I’ve been thinking a lot about music and silence and art and war this week.
Our cover story is about the Comedian Harmonists (and as a totally irrelevant but pressing aside, I do wonder what the group’s name was in German, and if there isn’t a better — more harmonious — way to say it in English. But I do digress), whose music and sense of humor and of timing and of joy made its members beloved, and whom the Nazis silenced.
Totalitarianism doesn’t like music, it seems. Or at least music that isn’t martial and state sanctioned.
Ukraine’s president, the utterly astounding, beyond-belief brave, brilliant, charismatic, telegenic, and for-real inspirational Volodymyr Zelensky, who has managed to combine his training in law and background not just in comedy but specifically in satire into extraordinary political leadership, talked about music last Sunday, in a video on the Grammy awards show.
“What’s more opposite to music?” Zelensky asked, from a video screen that hung enormously over the stage, dressed in a t-shirt, his face no longer stubbled but now fully bearded. “The silence of ruined cities and killed people.”
A few lines later in his short speech, he said, “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals — even to those who can’t hear them. But the music will break through anyway. We defend our freedom to live, to love, to sound.
He asked his audience, both the relatively small group in the room and the large numbers watching onscreen, to make noise. To tell Ukraine’s story.
“On our land, we are fighting Russia, which brings horrible silence with its bombs — the dead silence,” he said. “Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today to tell our story.
On Sunday night, my synagogue, newly reopening to in-person programming, offered a concert of reinterpreted Bob Dylan music, interspersed with would-be explanation by one of Dylan’s many explainers. This one, a rabbi, bloviated; Dylan’s refusal to be pinned down by his decades-long streams of words, words, and yet more words draw out matching, even less coherent streams from commentators. This one was very fond of the words “broken” and “gnostic.” Whatever.
But the music was wonderful — who knew that Dylan could sound so good when other people sing him?
I was most struck, though, by words that I’ve heard so often that I’ve stopped hearing them. They’re from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of the most anthemic and therefore the most cliched of Dylan’s songs. But now, when you hear “Yes, and how many death will it take til he knows that too many people have died?” particularly on the day that you’re first seen the photographs of tortured, bound, dead Ukrainians, lying all over suburban streets, killed by the Russians out of what seems to be sinat chiman, baseless hatred, it’s impossible not to connect those sounds with those images.
And then the next night, we went to Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue, to hear Judy Collins and her much younger musical partner, Ari Hest, singing Leonard Cohen. There was no silence there. The room was packed, and Judy Collins by now is a symbol of endurance as well as of beauty.
Now that we’re starting to get together again — maybe it’ll just be temporary, we know there’s another variant coming and we don’t know how long the boosters will retain their potency, but for now we’re able to get together — we can sing together.
Pesach is coming, and that is a time for stories and songs. We have to tell the story of our exodus and survival, and we have to tell the story of what’s going on in the world now. Those of us who are safe on this side of the world have to figure out how to balance fear and joy.
As President Zelensky tells us, we have to fill the silence with our music.