"Strife lies within me"
Can music contribute to peace? Or is it like religion, which can be conducive to both peace and warmongering? A Salzburger Nachrichten interview with Hubert von Goisern about anger, disharmony and melodies of peace.
Pax – searching for peace, creating and preserving it, is the theme of "Disputations", the spiritual overture to the Salzburg Festival 2021. Hubert von Goisern will be tackling the subject with "Melodies and Tonalities of Peace". Salzburger Nachrichten spoke to the internationally successful musician about his initiatives for peace – and which boundaries he has discovered in music along the way.
Is the notion that music can create peace correct?
There isn't a melody of peace that works for everybody. A soft, familiar melody can produce a peaceful atmosphere for those singing it, and those who know it, but not necessarily for the people who don't have a way in to this culture. Music is not a universal language.
So there isn't an emotional spark in a melody that speaks to everyone in the same way - Independent of their culture?
There are only melodies and tonalities of peace within a culture. You can only pacify yourself, as it were. For other people, the melody can mean everything and nothing. The aspiration of putting the world on the path to peace with music is foolhardy. Musical traditions are not inclusive. When I've performed my music in other cultures, be it Africa, Asia or America, I've often had the feeling that I'm forcing something on some people.
How have you made a connection with your concertgoers nonetheless?
What really brings people together is what you do together. The interweaving of listening with movement produces a commonality. When I go to Africa and play my music, something communal only develops when the people start dancing along because the music has gone to their legs. A link certainly helps, a local colleague or impresario. My intercultural collaborations have never happened through the music itself, but rather through people who said, let's do something together.
You went on tour with exiled Tibetans. How close did you get to the music?
At first, not at all. In the beginning, their world of sound remained foreign to me. But the time together with 25 people from Tibet on the tour bus brought me closer to their stories and fates. It then took another two years before we were able to combine our musical worlds.
Why are foreign melodies and tonalities seen as disharmony?
Disharmony and strife are not necessarily something from outside. In most cases, it's a condition within us. When I'm really at my core, I can't sense any wrong sound. I can then integrate everything I hear. Everyone knows: there are days and moments in which we could embrace everything and everyone. Days of ultimate harmony, in which there are no dissonances.
Strife grows from sensing wrong notes. The challenge for peace is for me to hear the melodies of others in such a way that they don't induce disharmony. For that, I need harmony within myself. If I can't manage that, I'm vulnerable.
Despite all the scepticism, peace is an important theme in your creativity.
What I'm really working on is peace within myself. That's what gives me the feeling that I can achieve something and it isn't intrusive. But there are many people going against the grain in the world, lots of fury, incomprehension and irreconcilable things. I'm not ruling out sometimes causing it myself. Including with my songs. For me, music is a reflection of the soul. I know that good music has a seductive effective. The better it is, the stronger its emotional influence.
What means do you have other than music to contribute to harmony?
There are many: reading books, baking bread, physical movement, working up a sweat. And my own creativity, which makes me sweat. A philosopher said that it needs overexertion. That makes a lot of sense to me. When I go beyond exertion, I can't feel it any more, I'm in the flow. In a state in which I'm no longer thinking about how strenuous it is. At that point I'm in a different state of consciousness.
The "Disputations" lectures are about religion and peace too. What do you think of that?
Looking at it from this angle, I see religion and music as similar. Both can facilitate peace, but also incite people. Just like us! Those who don't sing our "songs" are the others. Just the same as it is with religion.
For me, religions are places of refuge that have become fragile, but to where we can still retreat if we need cover and protection. Religions can give strength, take away worries, strengthen community. They can help us to not sink into hubris and instead stand under an ultimate responsibility. The ethical rules of religions have been put to the test over many generations – and some haven't withstood these tests. It's certainly not enough to say that someone approved it 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia. If religions are to survive they need to keep their windows and doors open.
What is it for you that's above us?
The godly, the Creation, of which we humans are a part. Just like every sparrow, beetle and every ant. And when I have a handle on my anger, including the "holy" wrath, I can see God in even those who are repulsive to me.
Do you maintain a religious practice?
Seldom, unfortunately. I say unfortunately, because when I was 35 I celebrated great masses in the Augustinian Church in Vienna, with great sermons and great music. Then preachers, orchestras and choirs were forced out due to church politics. That's when I broke with the institution of the church. But I can't and won't deny that I have retained the value of the sacred.