What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones? Laura Kaminsky



Laura Kaminsky

Musical Responses to War

Milan Kundera has written, and I think his words take on a heightened significance today, “Even in times of greatest distress, the individual organizes his or her life according to the laws of beauty.”

I composed Vukovar Trio in 1999. It is in one movement of connected but contrasting sections: “A Sky Torn Asunder”; “The Shattering of Glass”; “Lost Souls”; “Revenge/Retreat”; “Death Chorale”; “River of Blood and Ice”; “Ghost Chorale”; “Dance of Devastation”. I wrote the piece in response to having led a group of young musicians two years prior, in January 1997, from the Polish-based European Mozart Academy, where I was Director, to Croatia, to perform the first live concert since the end of the war in the bombed out Serb Cultural Center of the devastated town of Vukovar. The concert was meant as an offering of hope.

Brought into the town under United Nations protection, we were stunned into silence as our buses passed through deserted streets of burnt-out houses and apartment buildings, through once bustling squares long since abandoned. Earlier that afternoon, a local was killed on the outskirts of town, and the citizens were agitated. It was uncertain if it was safe enough for us to perform. We received a directive from the Human Rights Watch Committee that if indeed we would be allowed to perform, that the program’s intermission be cancelled; a break in the music might prove too dangerous; rioting might come to pass. At dusk, it was deemed safe enough to perform and so an armed UN police officer ushered us by foot from the hotel, where we had spent the afternoon waiting in limbo, across the bridge spanning the frozen river to the Serb Cultural Center where we were to perform. As we walked, he pointed to the sluggishly flowing gray water and said, “three years ago this river was frozen; it was red with blood.”

We entered the building, which had lost most of its glass windows and its furnace during the bombing, and realized that we had to play in our coats, warmed only by a small electric heater placed at the feet of the musicians on stage. In accordance with the directive to cancel the intermission, we played without pause, and thankfully without incident, to an audience whose grim faces and weary bodies visibly lightened and relaxed as the evening passed. Afterwards, with the aid of translators, we talked with the people in attendance, some of whom cried openly after hearing live music again for the first time in three years. The long day ended with vodka, black bread, cheese and smoked meats shared with the UN guards and the Human Rights Watch monitors in the dreary, chilly banquet hall of the hotel.

So many images from that experience stayed with me, indelibly etched into my heart and mind: the worn faces of the people, whether they were mere children or elderly workers; the huge craters and pockmarks from bombs and bullets scarring the walls of the city’s buildings; the homes without rooftops; the rusted old cars making their way over rubble-strewn streets; the musicians trying to warm their hands over the small heater and finally realizing that the only way they could play would be to cut the fingertips off of their gloves but to keep their hands covered throughout; the meager platter of food and the ceaseless flow of vodka following the concert; the gray-black river. It was this last image above all, and the notion of a river of blood and ice, that hit me hardest, and shortly after the trip, I began to write music to convey this image, which soon led to the composition of the complete trio.

The premiere was performed by violinist Julie Rosenfeld, cellist Elaine Kreston, and pianist Sara Laimon at a concert presented by Musicians Accord: A New Music Project at the Kosciuszko Foundation for Polish Culture in New York City on January 20, 1999. These incredible musicians and wonderful human beings were each at the Mozart Academy with me in 1997, and while none came on the Vukovar trip, each knows how profound the experience was. Their sensitivity to the trio’s narrative has given life to this often thorny and pain-filled piece, and for this I am indebted.

The score is dedicated “to the victims of ethnic cleansing,” a not-too-oblique reference to Shostakovich‘s String Quartet No. 8, dating from 1960, which bears the inscription “to the memory of victims of war and fascism.”

Sometimes, what the artist expresses in his/her work is about a personal journey of human understanding; sometimes, as was the case with my Trio, that expression is more outward looking, and addresses concrete social and political concerns that impact the quality and construct of our lives. The artist is a medium, a communicator, a teller of tales, and, as such, has a powerful role in the entire social fabric. Honest creative endeavor is a testimony to the enduring power of the human spirit to use art to inform, engage, challenge, soothe, educate, question, change, articulate, pacify, or stir up those who confront the art that is being made. This ability to express meaning through his or her art is the power that each artist holds within the confines of his or her own lifetime. Thinking beyond this, past our own personal efforts and contributions as creative, expressive artists, is the enduring power of the art that is made, and its meaning across all time and all cultures. It is this that makes what we do every day so critical to the continuance of the human race as we know it.

