When Matthew Collings wrote the music for “A Requiem For Edward Snowden”, a sort of audiovisual chamber opera with visual processing by Jules Rawlinson, the Edinburgh-based composer fully expected that the dedicatee’s days were numbered. They still may well be. Following his flight from his intelligence contractor position with the National Security Agency (NSA) in Hawaii, and his eventually asylum in Russia where he currently remains, the truth about dozens of secret surveillance programmes operated by Western intelligence agencies against their own people has been exposed through the leaked documents that Edward Snowden shared with journalists. The revelations stunned the world, and their publication enraged many powerful establishment figures in Snowden’s own country and among its allies.
Right from the outset, Collings’ music evokes the gravity and the drama of the Snowden affair. In the first track of the audio recording, a deep bass melody lurches like a submerged sea creature, calling to mind underwater transatlantic transmission cables, but also murky operations and subterfuge. In later parts, different forms of surveillance are staged: email messages, a mix of the banal and the intimately personal, are read by robotic female and male screenreader voices over piercing strings and rumbling electronics; a clarinet slinks and honks around a distorted jumble of voices, suggesting intercepted phone calls. What seem to be Snowden’s own words, cut and edited excerpts from interviews read simultaneously by English-accented male and female voices, are accompanied by tense regular pulse. In the final part “Waiting”, the voices heard seem to be American, but are distorted and buried among wobbly sliding bass and cut and thrust from the ensemble.
The music frequently builds to a crashing, harrowing crescendo, surging with digital noise and shrieks from the clarinet, in a way that suggests the violent collapse of a machine-based system rather than simple emotional pathos. By means of electronics and electric guitar, the acoustic instruments (clarinet, violin, cello) are plugged into a network, riding wave after wave of electronic information. They are ensconced within a program, part of it yet struggling to speak with an independent voice, like humans caught in a vast web of global surveillance.
Often, and especially recently, I wonder whether listening to music isn’t just a distraction from the really important issues affecting our lives. “A Requiem For Edward Snowden” is powerful evidence that, if nothing else, music can remind us of questions that demand an answer, of responsibilities that need to be faced. As I write, the new British Prime Minister continues to push to legalise of the bulk collection of our personal data, and reports are emerging of terrorist cells taking counter-measures to evade the surveillance programmes that Snowden revealed. What good is being safe if you’re not free — and vice-versa? How are we to hold governments to account for what they do in secret? The music acts as a relay or repeater of the Snowden-signal, the Snowden-event, reminding us of how little of ours is hidden, and how much is hidden from us.