Like most music lovers (and music journalists), I strive to celebrate music as a positive force – a means of healing and personal enrichment, an artform that effortlessly expands horizons and facilitates cross-cultural understanding.
So when the latest story about the use of music as a torture device surfaced on Slate last week, I didn’t pay much attention. Too warped. Then I stumbled on this page promoting a documentary on Al Jazeera about Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf. With his elegantly simple tunes, the award-winning composer has taught millions to read. Since 2003, however, his music has been used in systematic campaigns, some by U.S. intelligence, to obtain information from detainees – including those held at Guantanamo.
Cerf tells the filmmakers that he initially couldn’t believe it, dismissing the news accounts as “absurd.” From there, the film chronicles Cerf’s quest to find out more about how his happy tunes came to be used for such grim purposes. The film uses all the familiar melodramatic storytelling devices associated with modern documentaries, but that doesn’t diminish its impact: This is one thoroughly dismaying story.