Hearing and Remembering Trauma in Bunita Marcus’s The Rugmaker

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Bunita Marcus and Jenny Olivia Johnson
Photo by Erika Kuciw

It really happened after Morty died. My own personal life became important again. And I started remembering things from my childhood.

She sits at her piano, a vast and meticulously notated score spread out before her. Her flickering eyes sweep softly across the pages; her slightly trembling fingers play the opening sonorities at a slow and contemplative pace. I am sitting next to her, listening intently, following her eyes and the subtle shifts in her body as she paces through this rich and haunting music. I am struggling to hear her sounds with the ears of a trauma survivor, to glean within their sleek vibrations the trove of terrifying secrets I know lay within. But she quickly trails off, stares into space, and keeps her fingers pressed against the keys, long after the sounds have dissolved into the white noise of a sleepy Brooklyn afternoon.

After a few long moments, she re-emerges, takes a long sip of stone-cold coffee, and begins to talk.

When I started this piece, I didn’t remember. I had post-traumatic stress disorder. I had blanked things out.

Thus begins my first interview with Bunita Marcus, a composer whose music I first encountered just four years ago, and a woman whose harrowing story of abuse, survival, and remembering childhood trauma through music has since that time had an immense impact on my work as a scholar and my life as a composer. The story of our collaboration and friendship is rife with startling coincidences, and the story of our ongoing collaborative project—The Rugmaker Project—is one that continues to move and astound me, just as the string quartet after which it is named continues to exert a profound influence on my thinking about memory, composition, and the vicissitudes of telling the truth about a traumatic past.

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I first heard about Bunita Marcus in 2006, when I was a composition fellow at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival of Music. I was sitting in a seminar with David Lang, one of my most important mentors, sharing an opera that I myself had composed the year before, which told an abstract story of going back in time to see what really happened in a forgotten childhood. When I divulged the programmatic ideas behind my piece, however, Lang instantly responded: “I really enjoyed this piece, but I actually kind of don’t want to know what you were thinking. What matters to me—all that matters to me—is that you wrote this music. I don’t need to know how you got there. I just need the music.”

He paused for a moment, and then continued: “You know, this kind of reminds me of this composer named Bunita Marcus. We played a piece of hers at a Bang on a Can Marathon a few years ago, this string quartet called The Rugmaker. And we all really liked the piece, and were really excited to present it. Well, right before the performance we invited Bunita to come up and talk about it. And she stood up and said, ‘This piece is about my father raping me.’”

This revelation, offered by David Lang in an appropriately anecdotal and exemplary manner, was simply astounding to me. Unbeknown to him, or anyone else in that room, I was at that time in the beginning stages of writing my doctoral dissertation on music, synaesthesia, and memories of childhood sexual abuse. I had at that point interviewed a series of survivors whose memories of being abused in childhood were triggered by certain kinds of songs, sounds, or acoustic spaces, and I equated the nature of these memories—such as perceiving a pop song on the radio as a “wet and drippy finger between the legs,” or as a “thick, dense, opaque feeling in the throat”—with the neurological phenomenon of synaesthesia, in which one sense modality, such as sound, becomes translated into another sensation, such as seeing colors, textures, or shapes. I had up until then never encountered a sexual abuse survivor who was also a composer, let alone someone who had composed a piece of music about her own traumatic past of sexual abuse. I found myself suddenly ebullient with questions: who was this composer?

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Bunita Marcus in 1996
Photo by Clare Ascani

Why hadn’t I heard of her? What kind of piece could somebody write about being sexually abused by their father? What would it sound like, and how were audiences expected to respond? Finally—and most pertinent to my work—how long had Marcus kept this terrible memory a secret? And how had the music she had written about the event impacted her memory of the trauma itself, if at all?

I was floored when Marcus not only agreed to talk with me about The Rugmaker, but also enthusiastically expressed her solidarity with the political, scholastic, and personal goals of my project. “People need to know that these things happen to children,” she stated gravely, sitting across from me at her work desk and looking me square in the eye. “People need to know that there are survivors of incest everywhere, crying inside, with stories that need to come out. And I didn’t realize it at the time [that I began writing The Rugmaker], but my own story needed to come out too.”

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The opening page of the score for The Rugmaker

As Marcus led me through the gorgeously handwritten pages of The Rugmaker, pointing out salient musical details and accompanying them with strikingly personal reminiscences, it struck me that her process of composing this piece was quite literally her process of remembering the trauma that had happened to her as a child. Before starting the piece in early 1986, Marcus had retained no conscious memories of being abused: no intrusive images, no narrative details, no demonstrative nightmares. Instead, her life had up until then followed a path similar to that of many other young trauma survivors, whose livelihoods, according to the research of trauma expert Judith Herman, often necessitate an involuntary denial of the utter despair that ongoing childhood abuse and violation can engender. A young piano prodigy, Marcus focused intently and exclusively on her musical studies, later becoming one of the youngest doctoral students ever to enter the composition program at SUNY Buffalo, where she became a devoted student (and, later, a close friend) of Morton Feldman. She garnered a great deal of early success with her music, winning international prizes and traveling the globe to hear her works performed at major festivals—accolades which would soon result in a coveted commission by the Kronos Quartet, for whom Marcus wrote The Rugmaker in 1986.

