time to change the way we view music and the arts

Cutting Jonas Tarm’s composition: Common sense or censorship?

Photo credit: Mike Canale Photography

A bit of back story first:

This morning, pockets of the social media world are buzzing with talk of a recently and hastily cancelled upcoming performance, slated from the New York Youth Symphony, for this Sunday, 8 March at Carnegie Hall. The composition at hand, titled, “Marsh U Nebuttya” (March to Oblivion) is from 21-year old, Estonian-American composer, Jonas Tarm.

Tarm was commissioned by the well-esteemed youth orchestra to compose a piece after winning the 2014 First Music Competition offered by the New York Youth Symphony. Tarm’s award was to have the group perform a piece of his writing at this Carnegie Hall date but a near last-minute discovery of Nazi related references in Tarm’s work prompted the symphony to take decisive action and cut the performance altogether.

The New York Times reported that it was not until the symphony was made aware of “a letter of complaint that was signed “a Nazi survivor”,” written after the piece’s world premiere performance on 22 February 2015, that the administration rescinded the composition from the program.

The offensive material in question centers around the inclusion of a brief excerpt from the Nazi anthem, “Horst Wessel” and is only more vaguely hurt by the use of this excerpt from “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot, as part of Tarm’s program notes:

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow


Now, this is where things perhaps should prompt some unabashed conversation about the nature of context, public relations, the nature of is considered ‘senseless censorship’ and even what sounds like a bit of contradiction.

According to NPR’s own report, Tarm claims he “…was not aware of [the anti-semitic] context of [T.S. Eliot’s] life,” and that Tarm “had no idea about that.” That may very well be true, so, the assumption that Tarm had essentially and purposely included two layers of Nazi reference in his project, could very well be inaccurate. Still, there is something slightly odd about making that claim and then following it with the personal belief that, “he had already provided enough [insight] in what he delivered to the NYYS….the piece [also] carries a dedication “to the victims of hunger and fire.”.”

Then, a second set of contradictory-sounding statements arises when Tarm expresses disappointment in his lack of an opportunity to “explain [him]self and [his] artistic views,” while also being adamant that “the music should speak for itself.”

Beyond the chosen bureaucratic steps taken by the New York Youth Symphony, Tarm’s rebuttals and attempt to state why his work should be allowed to stay on the concert schedule don’t hold very much water and, in a situation like this one, where there are young musicians – the majority of whom are very much still minors – in the picture, coming close to putting your own foot in your mouth is not going to help your cause.

There are certainly some that back Tarm’s side of things, claiming unreasonable censorship in the name of free artistic expression. Svetlana Mintcheva, of the National Coalition Against Censorship, protested the decision, saying,

Attempts to sanitize contemporary art do not protect young people or survivors of oppressive regimes; they can only succeed in suppressing the voice and violating the vision of creative artists, as well as in impoverishing public conversation about important, though disturbing, issues.”

Tarm’s personal stance on the power of music to convey metaphor and meaning without further, detailed, explanation is not necessarily a point of view that needs vilifying. Where it becomes problematic, however, is in the three main prongs of the situation:

1) The New York Youth Symphony is made up of musicians who are primarily of ages 12-22. (Again, mostly very much still minors)

2) Though the composition and desired expression are his own and he is not required to change his personal artistic feelings, Tarm’s work is a commission for an organization with an established mission statement and set of core values and, as such, needs to align with what the New York Youth Symphony desires to project to both its members and its audience members. Disagreement over what Tarm might have conveyed to the NYYS’s supporters is not a suppression of his ability to create.

3) Given the sequence of events that led to the piece’s cancellation, the outcome isn’t all that surprising. A rigid unwillingness to discuss something that has, at the very least, the potential to offend (and in this case, anything Nazi related is going to offend someone) and then back-pedaling to try to provide an acceptable level of context, is a public relations nightmare waiting to happen. (Having to resort to employing a PR firm that specializes in crisis-management probably isn’t for situations needing only light damage control.)

It is a shame whenever an artist’s hard work is taken out of public view because regardless of how offensive or inoffensive something might be, there was some portion of a person’s time and energy that was devoted to creating said art. All the same, the broader context of the parties involved in this particular scenario, and the lack of more preemptive steps taken, perhaps on Tarm’s part, to show an awareness and air of sensitivity about the content of his composition,  really only left the bigger congregation of people at stake – in this case, the administration of the symphony – to make the call necessary to sustain their business’s reputation.

To pull up a very relevant quote from a music industry peer and good friend of mine,


“The music business has nothing to do with music.”


You can read Jonas Tarm’s full statement regarding the cancellation of his performance here.

Learn more about Jonas Tarm and his full portfolio of work via his official website and these social media outlets:

Twitter (@JonasTarm)

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