The links between war and music are complex and probably begin with the emergence of music itself. Why is the First World War the starting point for this festival?

Bernd Scherer: For one thing because of its current commemoration: the centenary of the First World War. But also because today’s wars are having more and more of an impact on Europe and thus bringing it back to us. We wanted to know how these wars articulate themselves. Because war does, in fact, have a close relationship to music and  – with regard to the First World War – also to technologies that later would play a central role in music.

Holger Schulze: Also, with the First World War and the Second all the more, civil conflicts arose that could suddenly break out everywhere and still do today. Following the comfortable 1970s and 1980s in West Germany we can no longer delude ourselves by thinking the current acts of war have nothing to do with us. They do, and have done since 1989. And musical practices – whether as resistance music or entertainment for soldiers –reflect that.

In your program, you raise the question of whether war is part of the DNA of contemporary music. Is it?

Detlef Diederichsen: When it comes to technological developments, definitely. All the technologies once used for military purposes – from the loudspeaker to tape recorders to radio – were further developed and their role in the music industry today is central. So we really can ask to what extent the history of these technologies still influences music today. I for one think the idea that certain genres of music have this rather gruesome origin is eerie. It’s almost like using Kalashnikovs as toys.

Holger Schulze: That’s right, also because musical technologies of today – like distortion –weren’t developed for enjoyment, but in military laboratories. And in the opposite sense, messages of war and inflammatory propaganda are still being transmitted through music today.

Bernd Scherer: For example, in the music videos of the IS which, incidentally, not only target an audience in the Middle East, but also work globally. So they also strike a chord among some young people in our society. Something’s finding its way into our lives that uses music as its essential conveyance.

But music in relation to war can also mean empowerment in the positive sense.

Detlef Diederichsen: Yes, we also reflect that, for example in our This style of music, which has been around since the late nineteenth century, is known for commenting on current news. In the Caribbean in the 1930s and 1940s, it served as code not understood by the British colonialists to comment on their activities and their outlandish rituals. These songs document dealings with a more or less unknown Europe, in which a Mr. Hitler was just a name and where the British fear of him was hardly understood. I find this exotic perception of Europe fascinating.

Holger Schulze: Here’s another example: In the Sound Archives project, artists work with the voices of prisoners of war that were recorded worldwide in German camps. Shellac records were used to “archive” the prisoners: prisoners of war from Europe, Africa and Asia who were unable to defend themselves and were forced to talk or sing for the archive. It testifies to the disempowerment of humans through technology. HKW’s choir will now take this to another level – or attempt to. This won’t reverse it all, but at least transform it.

Talking about war often means crossing the threshold of what’s tellable. What role can music play in this?

Detlef Diederichsen: One obvious example from the program is Songhoy Blues, a band that formed in a Bamako refugee camp after having fled Timbuktu. They naturally address their experiences through language. But also just the fact that they play music that is categorically prohibited by the extremists in the country sends a message.

Holger Schulze: I wouldn’t make any clear distinction between storytelling and singing; it’s more a continuity. Even music and singing can lead straight into horror. The same applies to a perfidious reversal: The backing music to torture methods used in Guantánamo are often tracks we know and love, used in our name. The weapons used to destroy people’s hearing, or to cause internal bleeding, are used to protect Western values. And we have to be clear about this: Music in its form as a narrative medium is closely linked to the suffering of which it can report.

Bernd Scherer: Because there’s a level to music that can produce totality, which storytelling in this form can’t. You can always back out of storytelling, but not out of music.

It may therefore also be suitable as an instrument for reappraisal or processing. How do you reflect this in your program?

Holger Schulze: We don’t focus so much on grief, but on the metaphors of lamentation and glory. Heroes who are sung and exalted play a role, but also martyrs who are lamented, and that tricky hodgepodge of remembrance that makes victories bigger and makes death seem even more gruesome. Because all this often leads to the start of the next bloodbath. Many a lament for the dead has become an incendiary song of rage for the next war. That, too, is a terrifying continuity we grapple with.

How do you deal with the fact that people may experience your festival program who only recently suffered their own war experiences?

Holger Schulze: In fact, we’ve received requests from various refugee accommodations. So we’ll also have guests whose war experiences are still very fresh. Some pieces may be intense for some viewers. But most program pieces will probably cause reflective examination. If only because the material is unfamiliar – because I might not know anything about the history of postwar songs from Vietnam and only learn about them during the concert. The very diversity of the regions treated is a crucial aspect of the program, because it underscores how closely everything is interconnected and how similar mechanisms are used throughout all current wars.

Why is there no pacifist music in this context?

Detlef Diederichsen: We would have liked that, but it seems no one’s singing that music anymore. Pete Seeger recently died, Joan Baez may still be on the road, Country Joe McDonald too, but they’re all gray-haired seniors now. Even during the war in Iraq, actually hardly any new songs or music were decidedly anti-war. Maybe it has something to do with the dimensions. The Vietnam War was such a body count and such a crucial issue for that generation because any young man could be drafted, pulled out of his life. I still think it’s an incredibly depressing message to say that since the 1970s people haven’t come up with anything new about peace. Today’s kids are listening to death metal and narco hip-hop or things like that.

Holger Schulze: One important political agenda of our program, therefore, is to raise awareness of how close the wars are getting to us again; that they’re not far away, but are related to us and shaped by us. This very moment someone is being tortured or someplace is being invaded in our name.

Translation: Faith Ann Gibson