The US pianist who became an interrogator in Iraq

The US pianist who became an interrogator in Iraq


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2016

The violinist Stephanie Chase has been working with a gifted pianist of high pedigree. At age 9, Josh Cullen recorded a Mozart concerto. Later he recorded another with hs mentor, Paul Badura-Skoda. He attended masterclasses with Menahem Pressler and Andre Watts.

But after the 9/11 attacks Josh signed up for the US Army. He served for 12 years, part of the time as an  interrogator of al-Qaeda suspects. Here’s what he tells Stephanie in an interview:

josh cullen

Josh Cullen: I was seventeen on September 11, 2001. I had been at Juilliard for less than two weeks and I was sitting in an 8:30am ear training class when the World Trade Center was attacked. I wondered what impact I would have on the world as a classical pianist, a re-interpreter of the great canon of piano repertoire that had already been perfected and recorded for eternity by all the piano greats of the 20th century. I remember going to the American Red Cross in the days following September 11th and volunteering to help, but they didn’t want my help. Did I speak foreign languages? Did I have medical skills? Did I have universal donor, O negative blood? We had just been attacked, and New York City wasn’t looking for any more concert pianists. They needed real people with real skills. …

I joined (the US Army)  initially as a translator, learning Korean for a year and a half before learning that my first deployment would be to Iraq, not to Korea. Although my degrees were in music, the army saw that I had a master’s degree and quickly promoted me to the rank of sergeant and had me oversee interrogations at a detention facility in Tikrit, Iraq for my first assignment. The learning curve was steep and the adjustment to the culture of the U.S. military was challenging, but after a couple of years I developed “competence”…

One of the things I didn’t expect to learn on my first deployment to Iraq was how much the U.S. troops relied on music and movies for comfort and to maintain their sanity. Whenever the infantry troops were resting between missions, they were listening to their iPods and watching DVDs. Of course, some of them played video games too. But for the first time in my life I realized how music universally speaks to people, and it wasn’t just something they did to kill time. I saw how it restored their interest in life, how it renewed their energy and improved their mood – it might sound ridiculous, but it really fed their souls. And some of these soldiers actually listened to classical music. I remember one infantry sergeant I served with in the 82nd Airborne Division had brought his violin with him. I was astonished. This was an important realization for me as it validated the idea of being a musician as a profession.

Read the full interview here.

Visit Josh’s site here.


  • Mick says:

    Great guy, respect!

  • Nicholas says:

    I remember listening to him play the super mario bros theme on the piano in the barracks when we were going through Korean class together. He played much more, of course. And it was always a treat to watch him do it. Good on you Josh!

  • Gerhard says:

    The term ‘Interrogator in Iraq’ immediately evokes recollections of multiple ghastly incidents reported in media worldwide. I have trouble understanding the pride of having been part of such a botched operation.

    • Confused says:

      Excuse me, are you American?

    • William Safford says:

      Your analogy is a bit like saying that soprano recitals evoke recollections of Florence Foster Jenkins.

      That is to say, your point is valid as far as it goes, but there is far more to the story.

  • Taz says:

    Gerhard, Perhaps you could read the “full review ” and maybe you would have a different opinion as to what this interview is truly about. The interview encompassed far more than a young man’s pride in serving his country, but more about his pride in serving those who serve and protect our nation. God bless to all who serve our country in whatever capacity our military places them in. Thank you to their families who support and pray for them.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Did you or your interrogator pals ever find the WMD? Colin Powell aaid he had ‘solid intelligence’ that they were ‘hidden under the palm trees’.