This piece is very simply my solemn meditation on this very idea and the fact that it was a real thing with millions of casualties.

B. Arbeit Macht Frei

5. Arbeit macht Frei

The phrase, as already noted, most famously wrought above the entrance to Auschwitz where millions were murdered. It is harrowing in the extreme to read of how prisoners were brought to the railway station there. The Nazis made attempts to fool them into thinking they were just being taken to another holding camp, fearing panic if the prisoners at once sensed what was about to happen to them. Here I meditate on humanity again and ask what kind of species does this? If one can do it then surely anyone can? Is evil a virus? Can it be caught? Is it contagious? Or perhaps to be human is to have the capacity for horrific acts?

6. In Plain Sight

My point of departure here applies equally to the film and to the Nazis. Both were in plain sight. The alien killer in the film takes the form of a sexy young woman to lure men to their doom. She doesn't hide and snatch them in the shadows or transport them away or shoot them with a ray gun. She drives round in a van and tries to pick them up. In fact, this actually happens too since in the film Johansson really wore a disguise of a fur jacket and a black wig and actually tried to pick up Scottish men (the film was made in Glasgow) who didn't know it was her. Her van contained concealed cameras and the men were retrospectively asked to sign a waiver so they would appear in the finished film. This was done for the purpose of realism and only Johansson knew what was really happening.

The idea I explore here is that evil does not hide. Its right there in front of you. But you need to see it for what it is.

7. Empathie

This, for me, is a key idea both in the terms of my two areas of inspiration and in terms of what being human means: Empathy. This is where it begins and ends. As already hinted at, if you lose empathy then all sorts of horrors become possible. And if you have it, as in the film, what is and isn't possible changes. So here I write a soundtrack for empathy and meditate on the idea in a very reverential way.

8. Prey/Pray

Here the idea was notions of hunter and prey. This applies to the film but in ways I can't explain without revealing too much plot. See the film to explore that. It also clearly applies to the Nazis too who viciously hunted down all those their ideology identified as inferior. The Nazis even had a term for these kinds of people: "Lebensunwertes Lebens" - lives not worthy of living. Many people who they decided fitted into this category were forcibly euthanized. My idea here is twofold: that people, human beings, can become prey and that that should therefore pray - to who I cannot say.

So, in the end, what I have produced in Human/Being is a two hour electronic score musing and meditating on these ideas of humanity, human being and being as a human using contexts where these things were very much attacked and under threat - exposed to the analytical gaze. They are not meant to provide any answers but they are meant to bring some context and act as a soundtrack to the ideas.

You may now be wondering where you can hear this project and the answer is that currently you can't. I have fallen out of love with putting my music online. It garners little attention which is, frankly, depressing - although I have never needed external appreciation to create and don't seek pats on the back from others about it. The only purpose it ever served was to talk about it but that has happened less and less. It now becomes burdensome to keep doing it for nothing. What I will say as a compromise is this: if I get ten requests to make it available I will upload it somewhere. If not then I won't.

And that was my week. I rejoice, at least, that it had a creative outlet.

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