The Rubble Arts: Music after Urban Catastrophe

Saturday 11 November, 3:30 to 5:00 p.m.

We tend to think of destruction as an impediment to creative practice. But recent scholarship on the aftermath of catastrophe—from post-war Germany to post-industrial Detroit—has documented an array of contexts in which musical life continues in spite of, and sometimes even propelled by, physical devastation. How might we productively analyze the “rubble music” produced under such varying circumstances? Why is music continually performed in situations of precarity? How do musical practices complement, augment, or perhaps contradict, other artistic activities taking place within these devastated spaces? By focusing on the effects of destruction as they manifest in urban musical practices, this seminar seeks to address the contradictory, traumatic, and sometimes ethically questionable, ways in which music functions in the aftermath of destruction. Driven by participants’ interests and fields of expertise, we aim to develop an understanding of rubble and ruin in relation to musical practices, and in doing so position music within the rich investigations of urban destruction that have been taking place across the humanities disciplines in recent decades. Discussion will cut across lines of disciplinary inquiry—connecting musicology to the study of other artistic media, particularly in the twentieth century—while also connecting areas of musicology that have previously been considered geographically, temporally, and conceptually distinct. 

Please contact co-organizer Martha Sprigge ( for access to the seminar papers.

Session abstracts

The Rubble of the Other: Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens
Tekla Babyak (Davis, Calif.)

The 1809 War of the Fifth Coalition, in which Austria and Britain joined forces against Napoleon’s France, produced architectural and financial devastation in Austria. In fact, as Lewis Lockwood has observed, this directly affected Ludwig van Beethoven’s salary and career. My paper investigates how the ruinous aftermath of this war might have had an impact on Beethoven’s music, as well as on Austrian musical culture more generally.

I examine these questions through one specific work which engages with the theme of ruins: Beethoven’s incidental music for August von Kotzebue’s play Ruins of Athens (1811). In the play, the goddess Minerva awakens after having been asleep for twenty centuries. To her horror, she discovers that Greece is in shambles, its artifacts and cultural life having long since been destroyed by Turkish invaders. Despite this tragic beginning, the play ultimately ends on a triumphant note with the rebirth of Greek culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In one of the few studies of this largely neglected work, Lawrence Kramer has drawn attention to its nationalistic connotations: it was written to celebrate the opening of a new imperial theater in Pest, Hungary. Building on Kramer’s insights, my paper examines the ways in which the historical ruins of Athens function for Beethoven and Kotzebue as a vehicle for allegorical commentary on their own culture.
I argue that the play enacts a symbolic representation of Austria’s own ruins in the wake of the 1809 war. Orientalism operates here as a distancing maneuver, in which Austria’s postwar ruins are projected onto the Turkish other. Beethoven’s incidental music reinforces this Orientalizing move: many of the numbers, such as the Overture, the Turkish March, and the Dervish Chorus, are replete with signifiers of exoticism. These include prominent woodwind solos, chromatic melodies, static harmonies, and Janissary-style percussion. I conclude that Beethoven deploys an exotic musical lexicon for metaphorical signification. Throughout the music for Ruins of Athens, the exotic lexicon figuratively portrays the ruinous conditions that had been brought about by Austria’s military enemies.

Conjuring Away the Void: Rubble, Ruins, and Musical Memorials
Ariana Phillips-Hutton (Cambridge, U.K.)

Memorials are having a moment. Thus claims art historian Erika Doss in her characterization of the contemporary world as obsessed by the different configurations of identities created by memorials (Memorial Mania, 2010). Yet, memorials are not only sites of identity formation: scholars frequently argue for the importance of memory in the search for understanding the processes which turn rubble into ruin (Langer, Holocaust Testimonies, 1991; Huyssen, “Nostalgia for Ruins,” 2006), and some propose that memorial objects engage in a “visceral pedagogy” (Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory, 2004) that shapes identity through embodied performance (Taylor, Archive and Repertoire, 2003). Meanwhile, Alexander Rehding has posited commemorative music as uniquely placed to reveal contemporary concerns (Music and Monumentality, 2009). Working outward from these suggestive propositions, I argue that commemorative music offers a new perspective on the processes of turning the rubble of traumatic experience into aestheticized ruins.

As a vehicle for constructing identity, commemorative music offers an interpretive space to explore contemporary anxieties over how to remember the past. These concerns are particularly acute when it comes to turning traumatic histories of destruction into aesthetic objects of contemplation. In order to demonstrate how musical memorials intervene in historical narratives of trauma and ruination, this paper examines several examples drawn from twentieth and twenty-first century North America, Europe, and Africa. I suggest that commemorative music resists traditional monumentalization by offering temporary, yet iterative, memorial narratives. In some cases, this allows music to resist the imposition of a state-sponsored vision of the past, and permits the preservation of a multi-vocal character that may provide for the expression of a greater range of competing narratives than other artistic forms.

Despite their flexibility, musical memorials nonetheless give rise to questions of ethical responsibility, particularly in the case of the aestheticization of violence and its remains. By examining their approaches to traumatic histories, I demonstrate how composers, performers, and audiences navigate these issues. The palimpsest of potential meanings engendered by musical memorials thus not only offers an important contemplative space for approaching the past, but also suggests intriguing possibilities for the musical art of the ruin.

