In Times of Conflict, Music Is Its Own Language

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In Times of Conflict, Music Is Its Own Language

Andreas Knapp, Codirector, HANGARMUSIK


The author (center, with glasses) joining the percussion ensemble at the HOGT, September 2018.

The House of Good Tones: what a wonderful name for a project based in music. The fact that the project is located in the town of Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, makes the name even more powerful. The eternal question of Srebrenica is how succeeding generations can shed the burden of history and build trust and a peaceful life together after war.

This is what the House of Good Tones is about: togetherness and building community with music, in an area of Bosnia where, less than 30 years ago, people became enemies in war. Today, citizens grapple with how to deal with the war crimes from that difficult time; in a cemetery at the Potocari Memorial Center, there are more than 6,000 forensically proven victims of the ethnic genocide, Even now, there is still conflict between ethnic groups as the country struggles with this story.

The treaty that ended the hostilities in Srebrenica is called the Dayton Agreement. But as Dr. Valentin Inzko, the former High Commissioner of the United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has pointed out, that treaty simply aimed to stop the fighting between three different armies in one country. In the pressure of the moment, there was no time for the social aspects of truce-making; there is nothing in the agreement about cultural and community healing. Dr. Inzko says that, for exactly this reason, we need a Dayton 2.0. But no one knows what such a document might contain. How to deal with the impossible?

The House of Good Tones is one answer. It has created a model of what a music school can be: the center of everything. The musical learning that goes on there is beautifully described on their website; in this editorial, my focus is on what happens around the music. A “good tone” is more than just playing an instrument. And music is more than just notes; it is fundamentally about society. HOGT is based on that understanding. It is a music school that also builds houses for people in need, feeds children lunch, engages students in civics learning, offers film screenings and seminars, provides lessons in photography and literature, and enables parents, friends, and anyone who wants to participate to join a community of people who are listening to each other, discussing needs, desires, traumas, and joys, and learning about democracy.

Part of the country’s social crisis is an attempt by some factions to deny the truth of what happened in Srebrenica. Therefore, part of the educational process at HOGT is learning what is real—and, even more important, learning the best way to deal with what is real. Music is a good pathway and metaphor for this: a tone is a fact, but what one does with the tone makes all the difference.

Music is a shared language—and, as we all know, children learn languages easily. Their innate linguistic capabilities enable them, with all their different rhythms and tonalities, to learn simply by listening, absorbing, and imitating. Most important, they don’t make judgments about which language is more important than another. The Vienna Boys Choir Leader Gerald Wirth often works with the children of HOGT, and my guess is that he would tell you, about these children, “They teach me!”

The teaching artists and staff of HOGT say that they are learning from their students all the time. Young people living in challenging conditions often have questions their teachers have not encountered before. These teachers listen carefully and let the children’s questions guide the understanding of what their needs are and how best to meet them. Music is present here not as entertainment or aesthetics but as a basic part of being human, with the highest value placed on togetherness and honesty.

Dr. Inzko of the United Nations is a big supporter of the House of Good Tones. If even high-profile diplomats support the idea that music helps to heal a society, we should pay close attention to this program, where extraordinary people are creating something transformational, and showing us how music learning can be a foundational path to rebuilding community and trust.

Andreas Knapp’s youth ensemble music program HANGARMUSIK  is in Berlin, Germany.


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