Thursday, August 18, 2011


Echo, bleeps, distorting, editing, resampling, blanking… though that collection of words might sound like selections from a tech-jargon dictionary, they might be more prevalent in your everyday world than you might think. Turn on the radio, and you’ll probably be exposed to almost every single one blasting through your car speakers. These words aren’t just a part of modern music, but methods of censorship. Since I can remember, the music industry has had to deal with the censoring of music. Yes, the genres of hip hop and pop probably deal with the silent breaks in their tracks more than others. But, I bet not many people would realize that every genre has some censorship—even classical.
                Two major events of censorship/debated censorship happened in the classical world recently, however, both do not include any of the immediately-though-of methods that have to do with aural offenses. Leave it to the music industry to spark arguments over image! At a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert about two weeks ago, the talented Chinese pianist Yuja Wang played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Sounds like a perfectly normal concert, right? Well, not exactly. Wang sported an orange dress that looked, from the pictures, to be about as tight and short as the volleyball uniforms at my school. She could definitely pull the dress off, but her choice of attire sparked somewhat of an uproar, with opinions spewing left and right and sounding closer to a People magazine critique than I’ve ever heard a classical review come to. Reviews from Mark Swed of the LATimes, Anne Midgette of The Washington Post, and Amanda Ameer of the blog Life’s a Pitch have had the most popular opinions so far. In another nook of the classical world, a different type of censorship happened, one that was actually carried out instead of just suggested. Steve Reich, still in his 75th birthday year, is set to release his album for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, “WTC 9/11.” The Kronos Quartet already premiered the music on the album in March, which is said to be incredibly mournful and heart-wrenching, but the album was set to be released Sept. 6. However, Reich and Nonesuch Records decided to put a photo by Masatomo Kuriya, depicting the north tower smoking and the second plane just before impact with the south tower, on the cover. Due to criticism that the image was offensive and/or tacky, Reich said in a statement made on the Nonesuch website that the image will be changed and the release date will be moved to Sept. 20. Comments on the original press release of the album artwork said things like, “On one level it's pitifully ham-fisted, on another despicably exploitive” and “You can't be serious Mr. Reich… It is truly vile.”

Admit it, you've probably seen worse

                Though it would seem logical to think that censorship exists more today than it has before due to the heightened use of often-censored vocabulary and images in pop culture, there has been censorship going on in the music industry for a long time. Richard Wagner, one of the most prolific operatic composers of all time, is rarely played in Israel because of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Russian composers and performers in the 40s often had their music or playing banned because of political tensions. Shostakovich was one of these composers, whose operas like “The Nose” and “Lady Macbeth and the Pravda” were criticized by Stalinists and Stalin himself (who stormed out of the Bolshoi Theatre during “LMatP”). Because of these simmering opinions, Shostakovich decided to postpone the premiere of his Fourth Symphony (one that includes many western-inspired elements) until after Stalin’s death. Shostakovich, in a sense, censored himself because he feared for the safety of himself and his family. Around 1935, the Soviet Union created the “Composers’ Union” which isolated Soviet composers and made sure that few outside influences made it into their scores. The “Composers’ Union” was like an organization dedicated to censoring everything before it actually had to be censored.

                Now, of course, there is certainly a large difference in censorship from, say, a mother covering her daughter’s eyes from an excessively short dress and a group of Soviets keeping an eye on their composers. But all the different types of censoring that goes on in the classical music world has to do with one issue: that the masses, or the authoritative people, have the power to decide what we should see and hear. After all, we are, in the end, just listening to music. Should we fully eliminate images or influences that are offensive to some? In my opinion, Yuja Wang’s dress should be overlooked. Walk on to the red carpet, and you’ll probably see dresses of a similar length and size in every direction. However, because the classical music scene is more used to a conservative view, controversy is created when an outfit like Wang’s is worn. It’s like adding salt to ice cream as opposed to mashed potatoes. The salt is the same ingredient in both foods, but because we are more familiar with salty potatoes and not salty ice cream, the salt would make much more of an impact in the dessert. However, the Reich cover poses more of a curveball. In a perfect world, album artwork should not change our ways of listening to music. On the other hand, should a CD cover be censored/changed if it will end up distracting from the music? Steve Reich certainly was living in downtown Manhattan during Sept. 11 2001, and he still chose to use Masatomo Kuriya’s photo on the cover of “WTC 9/11.” However, there are people who probably lived in California at the time who would’ve chosen differently. There will never be the same opinion in every listener, so Reich had to change the artwork to let the music shine through and, maybe ultimately, to sell records.
                If you were to turn on your local hip hop station, chances are you would hear an uncharacteristic blank or echo in the music due to censorship. If you were to watch an R-rated movie on TV, you would most likely be spared from the especially R-rated parts through editing. We are exposed to censorship in modern pop culture every day, and even the world of classical music experiences it. From short dresses to Stalinists and from anti-Semitism to a photo of a disaster, what we wear and what we see will still be controversial in a culture spawned from sound. That’s just the consequence of living in a world full of different opinions. But, I suppose, it’s those different opinions that create the art in the first place. Could we call that a virtuous and vicious cycle? 


  1. I was at that Yuja Wang concert and seeing her come out in her did raise an eyebrow initially. I heard the people sitting beside me give comments about the dress but, as soon as she started playing, you could only hear the music.

    As for art and censorship, it seems art is in a constant battle with tradition. Pushing forward and beyond what already exists, its no surprise for there to be a backlash of any sort.

  2. This is not censorship, this is criticism and personal opionion, expressed by individuals without the power to act on their opinions like states. The presence of a lively discussion about these topics is a good sign. There is real censorship in the world, from the new media control board in Hungary to the Great Firewall in China to the murdered reporters in Russia or Belorus to that school library in the US that won't have Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn on its shelves. Calling these minor disagreements in the US censorship makes that word appear to be almost harmless.