Frank Zappa’s musical triptych Joe’s Garage from 1979 tells the story of Joe and some other characters who are driven to certain crimes (ranging from noise pollution to sexual perversities) by that “horrible force called music.” The government finally decides to make music – the prime cause of unwanted mass behavior – illegal in order to be better able to control its citizens. From that moment on, Joe can only dream imaginary guitar notes. In a short comment in the CD leaflet, Zappa writes: ‘If the plot of the story seems just a little bit preposterous […] just be glad you don’t live in one of the cheerful little countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted or […] totally illegal.’ With this last remark, Zappa was making reference to Iran.
In 2005, Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reinstalls this ban on Western music. And 24 years after Zappa’s release of Joe’s Garage, music historian Richard Taruskin writes in the New York Times concerning the abolition of music during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: ‘The only sounds on the Taliban-dominated radio that Western ears would recognize as musical were those of ritual chanting (something quite distinct from ‘music’, both conceptually and linguistically, in Islamic thought as in many of the world’s cultures).’ In the end, Taruskin somehow seems to understand the Taliban’s problems with music. Music is not blameless, he writes; it can inflict harm. The Taliban know that, and it is about time that the Western world learns this too. The impact music has on the consciousness and subconscious of humans should not be underestimated, according to Taruskin.
As in many situations in the (history of the) Western world, and as highlighted in the examples above, (certain) music is considered as an otherness whose influence on the pure, vulnerable Self should be restricted as much as possible. Especially in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Zygmunt Bauman, and Judith Butler, however, ethics is presented as a fundamental attention to the other and otherness. The other is presented as that which escapes the Self, understood as ‘the well-known’, ‘the canny’, ‘the common’, ‘the familiar’, etc. Being responsible to and for the other means a principal openness (Derrida calls it hospitality) to that which is not reducible to ‘the Self’.
In this course, the relation between music and this conception of ethics is investigated in several ways. First of all, it should be noted that music itself has long been considered as a manifestation of otherness, opposed to such notions as rationality and reason. But music can also be considered as ‘a Self’, in- or excluding otherness. Much attention will be paid to the question of how specific others are articulated within music: the other as the stranger, the foreigner, the exotic, the alien, and the other as female or feminine. In addition to this, the question will be raised as to how ethical problems are (de)constructed in and through musicology, that is, in writing around music.
Authors whose texts will be discussed: Richard Taruskin, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Zygmunt Bauman, Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, Annette Kreuziger-Herr, Gayatri Spivak, Philip Bohlman, and others.