Rebuilding and Retrenchment at Munich’s Nationaltheater
Emily Richmond Pollock (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

In the complex process of rebuilding Germany’s destroyed and damaged opera houses after 1945, the case of Munich stands out: even as most other large cities commissioned new, contemporary edifices to replace their bombed theaters in the first two post-war decades, the Nationaltheater in Munich remained in ruins until 1963. Although the ruin was criticized as disgraceful, and several different potential plans were considered (e.g. building a new design or leaving the ruin as a memorial), the company was beset by financial problems and administrative delays. The stalled project only gained momentum when planners formally adopted the idea of rebuilding the opera house according to the nineteenth-century Neoclassical plans; this approach galvanized the public and allowed inertia to be overcome. My paper considers the architectural and cultural processes that allowed for and reinforced this restorationist approach, discussing the Bavarian State Opera as an example of the spiritual, monetary, and aesthetic investment in German opera houses by the cities and regions that supported them.

Pride in the Nationaltheater’s history, accompanied by calls for its restoration not only as a building but as a set of practices and an identity conceived to extend far beyond the years of the Third Reich, was a hugely important discursive wedge in the rebuilding project. Rarely was the material rubble allowed to induce self-reflection. Instead, rebuilding the Nationaltheater was held up as a triumphant “rising again” of a Bavarian prowess in musical culture that was seen to have been endangered, while Die Verlobung in San Domingo, the opera commissioned from Werner Egk for the eventual reopening, approaches the genre from a notably conservative viewpoint. The fraught events and projects described here exemplify how problematic it was to restore operatic tradition in the post-war period more broadly. Both in architecture and in musical works, ideas about German opera’s proper future were strongly divided between a desire for opera to progress and a conception of opera as traditional and worthy of intense reinvestment; this chapter takes the idea of rebuilding, both literally and figuratively, to understand the “place” of opera in the West German cultural and architectural landscape.

Listening to Voiced Fragments of Global Nuclear Ruination: Cold War Decay and the Acoustical Resonance of Nation Building
Jessica A. Schwartz (University of California, Los Angeles)

The 2012 “Nuke York, New York” exhibition’s curatorial description read, “depictions of a nuclear attack on New York City are as emblematic of the atomic age in the United States as is the mushroom cloud.” Visual scenes of urban destruction were part of a U.S. government program of “emotional management” aimed to turn paralyzing nuclear fear or apathy into productive nation building. Alongside images of nuclear destruction, we must consider the extensive aural network of attack warnings, air raid sirens, and radio broadcasts that afforded some skilled listeners the opportunity to survive. These networks depended not only on multi-sensorial intimations of urban ruination, but also on making ruins of the American frontier: the West and the Pacific. This paper explores these aural foundations of atomic culture through the figure of radiation as decay and the capitalist logic of “creative destruction” (innovation).

Radiation has often been considered insensible—unable to be seen, heard, tasted, touched—but it is sensible as material-particle decay. Countering claims of material exceptionality, I read Cold War decay as acoustical resonance. This affords a temporal dimension needed to critically approach the experiential realities of the impact of radiation on bodies and lands and expose other fallacies of the Cold War, such as containment and promises of worldwide freedom, which remain unrealized because of the presence of radioactive detritus and unheard claims to nuclear remediation. Focusing on the relationship between the United States and Marshall Islands, where the U.S. detonated sixty-seven nuclear weapons (1946–58) that irradiated atoll populations to different degrees depending on their proximity to the “tests,” my sonic archive is comprised of Marshallese radiation songs that detail a politics of gendered vocal decay. I pair these songs with recorded U.S. government guides to survival. I offer structural analyses of these repertoires to share how sound-based survival mechanisms are linked to productive nation building through the materiality of human decay, particularly in relation to the fragmentation of the female voice. These sound objects amplify a need to rethink what it means to be aurally entrained civil defenders of an American empire forged by global nuclear ruination.

Composing After the Ruins: The War-Inspired Works of George Rochberg
Amy Lynn Wlodarski (Dickinson College)

Perhaps the most gaping hole in George Rochberg’s biography is that of his military service during World War II. In 1942, the composer was drafted into the United States Army and forced to suspend his compositional studies. He served in Patton’s Third Army and saw combat action among the hedgerows of northern France, the tactical sweep of the Falaise Pocket, and the decisive Battle of the Bulge. In his diary, Rochberg describes the severe destruction he witnessed—the wasting of the Normandy coastline; the ruins of St. Lô—as well as injuries he sustained on the battlefield in 1944 and 1945. Wedged between combat or during recovery stays, he composed short fragments of music as a means of remaining connected to his prewar creative self.

During the war, Rochberg encountered the most tactile forms of rubble, but I argue that the war’s pervasive devastation became a recurring psychological trope within his postwar work and life. He often commented that the war had interrupted his studies at a crucial moment—causing him to feel like an outcast among his modernist peers—and yet his postmodern return to tonality might be understood as a form of coping with the devastation he witnessed. Instead of creating sonic rubble—as he believed composers had done after World War I—he sought to reconstruct and renew the older aesthetics of music history. He referred to the result as “hard romanticism,” an aesthetic that drew “sharp angularities of dissonance” from the “harsh, short, and brutish” experience of war and reconfigured them within the modes of nineteenth-century romanticism—a melding of the past and present, the shards incorporated into new musical architectures based on personal trauma.

This paper considers two specific works—the Sixth Symphony (1987) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1988)—in which Rochberg recycled material composed during the war into new large-scale compositions. I explore the idea of rebuilding from his wartime sketch fragments as a process similar to postwar reconstruction—what to do with the material aftermath—and engage with recent ideas about “moral injury” and psychological recovery being advanced within traumatology today.

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