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Considering the Myth of Violence in Music and Society

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The Parker Quartet performs during Project Lens, an initiative exploring the connections between classical music and social issues, at Paine Music Hall on Friday evening.

"Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has been in decline for long stretches of time. Today, we may be living in the most peaceful era in our existence," Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker said on Feb. 13. In his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," Pinker contends that physical violence has steadily diminished through the course of human history. And yet, according to the Project LENS team, this trend away from violence is not reflected in classical music, where modern composers often fuse their work with heavy percussion, drastic tempo changes, and the occasional shriek. Fans of contemporary classical music may have noted a rise in aggression within the genre itself.

Lecture and performance "Project LENS: The Myth of Modern Violence," which took place in Paine Hall last Friday, sought to reconcile Pinker’s controversial notion with the popular opinion that classical music has gradually become more harsh, dissonant, and violent over time. A joint effort among Project LENS, the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet, and Harvard’s own Pinker, the event examined both what violence means and how exactly composers translate it into music.

Project LENS (Live Exchange of Notes and Sounds) is a collaborative aiming to illuminate the relationships between music and a multitude of topics, including evolution, humor, and law. Founded by three recent Harvard graduates (Ariel S. Mitnick ’13, Rainer A. Crosett ’14, and Alan M. Toda-Ambaras ’13), the group weaves together a TalkThread—a story or idea, similar to a TedTalk—and a MusicThread, a selection of pieces played by a combination of local musicians and members. For Mitnick, Project LENS serves not only as a means of synthesizing music with a plethora of seemingly unrelated subjects but also as a way for audiences to better relate to an under-appreciated genre. "There are these barriers to entry for people who might not already be invested in learning about [classical music]. If you already don’t know about it, it might just sound like a wash of sound," Mitnick says. "We’re interested in providing points of entry for people who aren’t familiar with the music."

"The Myth of Modern Violence" came into being when the LENS team approached Pinker after reading his works and thinking he would be an engaging collaborative partner. The event marked the first time LENS had recruited a fully-formed music group as opposed to individual musicians. The Parker Quartet, the current Blodgett Artists-in-Residence, were more than willing to participate. "We really liked the idea of what they were going for—trying to connect music with other disciplines," quartet violinist Daniel T. Chong says.

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During the event, the quartet played four pieces, including Heinrich Biber’s "Battalia a 9" and the second movement of Franz Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden." The selections were interspersed with sections of Pinker’s own talk, where he cited a major decline in interpersonal attacks, reduction in torture methods, and the abolition of slavery as evidence for the decrease in violence through history. Between dynamic performances, various members of the LENS team analyzed the more esoteric aspects of the music—its historical context, the composer’s inspirations and motivations, and musical techniques that most clearly conveyed violence. "We want to ask questions about the kinds of decisions composers make when they incorporate violent sounds into their music and what their intentions are when doing so," Crosett says.

The stark juxtaposition of sound from piece to piece solidified LENS’s thesis—that composers have experimented with themes of violence throughout history, centuries before our own. Members of Project LENS say that it is not the frequency of strident, violent-sounding music that has changed, but rather the audience’s interpretation of what violence is and how it is aurally expressed. "Even though there are certain changes that are unique to music over time, we see that there are patterns in the evolution of aesthetics across all media and how meaning is processed from them," Toda-Ambaras says.

Regardless of the answer to the night’s central question, the team isn’t focused on indoctrinating its audience with its ideas. "We love thinking about these connections and debating them amongst ourselves, and we really hope people will continue the debate when they leave," Mitnick says. "Our goal is really to get a conversation started."

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