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Chords For Discord

January 16, 2008

What role can ancient music play in making people think about the ills of war? Does it have the power to bring peace? I've been thinking about these questions quite a bit lately.

The act of rehearsing the French Renaissance composer Clement Janequin's great war piece for four voices, La Guerre, with my choral ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, raises some interesting thoughts in response.

It's an amazingly powerful piece for its intensity, speed and word painting (the voices imitate the sounds of war such as cannons firing, drums beating and bodies hurling themselves at each other at full speed). The thing that makes singing this piece today so potent though is its gung-ho spirit. Janequin's view of war is bloody and brutal, but it's also extremely heroic and positive. From the brightness of the major key to the flourish of the final repeated statement "Victory to King Francis!" this battle cry is completely at odds with many peoples' view of war today.

For me, the work's true power lies in the tension between singing the zippy tune and thinking about how deplorable a thing conflict is. I wonder if listeners will have the same experience though when they hear us sing it in concert in February? On the other hand, if you're involved in war today, the music would have a different effect: It would serve as the most energizing, beautiful pep talk -- as if God were telling you to fight. Janequin's music is so effervescent that it would make any soldier want to jump out of his or her seat and give their life to to King and Country.

The current war in Iraq has spawned a number of projects geared towards singing songs of peace. A relative of the protest song in the pop/folk world, these musical projects typically involve groups of people getting together around the world to make a call for the end to war through music -- kind of like a rally, but the participants are better behaved and generally sing in tune.

March 2008 marks the fifth anniversary of the US entering Iraq. The "Song of Peace project" seeks to turn attention from violent actions towards peace through a series of global musical peace performances. Singers around the world are joining the project by pledging to sing a setting of Dona nobis pacem, or words which call for peace in another language, during the month of March. Performances will occur throughout the month all over the world.

The press release for the project states that "Song of Peace is not an “anti-war” project; it seeks simply to redirect public attention from the concept of war to the concept of peace, using music as the medium. The campaign is non-religious and non-political, and is not focused solely on the war in Iraq: it is a plea for peace for people affected by violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Congo, Darfur, Palestine, even the U.S. – and so many other places around the world."

I'm participating in one on March 17 with my choir, though I question the value of this kind of endeavor. Beyond making the participants feel like they're making a difference, I'm not sure whether the project will do anything to put peace in the spotlight. That's not to say that it's not a great idea. Music is a wonderful way of bringing people together and projects on this scale sometimes have a habit of attracting a bit of media attention too. But the people involved aren't very likely the ones who want war anyway and will anyone else actually bother to listen? I suspect that the choir will be preaching to the choir once again.

Just like Janequin's La Guerre means different things to listeners depending on whether they're fighting in the war or not, so Song of Peace will most likely be significant for those involved in raising their voices while barely registering with those that remain mute and hellbent on continuing on the bloody course.



  • Hi, as one of the people involved in the Song of Peace project, I just wanted to respond to the idea that the choir will be preaching again to the choir, and that aside from making participants feel good, that the project really won't do anything.

    I do agree with you that most of the people involved are people who don't need to be convinced of the cause of peace. But I would say that - as much as mass media attention would be fantastic - the project is also about individuals and individual reactions. If a bunch of children have a "Peace Afternoon" where they color in world flags, eat snacks from around the world, and sing songs of peace - with an effective teacher - the seeds of world harmony can be sown. I am not naive enough to think that each of those children will think deeply about what they are doing - but some of them might be excited about the fact that they are part of a global effort that includes thousands of people. And someday later, some of those children might use some of the lessons they learned that afternoon. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if one of the adults involved in a Song of Peace performance is inspired to raise his or her voice in other contexts and in other ways for a cause that he or she believes in, this project will have made a difference. And if someone sitting in an audience hears a moving piece - like the Janequin or like the Vaughan Williams "Dona nobis pacem" - feels the power of those words and the passion in the music and is inspired to think about what we are doing to our world today, and even does one extra thing in the cause of a better world than he or she has done thus far, then this project will have made a difference.

    I probably sound idealistic - but everything I've said above is inspired by actual conversations with people - many of whom I didn't know beforehand and whom I've only "met" through email - who have said that their opportunity to participate in this project has made them stop and think, and made them realize that they can be more active about standing up for the things that they believe in. To me, that is very powerful.

    By Blogger Song of Peace, At February 9, 2008 at 5:04 PM  

  • Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts. What you say is valid. I don't mean to denigrate the project. In fact, I'm taking part with my group, San Francisco Renaissance Voices. I guess I'm just slightly cynical about the impact of this kind of endeavor. That's not to say that it isn't worth doing. Hell, I'll almost anything to promote world peace. I'm looking forward to monitoring what happens during and following the event and then I may blog again with my impressions.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At February 9, 2008 at 5:43 PM  

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