The piece would premiere to great acclaim at the Festival Nieuwe Muziek in Middelburg, The Netherlands that summer, to be followed by a memorably controversial performance at the Darmstadt New Music Festival in Germany,

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Kronos Quartet performing The Rugmaker
Photo by Bunita Marcus

where—amidst an antiphonal chorus of equal cheers and boos—it would be awarded the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis. Kronos has since performed the work over a dozen times in cities throughout the United States and Europe, and reviews have ranged from favorable to laudatory, many of them referring to the work’s somewhat cryptic title in order to highlight the piece’s clever use of textural details and rug-like tapestries. No one but Bunita had any idea what other secrets the piece contained, what silenced story it was unsilencing—that is, until the fateful moment described by David Lang, at a Bang on a Can marathon in 1993, when Bunita herself came forth and revealed the piece’s true program.

In the beginning, I thought I was making a rug. That’s why I called it The Rugmaker…the detail, and the design, and the patterning of different colors, and putting one strange color against another strange color, and things like that. That’s what I thought I was doing.

Marcus’s choice of rug patterns as the initial inspiration for this work was far from random. By 1986, she and Morton Feldman were close friends and companions, and shared a deep passion for the ancient Turkish and Iranian art of rug-making: their intricate patterns, negative spaces, and “floating incongruous images,” all of which would serve as inspiration for their musical works, as has been oft-noted in studies of Feldman’s output. The pair had even traveled together to Turkey, exploring remote the countryside in search of rug artifacts and rug-making communities. As Marcus filled my ear with elegiac images of herself and her famed companion roaming sun-drenched villages, fingering vibrant textiles and talking excitedly about the implications of the rug-makers’ craftsmanship for their own musical pursuits, my eyes found themselves wandering to the walls of her Kensington apartment, on which hang myriad rugs and rug fragments, softly and silently testifying to her affection for Feldman and their rich musical and emotional connection. My gaze then settled on the Rugmaker sketches that Marcus had just yanked out from within her extensive metal file cabinets: endless grids and colored pencil markings; endless manipulations of pitch sets, painstakingly ordered and processed; and, somewhat incongruously, a slew of pithy, intriguing mantras, scratched heavily onto index cards in thin black marker:

“Color. Surface. Pattern. Form.”
“As Abstract As Possible.”
“Avoid Harmony—Find a Replacement.”
“Collage of Sound.”
“Thought. Experience. Understanding. Belief.”

An occasional funny one:

“Miami Vice Ending.”

And, perhaps most intriguing:

“Question + Thought = Answer.”

Sifting through these loose leaves, these score paper sketches and index cards, I discovered even more evidence of Marcus’s gradual compositional turn from the subject of rug-making to an entirely other topic, one with far more sinister overtones:

“Impending doom.”
“No denouement.”
“Increase the pain and intensity until it is unbearable.”

What were these rather intense and emotive English-language admonishments doing among sketches for an intellectually musical exploration of ancient rug-making? What had been their purpose, among pages of rigorously worked-out patterns and musical formations mimetic of rug stitches and square knots? Marcus explains to me that as she began working on the piece—finding its delicate form, weaving its gloriously cerebral details—she began hearing the timbres of the string instruments in her mind’s ear: the strident singing of the violins; the velvety, hum-like voice of the viola; the low moan of the cello. All of these timbres conjured a slew of unexpected sensations within her body: the sensation of being touched (“there’s a certain ‘feeliness’ to these sounds,” she explains rather cryptically, lightly touching and rubbing her forearms); the sense-memory of her child-self singing lullabies as a child; and the aural memory of her father’s voice, singing Frank Sinatra songs distractedly under his breath. “My father loved the violin, and he loved to sing,” she hazily recalls, her face transitioning from its usual serious intellectual intensity into a deadpan, unfocused glaze….

…And I was thinking about my father, and thinking how he told me one day how much he liked the violin…And I have a lot of loving feelings about my dad, especially from when I was very young. And so those come out in the beginning of the piece. What happens later is another story.

A sweet, child-like lullaby of the sort Marcus describes is certainly audible in the third section of the piece, in which the lone viola, accompanied only by iridescent chords in the other strings, plays an arching, upward, five-note gesture, over and over and over again, its rhythms and transpositions changing ever so slightly each time, but maintaining their identity as a tune, a motive. Marcus describes the process of writing this melody for her father in such a way as to suggest that it was involuntary, an almost unconscious and uncontrollable act or compulsion. She explains that as she continued to write it, more memories flooded back…memories of his touch, memories of their love and its particular intensity, and—as the melody continues and becomes more urgent and intense, migrating from the viola’s high-range velvet to the cello’s mid-range moan—memories of her father coming into her bedroom at night.

