Cracked notes


The latest issue of Index on Censorship is Smashed Hits: the book of banned music. The magazine tells a tale of death, torture, censorship and the abuse of musical freedoms across the world. Its finds are not always comparable. Thirty thousand gypsies, many of them musicians, died in the Ustashe concentration camp at Jasenovac in Croatia during the second world war. During the 1991 Gulf war Lulu's "Boom-Bang-A-Bang" was banned - or jolly nearly - by the BBC.

The gala launch of Smashed Hits was at the Union Chapel in Islington. Jill Gomez addressed forsaken France in songs by Poulenc setting the Resistance poetry of Aragon. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, first performed in Stalag VIII in Gorlitz, Silesia, in 1941, was played by a starry quartet featuring Simon Rattle at the piano. And Philip Langridge shook the "red roughened hands of the steelmen of Sheffield" in a Utopian cantata by the English communist composer Alan Bush: the only true rarity in a programme of music which had all once been the censor's, or circumstance's, victim.

The pianola studies of the American communist and victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Conlon Nancarrow, suggested a paradox: that the music for which we demand free expression may not itself be freely expressive. The pianolist Rex Lawson's feet pedalled furiously, his head nodded vigorously, while the music he played was riddled, he said, with devices that were only "fairly audible, I think". Conlon Nancarrow's music is exemplarily modern. His studies are intellectual exercises whose meaning is a paper secret. What we hear is far from what the music is all about.

The bass Robert Lloyd sang Shostakovich's brazen Pushkin settings, Opus 91 - "in the depths of Siberia's mines, maintain proud patience" - with echt Russian heat, but proved afterwards how levity and censorship remain uneasy bedfellows when he presented a bottle of Stalin's favourite wine to his accompanist, who rewarded him with a stare of bewilderment. Was the joke perhaps on her? And is Lord Menuhin, come to that, playing a joke on us from the back page of Index this month? Lord Yehudi lobs a grenade at the magazine's very soul, its very project. Muzak, he says, is "injurious to the ear, soul and sensibility". It should be banned.

Menuhin is the "and finally" feature in a serious publication. But he raises the question that the magazine, targeting censorship in a world full of injustices, has no time to worry about: the problem of good intentions. A good man admits a puff of civic intolerance. But aren't the Afghan Taliban, by their own lights, men with good intentions? They believe that music tout court, not merely muzak, is "injurious to the sensibility" and will rip the guts from cassette tapes to prove it. The comparison is absurd; but unless one is prepared to make it, the issue will not be clear.

Smashed Hits' remit is broad, from the Balkans to Broadcasting House. Camille Paglia talks about Madonna. Rostropovich defends his self-exile. Vladimir Ashkenazy defends musicians who joined the Communist Party on the grounds - surely improper - that "you can't make any kind of judgement from the outside". Algerian Islamists oppress Berber nationalists. Turks oppress Kurds. Nigerians oppress Nigerians. Nazis oppress blacks. There are examples of criminality, illiberality, inhumanity from across the world. And at home in centrally heated Britain? Are we victims? Index believes so. Boots the chemist refuses to stock records containing offensive language. The market does its covert, dirty work. All shout: Censorship!

Index on Censorship can be contacted on its website at "Smashed Hits" costs £8.99 and is obtainable from Writers & Scholars International, Lancaster House, 33 Islington High Street, London N1 9LH (0171-278 2313)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family