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  Music Torture
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Music Torture

by David Yearsley
Friday, 13 March 2009
One of the great advantages of sonic weapons and torture is that they leave no mark on the victim.
The human ear is defenseless. Unable to keep sound out, it must take in all it hears.Selective hearing is common phrase, but meaningless.

History’s most infamous musical assault exploited the defenslessness of the ear: the massively distorted music blasted at the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993 by the FBI wore down the compound dwellers over the seven week siege like a battleship pounding shoreline battlements. The final firestorm was prepared not only by sleep-preventing decibel levels but because of its horrifying aesthetic crimes, the most heinous being Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Early proponents of world music, the G-men varied their play-list with sing-along Christmas carols in saccharine 1950s style arrangements, Tibetan chants and cavalry bugle blasts. Just how seriously perpetrators of sonic violence take their music can be judged by the care with which they assemble their repertoires of destruction and despair.

Cult leader David Koresh, himself a failed pop singer, had begun the high-decibel musical exchange in Waco by first bombarding them with recordings of his own happy-clappy pop.  This siege-busting tactic ceased when the federal forces cut the compound’s power supply.

Waco was by no means the first instance of musical warfare. A few years before, the U. S. had tried to ferret out opera-lover Manuel Noriega from Panama City redoubt with a non-stop heavy metal bombardment: Madame Butterfly and La Traviata were no match for Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.  The sonic assault was finally halted under pressure from the Vatican.

In Gauntanamo Bay and other prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq the British rights group Reprieve has claimed that interrogation techniques have involved the uses of extremely loud music by AC/DC, and Metallica as well as theme songs from children’s televison shows like Barney & Friends.  These horrors were detailed by Andy Worthington in Counterpunch back in December of last year.

Unfettered by earplugs, anti-noise headphones or other defensive technologies the ear is helpless to protect itself. The eyes have lids, the ears don’t.  In A Clockwork Orange when the anti-hero the violent sociopath and Beethovenian fanatic Alex is re-programmed to harmless passivity, his eyes must be propped open so he can be forced to witness acts of violence on the screen while being infused with a nausea-inducing drug. By contrast, the glorious sounds of Alex’s beloved 9th symphony of Ludwig Van accompany the images but enter unimpeded into his soul.

In the increasingly loud and intrusive modern world maybe the human earlobes will begin to evolve to become like eyelids that can be closed when things get unbearable out in the aural universe. But even this evolutionary advance wouldn’t have neutralized the sub-woofers of Waco.

One of the great advantages of using music as an implement of torture is that it leaves no physical mark.  As Plato and many other writers have known, music works directly on the soul. There is nothing more uplifting nor potentially devastating.

Over the past few years New York University professor of music Suzanne Cusick has been lecturing far and wide on the United States’ use of music in interrogation and as a battlfield weapon. The soft-spoken, incisive Cusick came to Cornell in the spring of 2006 to deliver the year’s principle music lectured, named after Donald J. Grout. Grout was one of the great music historians of the 20th century, and a deeply conservative man who would have hated every word Cusick uttered that afternoon in a corner seminar tucked in an upper floor of Cornell’s music building looking out over the campus’s Arts Quad and to Cayuga Lake below. Her talk concerned itself neither with the kinds of music nor the art’s exalted purposes one usually discusses in the Ivory Tower.

The original title for Cusick’s lecture had promised a tedious internal investigation of the discipline of musicology: “Buying (Back) the Farm, or Thoughts the Cultural Work of American Musicologies.” But she changed her topic unannounced and delivered instead sixty minutes on “Music as Weapon / Music as Torture.”  (For a version of the paper go to

Much of Cusick’s talk let the chilling facts speak for themselves: “On November 18, 1998, now-defunct Synetics Corporation [was contracted] to produce a tightly focused beam of infrasound–that is, vibration waves slower than 100 vps–meant to produce effects that range from ‘disabling or lethal.’ In 1999, Maxwell Technologies patented a HyperSonic Sound System, another “highly directional device ... designed to control hostile crowds or disable hostage takers”. The same year Primex Physics International patented both the “Acoustic Blaster”, which produced “repetitive impulse waveforms” of 165dB, directable at a distance of 50 feet, for “antipersonnel applications”, and the Sequential Arc Discharge Acoustic Generator, which produces ‘high intensity impulsive sound waves by purely electrical means.’”

She went on to describe the American Technology Corporation’s development beginning some ten years ago of the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, a weapon “capable of projecting a ‘strip of sound’ (15 to 30 inches wide) at an average of 120 dB (maxing at 151 dB)  that will be intelligible for 500 to 1,000 meters (depending on which model you buy), the LRAD is designed to hail ships, issue battlefield or crowd-control commands, or direct an “attention-getting and highly irritating deterrent tone for behavior modification.” (

Wielded by the 361st PsyOps company, the LRAD was deployed to “prepare the battlefield” in the siege of Falluja in November of 2004. The device was armed with Metallica’s “Hells’ Bells” and “Shoot to Thrill.”

As Cusick repeatedly pointed out, one of the great advantages of sonic weapons and torture is that they leave no mark on the victim. Gauntanamo captive Binyam Mohamed, who was returned to England in February after his long years of imprisonment and torture, claimed in an interview London’s Mail on Sunday how his sonic torture began already in a Kabul prison in 2002 where he was held for eighteen months in complete darkness before his transfer to Gauntanamo in 2004. His body can convey no direct physical of this horrendous abuse, probably in contrast to the other forms of torture he suffered as in the scalpel he claims was used to sliced his genitals.

In the Mail on Sunday interview Mohammed relates how “There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out a deafening volume, non-stop, 24 hours a day. They played the same CD for a month, The Eminem Show. When it was finished it went back to the beginning and started again. I couldn't sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night.'

As the Daily Mail is reporting today pressure from members of parliamentary and rights groups is mounting on British Foreign secretary David Milliband to hold a judicial inquiry into Mohamed’s claims that MI5 knew about the illegal torture.  Indeed, U. S. crimes against international law threaten now to engulf their coalition partner on the other side of the Atlantic. In early February details of Mohamed’s torture were excised from the dossier submitted to England’s High Court after Miliband asserted that not doing so might be detrimental to shared U. S. and UK intelligence efforts and could  “cause real and significant damage to the national security and international relations of the [UK].”

On February 22nd Prime Minister Gordon Brown insisted that there was no “cover-up” and two weeks ago Miliband and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith refused to answer questions on torture in front of the House of Commons’ Joint Committee on Human Rights.” Yesterday, Miliband issued a blanket denial, one which bodes ill the political future of the stonewalling foreign secretary: “We abhor torture and never order it or condone it.”

In the 1980s Miliband was a student at Corpus Christi College in Oxford.  While there he was elected Junior Common Room President and as a result got a prime rooms which happened to be located next to those of my wife, Annette Richards, similarly given housing preference because she was the college’s organ scholar, discharging those duties though reading for a degree in English literature.  In her rooms was a piano. Many were the nights when the studious Miliband would graciously request that she or her music-making guests stop playing because of the lateness of the hour.  These were Anglican anthems or Buxtehude organ preludes not super-loud Eminem. It is now time for Miliband to face a different music.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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This story was published on March 16, 2009.

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