‘Accused’: Finnish composer tackles political interrogations from France, GDR and USA
Demonstration in support of Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, Fort Snelling, Minn., March 20, 2011 / Fibonacci Blue (CC)

Living in a firmly established social democracy, Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg probably doesn’t hear very often about political interrogations in his own country, but the subject obviously interests him.

His latest CD, on the Ondine label, brings together two recent compositions. One, purely orchestral, called Two Episodes, shows his mastery of the orchestra. Almost 18 minutes in length, it was conceived as a piece to precede a performance of Beethoven’s 9th (Choral) Symphony and is musically related to it, though it can also be performed separately. Not primarily a vocal composer, Lindberg shows his mastery of contemporary orchestral resources in this piece.

The other composition on the CD, Accused, written in 2014 for orchestra and solo soprano, will be the focus of this commentary. It was premiered in January 2015 in London, and subsequently revised. Presumably we hear the definitive version here.

Both pieces resulted from Lindberg’s 2014-17 residency with the London Philharmonic, and were premiered in that city. And both had co-commissioning organizations. Attesting to his current stature in the world of “serious” music, Lindberg has also been composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic (2009-12). Co-commissioning Accused were the London Philharmonic, Radio France, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Carnegie Hall.

For his text, Lindberg selected extracts from recorded formal interrogations in three quite discrete situations—Revolutionary France in its post-République phase as it was verging on its imperial pretensions; the German Democratic Republic of the early 1970s; and the United States of 2013, after the public release by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning) of classified military information and videos.

One unifying element to these three episodes is that however much they may reflect badly on generally recognized principles of freedom of speech and thought, they all took place in countries that, at certain times and at least to many people around the world, represented great, admirable social experiments and achievements in the struggle against royalism, fascism, autocracy and militarism.

Another unifying element, of course, is to show the lengths to which any country will go to challenge any perceived threat to its hegemony and power. The job of the State is to preserve itself, enfin, über alles, and after all.

The censorship of ideas is not restricted to authoritarian political regimes. Public opinion, school boards, the media, organized religion, all in the name of “political correctness” however that is defined at the moment, have tried to suppress films, books and magazines. Censure and banning have taken place on both the left and the right, sometimes calling upon the same language in their claims. As I write there is currently a struggle over assigned texts in Burbank, Calif., schools, with challenges to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the contemporary Black writer Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Protest from both right and left has been lobbed against Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

“There is a strong social dimension in each of the three interrogations,” writes Kimmo Korhonen in a program note in the CD. “Art has a limited capacity for making specific assertions, but it has the power of representation, juxtaposition and insinuation. Accused highlights issues and social situations whose selection can in itself be regarded as a strong statement without being an outright political declaration. They reflect universal human values that transcend transitory politics. It is not much of a leap to read the title in a slightly modified form as ‘J’accuse…!,’ referring to the famous article by Émile Zola attacking political prejudice in 1898.”

The singer, a marvelous Anu Komsi (b. 1967), whose work I had not known previously, is backed up by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Her almost uninterrupted vocalism is featured for over 38 minutes as she tackles the text in three languages. The length of the piece and the adoring, almost worshipful treatment of the female voice reminded me of one of those extended soprano scenes from a Richard Strauss opera.

Something a listener notices right away is that an interrogation is a dialogue between two people, so logically there should be one voice for the person conducting the inquest, and another for the respondent. The composer might have gone so far as to write parts for six different singers of mixed gender. In these three cases, unless there are some clues that escaped my attention, we only know the gender of the first and the third respondent, a woman and a man respectively. We don’t know the gender of the hapless interrogated GDR citizen, nor that of any of the interrogators.

Yet the composer has taken a different path. The lone soprano takes the parts of both interrogators and subjects, all six of them. One might make a further assumption, that the composer would ask the performer to take on the distinct voicing of six different characters to bring out the oppositional relationship in these three uncomfortable interactions. Yet this is not the case either. Without following the printed text, it would be difficult to distinguish—especially if one doesn’t understand the language—which person is speaking at any given time. Neither the music, for the most part, nor the intonation suggests two vastly distinct persons or the roles they are playing.

At times, even, one can hear the question and the answer following upon one another in the same breath, and in the same melodic arc, one blending almost imperceptibly into another over a transcendent two-and-a-half-octave range. A listener is forced to wonder about these choices, and perhaps doubt them, but I think I understand them.

What I believe Lindberg is getting at is that the same person under the appropriate circumstances could wind up in either role, as victim of state persecution or the interrogator him or herself. Perhaps at various points in any of our own lives we have experienced such shape-shifts. Now we have to defend ourselves for our apostasy, and a year later we are accusing someone else of straying from the course. Naturally, we find the reassuring reasons to explain and justify ourselves on whichever side of the table we find ourselves as the correct thing for us to be doing then and there. In the composite of his six characters rolled into one, Lindberg has given us a 21st-century Everyperson.