We talked about that ascending line that comes in in the cello…and how that gradually builds. And when that started, I knew something creepy was happening with the piece. It wasn’t just a happy little string quartet. Something creepy was gonna happen. And I started to have memories, of my father coming into my bedroom at night.

The order in which Marcus accessed her memories of her father molesting her can be mapped upon the specific order of musical events in the piece: the mysterious, undefined opening, suggesting confusion and complacency; the slow and painstaking ascent through a series of crystalline, staircase-like melody fragments, suggesting the start of a journey through a hallway of memories; the loving, improvisatory lullaby for her daddy, who becomes the star of these memories; the unsteady pause, suggesting a moment of sudden realization; the ominous continuation of the melody, radically altered, in the cello, revealing the sinister undertones of the lullaby; the increasing fragmentation, shattering, and scattering of the melody throughout all four instruments, as the nature of the memory becomes clear; and the final, terrifying, and horribly ceaseless series of down-bow strikes—the section Marcus straightforwardly calls “the rape scene”—separated in perfect and equal time by silences…between which a simpering, falling chromatic line in the high register of the violin emulates what Bunita designates as “the little voice, struggling to be heard.”

And I didn’t really want something creepy to happen. But one day I decided, I said, well, let’s just follow this thing and see where it goes. And it smashed into a brick wall.

Indeed, it does. The piece ends abruptly, unapologetically, with no recourse, no triumph, no discernible overcoming of trauma or redemption of self. For Marcus, The Rugmaker is not narrative of a remembered event, but instead a visceral archive of remembering itself, a physical and sensorial map of memory fragments rendered in the exact language through which they returned to her: music. It is not necessary to know her story of incest to hear and understand the work’s raw and primal intensity, but the story is offered in the hopes of explicating something particular and crucial about remembering childhood trauma—an event that often happens years later, in adulthood, with an adult’s mind that has nonetheless retained and stored within the folds of its body the adrenaline-ridden confusion and anxiety it endured as a child.

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There has been extensive controversy over whether memories of traumatic events can truly be repressed, involuntarily forgotten, and later recovered in tact, either through some kind of stimulus (such as music), or as the result of an innovative psychotherapy designed to relax the mind and recover the recollections from storage, or find ways to minimize the symptoms the repressed trauma has caused, as is the goal of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. It is a controversy with no meaningful solution, for the act of remembering itself has proven time and again to be an exquisitely subjective act, an object of study that is paradoxically subject to all human beings’ presumably faulty memories, as well as to the imperfect technologies we have developed to assist us in archiving our lives—video cameras, digital recorders, and the like—whose noisy, grainy representations of reality find themselves just as vulnerable to interpretative distortions and editorial violence.

What strikes me about Bunita Marcus’s story—in which a seemingly repressed memory of a tragic violation becomes suddenly, vividly, and intrusively recapitulated through sound—is its implications for our understanding of how some human brains might negotiate painful memories: storing them, perhaps, within the virtual folds and contours of musical timbres and melodies, displacing their details into more generic forms of color and sensation, and creating a sonic space in which recollections of atrocities can be saved until later, newly recoverable in highly synaesthetic formations, available once again to a mind displaced from the trauma by the cushion of time, a mind that is now potentially much more able to endure them and—with any luck—move beyond them.

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Bunita at Age 5

The story of Bunita Marcus’s The Rugmaker—as art object, as artifact, and as drastic musical event—is one that Bunita and I plan to continue telling over the coming months, in the form of lectures, articles, and public conversations. It is my hope that our collaboration will inspire other survivors to come forward with their stories, and perhaps even find the courage to explore the extent to which their identities as survivors might be inextricably linked to their identities as musicians, to their unique ways of perceiving and understanding music and sound.

Like Philomela in Ovid’s ancient myth, Bunita Marcus has woven her tale of trauma into an intricate and fascinating rug, a rug whose musical patterns offer astounding aesthetic pleasure, but also carry a crucial message about child abuse that should not be ignored. While it is a glorious work to behold on its own, far from the clutches of Gnostic scrutiny, The Rugmaker is also a statement of great urgency: the trauma of incest and sexual abuse happens to children. It can be forgotten. But it can also be remembered, even and perhaps especially through the act of making art.

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Jenny Olivia Johnson composes music that ranges from compressed 20-minute operas to epic pop songs to highly abstract religious masses. Her work is deeply influenced by minimalism, noise rock, 80′s pop songs, and vernacular television, and she also draws a great deal of inspiration from her academic work on synaesthesia, acoustic memory, and childhood trauma. Two of her short operas have been showcased at New York City Opera’s VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab. In the fall of 2009, Johnson joined faculty of Wellesley College as an Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory.