Torture Chamber Music

With the transfer last month to the United Arab Emirates of fifteen prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, and with word yesterday that one of two long-term Malaysian detainees may be headed home to continue “de-radicalization” in a maximum security prison there, Obama lurches towards bitter fulfillment of his long-ago campaign pledge to close the notorious prison and torture center. He has 118 days to deal with the last 61 detainees.

In thinking musically about the grim legacy of Guantanamo’s torturous regime the obvious place to start is with the hits—ones that leave no bruises—the CIA used in its “enhanced interrogations.” Among the weaponized pop deployed was Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” played so relentlessly, reported Binyam Mohamed, who was released in 2009 after seven-years detention, that he could hear other inmates “screaming and smashing their heads against walls.” The track was forced on Mohamed for twenty consecutive days. I barely made it through the four-minute video with the audio squeaking out of my laptop’s speakers.

Instead of surveying this appalling record, it is time to take stock in the last days of the Obama a, and for this the Musical Patriot turns to a reliable source.

Bach on torture is hard to forget. He treats it rarely in his vocal works, but when he does, no composer matches his uncanny ability to evoke its procedures’ harrowing extortion of truth and lies, and the shattering recriminations it visits on both the tortured and the torturer. This is not music of the lash and the rack, but of mental terror.

Many interpreters of Bach’s cantatas and their libretti might claim that references to torture in these works are merely metaphorical, literary weapons used to make religious arguments about morality and salvation.  But then as now, torture was an omnipresent, much-debated practice, thought to be a crucial means not so much for establishing guilt, but for confirming it. When Bach’s music referred to torture it was not an abstract, merely figurative, turn of phrase, but summoned thoughts of horrific punishments potentially to be visited on anyone accused—and for their own good.

How important and much-discussed the topic was in Bach’s time can be gauged by opening up the forty-fourth volume of the largest encyclopedia project of the eighteenth century and reading the article on “torture.” Published in Bach’s Leipzig from 1732-1754, Zedler’s Universal-Lexicon includes a main article on torture that extends to thirty folio pages of dense type.  One of the longest articles in the encyclopedia, this essay and the ancillary entries on related aspects of torture consume more ink even than the thirty-pages devoted to Martin Luther.

The “torture” article begins by following a by-then familiar circuit of logic, one that suggests to me that even its eighteenth-century apologists knew their position was untenable. If torture weren’t effective, runs this argument by tautology, then the world would be full of criminals, since the innocent would have so often been convicted and the guilty freed.
  The main purpose of physically aggressive interrogation is not necessarily to bring the truth to light, since “the painful question” [die peinliche Frage] as torture was also known in German, should only be resorted to when overwhelming evidence indicates guilt. Rather, the idea is to force the accused to acknowledge their crimes and duly repent. In this sense torture is a favor to the tortured: verbal expiation holds the possibility of redemption rather than damnation. Even if the death penalty is convict’s immediate worldly fate, salvation might be the eternal reward of even the most heinous earthly criminal. According to this reasoning, torture becomes a means towards truth and reconciliation.

But the violent extraction of a questionable “truth” suggests that much of this has to do with assuaging society’s guilt about the possibility of putting someone to death falsely; an admission of guilt, even if brought to the light of day with the instruments of torture, confirms for the benefit of the accusers that justice has been done.  Hardened refusal to admit to the crime seals the damnation of the unrepentant criminal. Bach’s choirboys sang at public beheadings and hangings in Leipzig: even ten-year-olds were deemed fit to watch and to sing at such spectacles.

The vast juridical and philosophical literature on torture is referred to throughout the Zedler article, while the still-current critique of it is also presented at several junctures. Simply put: torture doesn’t work. The article cites several sources that assert that those with hardy constitutions can better resist torture, but those who are weaker will admit to anything just to stop the agony. In response, the article’s author admits that torture doesn’t always work and that it can extort false admissions. But failing other more effective means, torture is an essential tool when used properly and legally.

In the Zedler article the practice of torture, then as now, is defended on technological and legalistic grounds that merely serve to divert attention from the brute fact of its wrongness. Refining the techniques of interrogation raise the Germans over the infidels. Merely tying up the accused and whipping him is condemned by the author as “just plain Turkish and downright barbaric.” By contrast, the modern instruments of torture are markers of civilization: the thumbscrews; the Spanish boots; resinous pine splints under the fingers; water torture (both drop treatment and what we would come to call waterboarding)—all these are just fine. Among dozens of other techniques, that separate enlightened Europeans from the barbaric Turks are abrading the skin and then putting hornets or mice or other of “vermin” under a glass pressed above the wounds. Christian civilization also condones the slathering cut feet with salt and letting a goat lick them off .

The most meager of prisoner’s rights are recognized in Zedler, though this only highlights the brutality of the entire practice:  nursing mothers with infants younger than six months cannot be legally tortured, nor the deaf and speechless. Procedures should not permanently disfigure or cripple the victim, and—surprisingly—if accidental death ensues, the overseeing judge can be held accountable and accordingly punished.

As for military combatants, the author’s approach turns from legalistic argument to commonsense. Since you can never trust your enemy anyway, you shouldn’t believe what he says when, for example, he is pressed naked between two coffin-like plates and ropes on geared-spools are tied around his toes and then cranked.

