Interview with Hafez Ismaili m'Hamdi about his course 'From Plato to Pussy Riot'

An interview with Academy of Creative and Performing Arts lecturer Hafez Ismaili m'Hamdi has been published in the magazine Eos Memo.

In the interview, he addresses questions about the changing role of music in society through history, which is also the topic of his course 'From Plato to Pussy Riot'.

Drs. Hafez Ismaili m'Hamdi studied philosophy and music. Besides lecturing in music philosophy at Leiden University, he is conducting research in the field of medical ethics at Erasmus MC, Rotterdam.

Interview with Hafez Ismaili M’hamdi: from Plato to Pussy Riot

‘Plato thought a person should be protected from bad music’

How did people think about music in the past? We put this question to Dutch philosopher Hafez Ismaili m’Hamdi, who teaches a course called ‘From Plato to Pussy Riot’ at Leiden University. In it he examines the various roles music has played over the centuries and what that can teach us.

Manu Sinjan

You claim that in Ancient Greece, music was not viewed as pure entertainment. What do you mean by that?

“An important difference between our society and Ancient Greece is the role of the state, especially in determining what it means to have a good life and what role the government plays in that respect. In our times, it is generally accepted that the state is supposed to create the conditions that make a good life possible – education, health care, infrastructure – but that it shouldn’t get involved in the issue of what constitutes a good life. We prefer to decide that for ourselves.”

Right, we now take freedom for granted.

“Plato had completely different ideas about that. He believed that was something the state should concern itself with. In The Republic he outlines a very pessimistic view of man, who according to him is driven only by emotions, impulses and negative tendencies, with horrible consequences, of course. (He laughs.) That’s why the State needs to educate its citizens and protect them from those bad tendencies. One of the things that Plato was certain had an immense moral influence on us was music. His idea was that the state should take action against ‘bad’ music, by which he meant music of the orgasmic sort, the kind that entices one to party and engage in rebellious behaviour; like at a house party, for example. That sort of music doesn’t lend itself to a good conversation, but instead encourages wild dancing and the abuse of alcohol and drugs. So in one fell swoop he turns music into a relevant topic for the government and makes a connection with the ethical decisions made by everyday people. Plato is a proponent of music that encourages rational reflection, and he’s averse to melodies that provoke strong emotions. Music is supposed to nurture the soul, not corrupt it.”

But the following citation shows that Plato was alone in that view: “Through foolishness they deceive themselves into thinking that there is no right or wrong way to listen to music...”

“That also reflects our current point of view. We have the feeling that listening to music is a subjective experience, and that might be the case for morals too. I’m quite capable of deciding for myself what is good and what is bad, but Plato doesn’t agree with that at all. To us, his point of view may seem be far-fetched and hopelessly outdated, but it isn’t, really, if you think it through a bit further. You have to compare the way people experienced music in Ancient Greece with an all-encompassing spectacle like theatre or film. With films we don’t consider it so strange to carefully select what our children are and aren’t allowed to see.”

“And if you think about why we think that way, then suddenly we’re not so far from what was being claimed by Plato, who we thought was so outdated. Because we do claim that growing children are very vulnerable to all sorts of images and that this gives us the task of shielding them from images that could have a bad influence on them. We even believe that certain films should be completely barred from being televised before a certain time of day.”

“What Plato had in common with other ancient cultures in China and India is the observation that music isn’t as innocent as you might think. That gives us something to think about, because you can’t walk into a shop without hearing music. I can imagine that a Plato would think that we are rather reckless in the way we deal with music.”

In your course, after classical antiquity you proceed immediately to the Enlightenment. Does that mean that nothing interesting happened between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?

“Music underwent immense development over all those centuries, of course, but in my view the role music played stayed fairly constant, because most music was composed on commission. Music commissioned by the Church is a good example of that. I certainly don’t want to short-change fans of the Middle Ages, but I simply had to make choices. (He laughs.) And the movement that arose at the end of the Renaissance and continued in the Enlightenment is more pertinent to the particular debate that I have in mind.”

So, it’s an exciting period, both for philosophy and music. Why is Jean-Jacques Rousseau a key figure?

“Rousseau calls man in his natural state ‘le bon sauvage’, the noble beast. We were originally good people who took pleasure in sharing vegetables from our gardens with each other. That is a form of compassion. But if we engage in society and I discover that you have a prettier wife and a nicer car than I do, that compassion turns into envy. In Rousseau’s view, the context of the culture, in which one person is more successful than the other, leads to inequality. In our natural state, we all sing pretty songs, but at a certain point we notice that some people sing a lot more beautifully than everyone else. That gives those people status and inevitably leads to inequality and jealousy. Take Justin Bieber for instance: what can he do that makes us think that he should be raking in millions while a street artist earns far below the minimum wage?”

“But at the same time Rousseau also argues – and this is what makes him such a contradictory figure – that music is important for eliminating this inequality. Because when we’re sitting around the campfire singing songs together, that might just be when we are the most equal!”

Can we also find some of the Enlightenment’s scientific ideals in Rousseau?

