The story-of-the-week in music-no-one-has-heard is that of Jonas Tarm's unceremoniously-cancelled Carnegie premiere with the New York Youth Symphony (Klinghoffer, anyone?). A friend of mine posted a link to the NPR story on my facebook wall with the added question: "Should he have to disclose his intent?" My immediate TL;DR reaction was "no," followed by a TL version I've pasted here. (There's also a passionately persuasive plea in the New York Times for the necessity of just letting the damn thing be played).
The notion of “intent” is problematic – a notion embodied is not the same as a notion received. Whatever the composer’s intent might be or have been is likely no longer his intent (since intent is not a fixed, static object), and the past experiences and expectations a listener brings to the experience are a large determinant in how he or she perceives the meaning and effectiveness of the music.
A piece of music should be surprising (otherwise, what’s the point of creating “new” music?) – in the message it conveys, or in the way it makes a listener feel, or in its combination of sounds – but it’s impossible to know what will be surprising, moving, pleasing, or upsetting for every listener. To write a program note that provides a “trigger warning” is a fool’s errand. It seems that the composer’s evocative quotation of T.S. Eliot would actually be an excellent preparation for the aesthetic experience his piece creates without forcing a listener into a narrow listening experience entrained toward a single aspect of the music (e.g., the musical quotation that people who haven’t heard the piece are already offended about).
Moreover, the idea that we should shelter ourselves from things that are unpleasant precisely because they are unpleasant is absurd. The idea that we should deny a potentially moving aesthetic experience (or even one that falls flat) because some people can’t handle it emotionally is also tyrannically absurd. There will be unexpected moments of emotion in our daily lives (e.g., a stranger walks by wearing perfume that reminds you of a dead relative, and you feel suddenly overwhelmed, physically paralyzed, and taken out of your body). To suggest that we can only allow for certain kinds of aesthetically-induced emotional experiences, or that we should only experience certain kinds of emotional reactions with proper full-disclosure preparation for them sanitizes and sterilizes the aesthetic experience. It marginalizes the aesthetic experience by boxing it into a safe space where we come to engage it volitionally rather than allowing it to engage us. It suggests that our interaction with the world is something over which we can and should have control.
However, I think that misses a central point of protest art and emotionally-moving art in general (not just political music) – these issues, these emotional triggers, these moments of beauty, these flickerings of tragedy that propel art are everywhere. The world is an overwhelming place, filled with remnants of the past and intimations of the future. We gloss over them in our daily lives because it’s inefficient to curl up in a ball for the afternoon because you were reminded about genocide. It’s somebody’s duty to draw our attention to how beautifulterriblebig the world is, and I think art like this tries to take up that mantle. I think the only reasonable reactions to a piece like this would be 1) oh, I didn’t like that so I don’t think I’ll listen to this composer’s work again; or 2) wow, I hadn’t thought about X in that way before, and now I have the potential to be a more empathetic, more aware, more ready-for-anything citizen of the world (where X = sound, idea, image, emotion, etc.).
Also, it’s just music.