The most harrowing part of the article is not the list of instruments, ranging from the elaborate and simple, but the transcripts of sample torture sessions included in order to demonstrate to stenographers on how to take proper notes. One runs as follows:

“The Torturer [he’s also the Executioner, which adds to the horror] ties up the Accused. The Accused says he has done nothing illegal and that he is innocent. The Torturer applies the thumbscrews. The Accused says he knows nothing. The Torturer cranks the screws. The Accused says he knows nothing. The Torturer cranks the screws again. The Accused screams: ‘No, No, Lord Jesus.’ The Screws are tightened. The Accused screams for mercy. The thumbscrews have failed to be effective. The Torturer fits the Spanish boots to the Accused. The Torturer hits the boots. The Accused screams that he did indeed commit the robberies.  The Accused is asked who is accomplices are and without further torture quickly names his henchmen as Schnabsack, Tall Abraham, and the Pole.

The much shorter Zedler article on “Torture Chamber” stresses that, like Guantanamo, the venue of interrogation should be placed far, far from the sites of civic life.

Within two months of taking up his position as Director of Music in Leipzig in 1723, one of the most prestigious civic musical positions in Germany, Bach
led a performance of his cantata, “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (Lord, do not go into court with your servant). Paraphrasing the second verse of Psalm 143, the text of Bach’s opening chorus assumes that in the Godly courts all are guilty of heinous crimes. The orchestral introduction is simultaneously tenuous and inexorable, resisting judgment but realizing that there is no escape from its dark decrees. A series of doubting harmonies moves forward because there is no going back, the melody concluding with a series of sighing supplications just before the chorus enters with full, oppressive force. In spite of these pleas not to be brought into court, the chorus realizes it must face judgment. Once the choir enters it, too, trudges ahead in solemn, if reluctant procession.

In setting the second line of the chorus “before You, no living person is just,” Bach suddenly animates the texture with a frantic fugue, one that brilliantly conveys the turbulent, ephemeral rush of earthly life and sin, the perpetual conflicts fought with the self and with others.  Like life, the chorus careens to a preemptory end that ushers the individual, heard in the subsequent alto recitative, before God. Here no torture is necessary to elicit the truth.  God is a “just judge,” and the individual’s admission of guilt is complete and untroubled:

I state my confession freely to you
and do not throw myself into danger
by denying, by concealing
the errors of my soul

The central aria, “Wie zittern und wanken, die Sünder Gedanken” (How they tremble and waver, the thoughts of the sinners) follows immediately with high throbbing strings.  There is no real bass-line, no foundation to the sound.  The shimmering, major-key harmony hovers like mist, or, as it turns out, deadly poison. A plaintive oboe soars into and above these yearning, trembling sonorities. The music seems to offer comfort, in spite of the dark minor tinges at the end of the oboe’s rapturous phrase that concludes its introductory solo.

The voice that emerges is also high, ethereal: the soprano describes “How the sinner’s thoughts tremble and waver / while they bring accusations against each other / and on the other hand dare to make excuses for themselves.” Bach unspools long arcs of striving melody on the words “accusation” and “dare” that bring to mind the tensions of legal wrangling and internal rationalization. What makes this music so unsettling is the mysterious way that Bach imbues this atmosphere of recrimination with a glowing aura of solace.  For the sinner, the earthly courts of justice and opinion and the internal arguments one makes with the judge that is one’s own conscience, promise distant hope.

But this hope cannot be sustained, as is clear already before the final line of the aria turns to the evil-doer’s “troubled conscience torn apart by its own torture.” In contrast to the long melismas heard over the first lines of the aria, Bach treats the word “torture” and the violent verb “to tear apart” [zerrissen] with grimly controlled emphasis. Only at the last repetition of “torture” does the soprano emit a high, agonized note over the central vowel, like a long cry of pain. The cadence comes as an expression of relief, like the deliverance from pain that the torturer plays on when he at last allows the victim a gasp of air after near-drowning immersion, or releases pressure on the thumbscrews, or removes the electrodes.

After the voice falls silent, relieved of its anguish, the music of the long introduction returns in full, leaving listeners to contemplate the psychological implications of the aria. At the close, the music evaporates in a cloud of doubt with the vain hope of earthly validation still hanging in the air.

More than merely a figurative turn, the torture this music portrays attains its impact more through its calm serenity than its occasionally sharp inflections that work like decisive turns of the crank. This is a torture conducted in the isolated chamber of the mind.

From here the cantata proceeds to a forward-striving bass recitative, which overturns the “sentence of condemnation” by moistening the legal document with the blood of Jesus. An affirmative tenor aria with triumphant trumpet renounces Mammon and the vanities and pleasures of the world. A final chorale looks forward to the calming of the troubled conscience in a heaven reserved for those “full of faith.”

Bach’s Leipzig was a paradoxical place, a theocracy that also hosted important strains of the Enlightenment and witnessed the rapid growth of modern modes of leisure and consumerism. Many of these tensions are evident in the modern world, too, and help explain why this darkly powerful cantata is as alive today as it ways nearly three hundred years ago at the time of its first performance. The moral to be drawn from it still holds: torturers must face not only their own conscience, but also the judgment of the highest court.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at