“At that time you had composers like Rameau, who were devising increasingly complex harmonies thanks to the growing understanding of the natural sciences. Rousseau was very sceptical about the question as to whether that scientific input was actually good for music. Music is about people, and man is not some mathematical formula. According to Rousseau, language and music have the same source: the expression of emotions. He claims that in language the emotional side was lost when man learned to write. A person who starts writing begins to objectify and engage in abstraction. He sees that very same process in music, posing the question as to whether with all those amazing scientific feats you are still able to do the thing music was intended to do: express emotions.”

In Romanticism we then see a quest for identity and a sharp turn to the right, two phenomena that we recognise in our own times.

“One of the main projects of the Enlightenment was making things ‘scientific’. For the first time, science had the courage to dispute the Holy Scriptures, and bit by bit the scientific method took over the role of religion as an explanatory model. The idea gradually arose that science rather than God was the path to justice and prosperity. The second major project revolved around legitimisation, because the ruling class had always justified its power by invoking the will of God. Some people, including the young musician Richard Wagner, believed that no power relationship that was not natural could be legitimate. That was anarchy.”

But things went terribly wrong with the practical implementation of those ideals.

Wagner wanted to convey anarchy’s ideals of liberty in this work. One of those ideals was sharing norms and values in society. Therein also lies the link to nationalism, which often brandishes ideas like the natural order of the place where you were born and raised. And he sees the evil of the emerging capitalism and the industrialisation of Europe, of greed instead of brotherhood. He even criticised the economic performance mindset in his Ring Cycle! Wagner played an active role in the revolt against the nobility in Dresden, which ended in a total fiasco. He fled and became entirely pessimistic; his ideals had failed him. He began to delve into the works of Schopenhauer, probably the least happy of all philosophers. In a nutshell, he says that man is only driven by passions and emotions that cannot ever really be fulfilled, except temporarily. Our lot is eternal suffering, until we die. But something he does say is that we can temporarily escape our suffering, through music.” 

So, there’s still a bright spot.

“Right, and Wagner incorporated this into his Ring Cycle. The funny thing is that Wagner had already prepared the libretto for his opera when he became so enthralled with Schopenhauer. Then he attempted to incorporate that pessimistic tone into the music itself. So if you listen to the Ring with the ears I’m providing you with now, you’ll notice that there isn’t a single point at which the music comes to a rest. It goes from dissonance to dissonance to dissonance. I myself can’t handle it. (He laughs.) In this way he wants to depict the human condition, using the raw musical material, from one moment of tension to the next. Just as with the human condition, the misery never comes to an end in his music.”

We also find this concern with runaway capitalism much later, with Theodor Adorno.

“After World War I it was clear that the proletariat had not taken power, but had let itself become a pawn of fascism. The Frankfurt School, a group of German philosophers, wanted to figure out what had gone wrong with Marxism. Adorno also found the workings of capitalism in music. He showed that the tendency to standardise products and to mass-produce was also at work in music, in what he called the culture industry. Whereas art was intended to be a mirror of society and call problematic issues into question, it had now been incorporated by the very system that it was supposed to critique. Music, not as a weapon against capitalism but as its slave.”

Do I assume correctly that he didn’t mean all music?

“No, but he did mean quite a bit of it. Adorno is very elitist. For example, he considers a composer like Schönberg to be great, because there he hears a tonal revolution, a revolution that he thinks is missing in society. For him, culture in the sense of entertainment overshoots its goal. Pop music isn’t even composed anymore; it’s produced according to parameters that enable you to predict a hit.”

“To be completely clear, I do think that he goes overboard in this respect. (He laughs.) He considered jazz and folk music to be inauthentic and altogether too simple. Popular music turns people into lazy listeners, so to speak. But in my opinion the criticism he is making is still relevant. You can rightly wonder whether your experience listening to music is really so personal if the record companies know ahead of time what you’re going to like. They capitalise on that to get me to consume more. So what remains of that real music? Am I really so free to make my own choices? It’s clear that the quantity there is to select from bears no relation to my freedom to choose. It’s so easy to download 10 terabytes of music, but something important also appears to have been lost.”

And how does Pussy Riot, at the end of your course, fit into this line-up of prominent thinkers.

“Pussy Riot’s musical protest is a nice example that you can conceptualise and critique in a variety of ways. On the one hand, they are protesting against the effects of the same capitalism that Adorno was concerned with. But on the other hand, Adorno would have completely rejected their music because the notes of the simple punk riffs have nothing to do with an intellectual protest. For Plato, Pussy Riot is an example of subversive, immoral music. But Pussy Riot is trying to draw attention to the prevailing homophobia, the iron hand of the Orthodox Church and inequality in Putin’s Russia. To me those seem to be prime examples of moral questions.”

[Under photo:]

While the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) is famous for his complex operas, he is also known for his anti-Semitic writings. This partially explains Adolf Hitler’s predilection with Wagner’s music.

[Under photo:]

The feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot has been campaigning against president Putin since 2011.

[In box:]

Biographical Sketch

Hafez Ismaili m’Hamdi studied guitar at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and philosophy at Leiden University. He got his master’s in applied ethics at Utrecht University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in medical ethics at Erasmus MC.

This interview by Manu Sinjan was published in Dutch in the magazine Eos Memo.


Last Modified: 02-11-2015