Music, especially Western classical music, happens at various levels. It is composed, performed, listened to live and recorded, and talked and written about privately and publicly. But, at all these levels, there is a curious paradox complicating the idea and practice of the music. As a phenomenon made up of harmony and rhythm created by a number of people playing and singing together, polyphonic or symphonic music is equally dependent on disharmony and dissonance, just as it plays itself out, like history, in that most mortal of dimensions — time. The harmony that the composer, and then the conductor, produce from these different people making different kinds of noise is therefore a precarious, complex and conflicted thing. Yet, ‘classical’ music is also regarded as timeless and transcendent. It is supposed to take human ideas and emotions beyond history and its darker twin, politics, towards the realm of the sublime, whose relationship with power — the human ability to force disharmony into harmony — is fraught with contradictions in the actual world of authority and struggle. So, music at its most sublime is always already political, in the largest sense of that troubling word. And who better than Beethoven and the modern interpreters of his nine great symphonies — among whom the conductor, Zubin Mehta, is one of the most eminent — in embodying the disconcerting paradox of music’s unresolved relationship with power?
So, there is an ironic, though no less unfortunate, aptness in a significant section of Kashmir’s civil society objecting to Mr Mehta coming to Srinagar with the Bavarian State Orchestra to play a programme of symphonic music — including the Beethoven Fifth — in the Mughal gardens by the Dal lake on September 7. Mr Mehta and the German embassy see this as a concert affirming the value of hope and peace, dedicated to the people of Kashmir. But the same concert appears to some of its dedicatees to be a form of cultural imperialism, which they are being subjected to by the Indian State and its diplomatic collaborators. It does not help Mr Mehta and the Germans that entry to this performance of ‘universal’ music for the ‘people’ of Kashmir is by invitation only — the list compiled by politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats, hence difficult to pass off as apolitical. The exclusive nature of classical music, together with its high-minded claim to universality, begins to sound suspicious to those with other sorts of stake in this particular set of circumstances.
Yet, it is also true — as Mr Mehta puts it simply — that if people stick together, even symbolically, for an hour-and-a-half and hear some beautiful music, it might bring some peace to those present or listening to the television broadcast. Perhaps, making excellent music and listening to it together produces a sort of engaged transcendence that transforms the music of power into the power of music. It would be a shame to deny the magic of that transformation to a people for whom the inseparability of beauty from terror has long ceased to be an exclusively aesthetic experience.