Tag Archives: music

25 Feb. 2014. ‘Play Hunger Monkey Mayhem’: Alice Herz-Sommer and Living History

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died on Sunday morning in London at the age of 110. Born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, she survived two years in Terezin/Theresienstadt, the infamous concentration camp were so many tens of thousand people died.

ImageAs a trained pianist, Herz-Sommer became a member of the concentration camp orchestra, performing more than a 100 concerts during her time in the camp. A documentary of her extraordinary life, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” (dir. Malcolm Clarke) has just been nominated for an Oscar. When I clicked on the video link to the documentary trailer embedded in Herz-Sommer’s obituary in The Guardian online, I was shocked to be confronted with an advert inviting me to ‘Play Hunger Monkey Mayhem’. While advertising and related finance clearly rule the media today, it is sickening to come across such a brash display of unthinking commercialism in the account of Herz-Sommer’s deeply traumatic yet always forward looking life.

I did not linger to find out what ‘Hunger Monkey Mayhem’ entails, but clearly this game is part of a twenty-first century commercial imagination that has no sense of, or need for, individual histories.

Yet Alice Herz-Sommer’s life story is one of many that have indelibly shaped the present. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the graphic account of the Holocaust survival of his father, Vladek, has shown that history is mediated by memory and feelings in ways that complicate our understanding of the affective legacies of the past. Vladek too survived Terezin/Theresienstadt, but his story differs considerably from that of Alice Herz-Sommer – not least because in Vladek’s account, the orchestra that helped sustain Alice does not exist.

In MetaMaus, the account of the making of Maus, Spiegelman records what happened when he asked his father about the camp’s orchestra: Vladek insisted that he ‘remember[s] only marching, not any orchestras’. As a result, notes Spiegelman, while he knew from his own  research that the orchestra had existed, ‘I have the orchestra being blotted out [in Maus] by the people marching because that’s all [Vladek] remembers’.


From: See Art Spiegelman’s discussion in MetaMaus (2011)

Spiegelman’s ‘blotting out’ is not a denial or negation of the past but a conscious rendering of individual experience and its memory. The comics format allows him to document this process, making sure that Vladek’s narrative is told alongside – and as part of – other historical accounts of Terezin/Theresienstadt. In my own project, I am similarly trying to get a sense of a larger historical moment by focusing on the experiences and ideas of Magnus Hirschfeld and considering what they can tell us about the beginnings of a collective queer identity and politics in the early twentieth-century.

This research is as much about evaluating sources than it is about discovering new archives. For how a story is told is crucial for understanding what is said and why. The inclusion of ‘Hunger Monkey Mayhem’ in Alice Herz-Sommer’s extraordinary life story serves no useful narrative function. It is a crass reminder of the precariousness of individual lives in the grand narratives of high capitalism where human value is a monetary unit.


21 Feb. 2014. Musical Inversions: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

The queer past has an extraordinary sensory presence in the twenty-first century.  Last Wednesday, I went to an excellent event dedicated to the life and music of Ethel Smyth (1854-1944). Organised by the University of Surrey as part of LGBT History Month, the evening paid particular attention to the musical career of Smyth, a composer, writer, suffragette and dog lover whose ‘The March of the Women‘, written for the Women’s Social and Political Union, became the anthem of the British suffragette movement.

The event started off with an informative and entertaining talk by Dr Christopher Wiley on the relationship between Smyth’s music and her lesbianism – her most today best known relationship was with the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. With the help of violinists Sophie Langdon, pianist Maureen Galea and members of the University of Surrey Chamber Choir, Wiley brought to life Smyth’s music. He demonstrated the breadth of Smyth’s oeuvre, which included, for example, operas, orchestral works and chamber music; and he also explained how the music reflected developments in Smyth’s own life such as her love for Elisabeth ‘Lisl’ von Herzogenberg, the wife of Smyth’s teacher, the composer and conductor Heinrich von Herzogenberg.

I was particularly interested to learn that one of Smyth’s early pieces, which was composed during her time with the von Herzogenbergs in Germany, makes use of a technique of ‘inversion’, here meaning that the closing notes appear in reverse order of the opening notes. While I have written a book on ‘inversion’, this is the first time that I have come across the use of the concept in a musical context.

‘Inversion’ emerged as a concept associated with what we would now call sexual identity in 1860s, in the affirmative writings on same-sex love by the Hanoverian lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895). Ulrichs argued that men who desire men have ‘a female soul’ within their male body. Women who desire other women in turn were seen to have a ‘male soul’ inside their female body (it tells us something about the gendered contexts of these debates that Ulrichs felt prompted to note that he assumed that female same-sex love existed but did not personally know any women who love women).

While the terminology of the ‘invert’ would eventually give way in the early twentieth-century to the ‘lesbian’ and the ‘homosexual’, inversion itself has become one of the most pervasive concepts in modern debates about sexuality. Indeed, ideas about ‘mannish lesbians’ and ‘effeminate gay men’ continue to circulate quite widely in twenty-first century debates about sexuality.

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Today, ‘inversion’ is often invoked as part of negative stereotyping. In the late 1870s and 1880s, however, when Ethel Smyth was falling in love with a woman in Germany while honing her skills as a composer, many women and men whose desires ran against the heterosexual grain happily self-identified as inverts. Most famously, perhaps, the rebellion against gender and sexual norms was expressed through dress – Virginia Woolf, Smyth’s unrequited love when the latter was in her early 70s, once described the composer’s dress affectionately as ‘tweeds and spats [with] a little cock’s feather in your felt, and a general look of angry energy’.

Chris Wiley’s talk has alerted me to the existence of a whole new dimension to modern sexual
Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 16.31.03politics. For Ethel Smyth’s composition suggests that sexuality and gender were reshaped in and through music as well as literature, art and politics. From now on, then, I will be listening out for Smyth’s musical inversions and the queer echoes that follow them across time.