Singer Anu Komsi / Maarit Kytöharju

Anne-Josèphe Théroigne de Méricourt (1762-1817) was a singer and passionate public orator. She was arrested in Liège after the French Revolution, brought to Tyrol in Austria, where she continued to promote the Revolution, and was interrogated in 1791. After one perfunctory question as to her wellbeing under arrest, she’s off and running with her statement. The Revolution had changed direction by then, but she was still firmly attached to the principles of 1789. Now she was being ordered to accommodate herself to the new regime. (The expression “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” comes to mind—the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

“You condemn the republic,” Théroigne counters. “That’s your duty. As for me, I condemn the monarchy and I think I’m right. So there’s only one thing I wish for, and that is the diffusion, throughout Europe and in all countries, of the 1789 principles and the recognition of the Rights of Man.”

This first section (5:33) is the shortest, but we already see the contradiction of themes between nationalism and universalism or internationalism, idealism versus conformism, principles standing against craven submission to the new order. Some of the heroic music in this section suggested to my ears that Lindberg might want to try his hand at film scoring. An excerpt of Accused featuring Anu Komsi in this testimony can be seen and heard here.

The second section (15:35) brings us up to 1970 somewhere in the German Democratic Republic. The interrogation concerns someone (gender unspecified) who had borrowed a couple of issues of Der Speigel from one Frau Meyer, who had apparently obtained them in 1968 on a visit to Prague. The interrogator demands specific information about Frau Meyer, about how she acquired the magazines, about the contents of the magazine, about its political orientation, with whom this someone discussed the articles, and so on. “Kafkaesque” might be the right word for it. It’s not as if any deep state secrets were at stake. It was just a momentary access to a West German mass-circulation magazine which had articles the reader wanted to read, on the distribution of narcotics in the United States and about the persecution and extermination of Brazilian Indigenous people.

From the tone of the interrogator’s questions, a listener can grasp that their concerns were not so much about one or two issues of a popular magazine from West Germany, but about the importation and transmission routes of such foreign, and presumably hostile points of view. Perhaps there were networks of agents and fifth-column spies involved.

“What do you consider to be the content and aim of the West German journal Der Spiegel?”…

“I…became convinced that Der Spiegel is not conducting any ideological campaign against the GDR.”…

“What articles in Der Spiegel have you read that are to do with political matters in socialist countries?”

“I don’t remember any such articles.”…

“…you stated that Der Spiegel also contained published articles discussing various social situations in the GDR. What such articles did you read?”

“I don’t recall any such articles.”

Was there in fact a concerted, decades-long campaign on the part of the West and its media sector to discredit the GDR and the achievements of the other socialist bloc countries? Yes, of course there was, and People’s World has reported on this extensively. Just do a search on our website for our Berlin correspondent Victor Grossman and if you haven’t read his writings up to now, you will receive an eye-opening education by perusing his articles. Were the East Germans perhaps clumsy and heavy-handed in their suppression of ideas and information from abroad? Yes, that is also undoubtedly true.

Life is never quite so black and white as it’s often made to seem. As in the case of Mademoiselle Théroigne de Méricourt, the citizen affirms her rights, and so do the officers of the State. It’s a complex dance over time and space.

In the third and longest section (17:11), an examiner in 2013 brings Adrian Lamo (1981-2018) to the stand. Lamo, readers may recall, was the well-known professional internet hacker to whom the then-Bradley Manning not only released his trove of sensitive classified information and video files about the course of the Iraq War, but also opened his heart and bared his soul to a perfect stranger, having no one else to confide in. Manning felt the need for this damning information to get out to the world, knowing, and perhaps not even caring, that he would personally suffer punishment for it.

In this testimony, unlike the first one, it’s the interrogator who lays out most of the facts of the case, leaving Lamo to offer largely laconic, telegraphic answers, such as “Yes,” “Correct,” “No,” “Not personally, no,” “Yes, he did,” and “Not in those words, no.”

“You also saw him as well-intentioned?”

“From his point of view, yes.”

“You also saw him as idealistic?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Now he told you during your conversation that he wanted to disclose this information for public good?”

“That was an interpretation, yes.”…

“He told you he did not believe in good guys versus bad guys anymore?”

“Yes.”…

“He told you that he was always a type of person that tried to investigate to find out the truth?”

Théroigne de Méricourt.

“Something I could appreciate, yes.”

The inability to “believe in good guys versus bad guys anymore” offers a key to understanding Accused. The truth-seeker, the muckraker, the whistleblower, the child who cries out, “The emperor has no clothes!,” all these have venerable roles in the histories—and both official and unofficial mythologies—of just about every society that has ever existed.

What is “loyalty to America” anyway, or intent “to help the enemy,” or the meaning of “the American flag,” the three final questions in the inquest? Are these questions simple toggle choices, yes/no, loyal/disloyal?

Magnus Lindberg has taken a highly unusual conceit to make a probing, dare I say “inquisitive” work of art that asks not just which side are we on, but when and why, under what conditions and with what reservations. He portrays the choices in life as far less binary than appear to the naked eye, and makes more thoughtful and nuanced citizens of us all.

The great challenge is not to cast a pox on all their houses and become a total cynic, but to rescue those bricks of good faith and generosity that we find and continue to build upon them.

Of course, it would help if governments and rulers were more consistently honorable and transparent. Is that too much to hope for?

Magnus Lindberg
Accused; Two Episodes
Anu Komsi, soprano; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Musical director Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE1345-2, 55.75 minutes


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR