Play takes note of music as method of torture

A Scottish academic has contributed to a new dark comedy play about the music chosen to torture political prisoners and the dilemma of a musician whose work is used to psychologically break down detainees.

Music Is Torture will premiere at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in May

Berlin-based Dr Morag J Grant, who led research group Music, Conflict And State at the University of Göttingen in Germany and is writing a book on the musicology of war, worked alongside the director and actors of Music Is Torture, which will be premiered at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in May.

The play features struggling music producer Jake, who discovers his music is being used to torture political prisoners and charts his moral dilemma over accepting royalties.

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The Tromolo Productions play also features live music by Glasgow musicians A Band Called Quinn, who appear as the band Dawnings.

Grant, who was approached by playwright Louise Quinn after she heard about her research into music and torture, said music had been used to accompany torture sessions and brutality in numerous situations including Nazi concentration camps, Greece in the 1960s and 1970s, Chile under General Pinochet, Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Turkey, Russia and Guantanamo Bay.

Grant, who studied music and musicology at the University of Glasgow, said music was often used to psychologically damage prisoners being tortured in stress positions.

“Sometimes in places such as Guantanamo Bay the guards chose the music and usually chose American popular music, such as heavy metal and music by rapper Eminem. There is a tendency to think this is a recent development as carried out by the US, but it has a long history.

“Most concentration camps had orchestras whose musicians were forced to play when people were getting off trucks and sent directly to the gas chambers, during executions and forced labour. Music would range from Schubert to German folk music such as All The Little Birds Are Already Here, when prisoners who had escaped were captured and brought back.”

Sensory deprivation techniques – music, “white noise” or silence – are used to overload the senses, removing the prisoner’s capacity for sensory interaction and stop them communicating meaningfully to the world around them.

Grant said she’d spoken to political activists about how to get across to people what was going on with music, when torture was mostly associated with techniques such as waterboarding and electric shock treatment.

“The artistic medium is a very good way of doing this with the drama pointing out the emotions rather than being voyeuristic,” she said.

Quinn said: “This is a play about selling out. Jake is torn between morality and self-interest in taking royalties for the song Kill Them All.

“I didn’t set out to write a big polemic about human rights but I was writing it during the Paris terror attacks and saw how people were reacting to the attacks which they thought usually happened ‘over there’.”

Music Is Torture is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, on 18, 19, and 20 May, then at the Traverse, Edinburgh, and Eden Court, Inverness.