Performing the Jewish Archive

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Testimony, Facticity, and Musical Truth-Telling

Venue: Recital Hall East, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Admission: Free

The second keynote lecture for Out of the Shadows is delivered by Dr Brigid Cohen, Assistant Professor of Music at New York University.  This talk is presented by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney, and is part of the Alfred Hook lecture series, made possible by funding from a generous bequest from Doreen Robson.



Alfred Hook Lecture: Testimony, Facticity, and Musical Truth-Telling
The central paradox of Holocaust testimony lies in the impossibility of any full narration of genocide, because, as Primo Levi wrote, those who did “touch bottom … have not returned to tell about it.”  Genocide operates through the systematic destruction of its witnesses.  By excluding its victims from the dignity of community, citizenship, and law, it also seeks to extinguish the memory of their very existence.  In Nazism, this destruction of public space and memory worked in tandem with the erection of an ideology that “denied the importance of facts in general,” as Hannah Arendt put it, setting the foundation for generations of Holocaust denialism.  Given these conditions, Holocaust memory has had good reason to place a premium on evidence and proof in the construction of its archives.  Rehabilitating the value of facts through the documentation of genocide means taking responsibility for a common world.

At first glance, this situation complicates musical performance’s value as a form of testimony.  Amy Wlodarski writes, for example, that memorial musical works and performances from the postwar period onward serve not as narrowly conceived “historical documents” but rather as “imaginative accounts of the Holocaust and markers of its cultural meanings.” To be sure, however, music’s resistance to narrow conceptions of “document” need not be construed as a shortcoming to projects of memory.  Rather, building on the work of Wlodarski and other music scholars, I turn to music as goad to explore the simultaneous necessity and inadequacy of a juridical language concerning Holocaust remembrance, the language of testimony as documents and evidence.  Framed as an open-ended inquiry, this talk ranges across repertories and performances of works by Jewish composers and musicians in refugee flight and in the concentration camps, bringing them into dialogue with philosophical interventions that address questions of responsibility, reality, facticity, and truth-telling in the wake of genocide.

Brigid Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Music at New York University. Her research centers on twentieth-century avant-gardes, migration and diaspora, and intersections of music, the visual arts, and literature. Her book Stefan Wolpe and the Avant-Garde Diaspora (2012) won the Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society. She is currently writing Musical Migration and the Global City: New York, 1947-1965. Her research appears in such journals as Musical Quarterly, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, and Journal of the American Musicological Society. It has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy in Berlin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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