Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Music & Diplomacy in Review

by Rebekah Ahrendt, Mark Ferraguto, and Damien Mahiet

Musical diplomacy seems to be everywhere today. From US Department of State programs like Next Level or OneBeat, to concert diplomacy in India and Pakistan, to the musical nation-branding of South Korea, nations and individuals alike are investing time, emotion, and resources into music in the pursuit of power and peace.

Musical diplomacy has experienced a strong resurgence in recent decades, as practitioners and theorists of international relations have had to adapt to new modes of communication and quickly evolving ideologies. Both governmental and non-governmental actors devoted to cultural diplomacy have reiterated music’s centrality to building and maintaining peaceful relationships, from Secretary of State John Kerry to Mark Katz, who runs Next Level at the University of North Carolina, to Mark Donfried, director of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. Meanwhile, such public diplomacy scholars as Nicholas Cull (director of USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy) have argued that musical practices and institutions offer an especially effective and desirable manifestation of power.

Most significant is the recent emphasis on people-to-people (P2P) contacts as a means of fostering diplomatic relations. As a result, today’s musical ambassadors are most likely to be practitioners of “popular” musics. That is not to say that the orchestral tour is no longer relevant. The reopening of US-Cuban diplomatic relations, for example, has resulted in as many as 24 US orchestras announcing plans to go to Cuba—led by the Minnesota Orchestra, which had performed on the island back in the 1960s.

The topic of music and diplomacy has also fueled much recent scholarly work. In the past three years, interdisciplinary conferences have taken place in Greater Boston (“Music and Diplomacy,” 2013; organized by the authors of this post), Utrecht (“Negotiating Music,” 2013; curated by Ahrendt), Berlin (“Culture and International History V,” 2014), and Los Angeles (“Harmony or Discord: Exploring the Impact of Music Diplomacy” 2015). Another conference in Hanover, Germany, highlighted the activities of composer-diplomat Agostino Steffani (2014). In addition, the 2013 annual meeting of the AMS in Pittsburgh included two sessions on this topic: “Music, Diplomacy, and Social Networks in the Long Eighteenth Century” and “Cross-Border Encounters in the Global South: A New Look at Cold War Cultural Diplomacy.” Two additional conferences are scheduled to take place in Europe in 2015–2016: “Popular Music and Public Diplomacy” at the Technische Universität in Dortmund, Germany, and “Sounds and Voices on the International Stage: Understanding Musical Diplomacies” at CERI-SciencesPo and CERLIS-Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris.

Along with this flurry of conferences comes an impressive array of new books. The twentieth century is well represented, with scholars considering new lines of inquiry and bringing to light previously unavailable documents. Carol A. Hess’s Representing the Good Neighbor: Music, Difference, and the Pan American Dream (Oxford UP, 2013) considers the shifting reception of Latin American music and musicians during the Pan American period and beyond. Danielle Fosler-Lussier’s Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy (University of California Press, 2015) contributes new insights to a much-discussed period in the history of international relations. The book boasts a robust companion website—treated in an earlier Musicology Now blogpost—featuring a searchable database of performances sponsored by the US State Department between 1954 and 1980. Cadra Peterson McDaniel examines dance as an instrument of diplomacy in American–Soviet Cultural Diplomacy: The Bolshoi Ballet’s American Premiere (Lexington Books, 2015). And two new edited collections explore music’s place in twentieth-century cultural and political relations: Felix Meyer, Carol J. Oja, Wolfgang Rathert, and Anne C. Shreffler, eds., Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900–2000 (Boydell, 2014) and Jessica Gienow-Hecht, ed., Music and International History in the Twentieth Century (Berghahn, 2015).

Both practically and intellectually speaking, interest in musical diplomacy has never been greater. And yet, our knowledge of the history and scope of musical diplomacy remains very patchy. Geographically, it mostly centers on the US, Europe, and the former Soviet Union; temporally, on the seventeenth century and the Cold War. At the heart of most recent developments in musical diplomacy, too, are a number of assumptions that remain inadequately examined. First and foremost among them is the belief that music—the “language of emotions”—is indeed a universal means of communication. Such assumptions have resulted, and continue to result, in unfortunate missteps on the international stage, particularly with regard to repertoire choice, performative competencies, and the agency of musicians.

In Music and Diplomacy from the Early Modern Era to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), we made an argument for studying music and diplomacy across the longue durée. It should come as no surprise that history sheds much-needed light on fundamental concepts like “harmony” or the “universality” of music, too often used without contextualization. Exploring the function of music in international relations, we address questions central to the field of diplomacy regarding the determinants of political decisions, the nature of representation, the role of women and gender, and the performance of power.

Engaging with this long history also offers new ways of thinking about present-day programs. Viewing the conventions, ideals, and practices of today’s musical diplomacy through a historical lens, we suggest, might allow us to better shape future actions on the international stage. While it necessarily falls to state departments and NGOs to coordinate such efforts, music scholars can help by providing the historicization needed to guide decision-making processes.

Music, we emphasize, has historically played a part in virtually all aspects of diplomacy, both traditional and public. It has not only provided actors with yet another medium of representation and communication, but also offered a third term—a common ground—for parties otherwise at odds. As a social performance, it is also a locus of negotiation where actors can practice discord and cooperation. The history of diplomacy resounds with music. When we dismiss what happens beyond the negotiation table and the office desk as irrelevant, we are, in effect, remaining deaf to the past.

Rebekah Ahrendt is Assistant Professor in the Yale University Department of Music.

Mark Ferraguto is Assistant Professor in the Penn State University School of Music.



Damien Mahiet is an independent scholar.

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