This, however, is not just a responsibility for the artists; it is a gift and a burden for all citizens of the world. Kundera’s words let us know what it is that distinguishes us as a species, this striving for meaning and for beauty, and it is this that gives us hope that we will endure, and that the human condition can be ameliorated. It is the work of the artists to shed light, to offer perspective, to help all people to find meaning—in both the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly—and to enlighten us as we negotiate the treacherous terrain we all encounter in this troubled world.

The following questions need to be asked again and again, and have been throughout history and across cultures, surfacing anew for each generation, in all societies across the planet:

—How does the artist communicate ideas, and articulate through his/her art and actions the collective beliefs, desires, ethics, myths, and constructs of a culture?

—And, following from this, how can the artist have an impact on those beliefs and constructs, possibly even causing them to change?

We live now in a time of great uncertainty on a global scale—as a nation we are still grappling with the aftereffects of September 11 and we are now being told to prepare ourselves for another such attack, or other kinds of attacks that we can barely fathom; on the world stage we are aware of growing animosities against both our government and our very culture; we are stumbling as a country as we try to extricate ourselves from the recent war in Iraq; the road map to peace has not been followed and has not led to any kind of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians; African and Asian countries crack under the pressures of civil unrest, economic uncertainty and the ravages of AIDS and other debilitating diseases.

On the domestic front, we are watching as social services are eroded and the gap between rich and poor grows larger, as public education increasingly fails to meet its promise, as health care becomes evermore out of reach for a greater number of Americans, as the very foundations of our democratic system are challenged in ways that shake it at the very core. The world as we have known it shifts in ways that leave us confused, fearful, angry, cynical, perhaps even despondent.

And, in response to this upheaval, we are seeing now a new kind of engagement and activism—it is evidenced in the protest rallies that have been taking place nationwide, even globally, starting with the WTO protests in Seattle four years ago, to the recent outcries against the Iraqi war and its aftermath; since 9/11, on campuses across the country, students have formed political action groups and have been awakened out of a national lethargy to organize activities intended to educate and to challenge. We see evidence of this new engagement and activism in the many emails filled with manifestos and pleas and petitions that are circulating on the Web; it is witnessed at local gatherings at community centers and coffeehouses, in churches and school auditoriums. People are voluntarily and vociferously beginning to speak up, to speak out, to comment on societal concerns, protesting policies and procedures that a vast number of average citizens do not approve of and cannot abide.

And, as is usually the case when there is discord in society between the government and the people, artists are at the forefront of the action, speaking out boldly, creating work that comments and challenges, making noise on behalf of the average citizen, whose voice, while critical to the process of protest and change, remains more anonymous.

The poet Mark Doty‘s statement of conscience, published last spring in a volume entitled Poets Against the War, offers words that are incisive and eloquent: “Poetry has always been a voice for those without voices, a cry and a song lifted up in the service of humanity, in praise of life, in lament for lives lost, in hope for the future. Our art attempts to serve what is best in people.”

From Doty’s reference to poets we can extrapolate—artists from all disciplines have always been and are yet again at the forefront of much of social and political agitation, engaged, active, vocal. And because it is the life-work of the artist to express him or her self, these outcries are resonant and powerful, and at times even empowering, for all people, for the average citizen, offering up a representative and collective, impassioned and expressive voice.

In closing, I want to put my Vukovar Trio in relief against a number of other works of the 20th century that were written in response to war. The list of composers who have been inspired to write music in response to war or other grievous social and political concerns is too long to enumerate although a few come immediately to mind. Let’s start with Olivier Messiaen, whose Quartet for the End of Time was written during his own internment in a German prisoner of war camp in Silesia between 1940 and 1942; it was composed for himself on piano and three fellow prisoners playing clarinet, violin, and cello, receiving its first performance on January 15, 1941, before an audience of 5,000 prisoners in Stalag VIII. It is considered by many to be his finest work, and one of, if not the most significant chamber music composition to come out of the experience of World War II.

Beyond Messiaen are many other composers and works that warrant acknowledgement: Luciano Berio, whose recent death we all mourn, who wrote O King after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Igor Stravinsky‘s Elegy for JFK, Frederic Rzewski‘s Coming Together, Attica, and The People United Will Never be Defeated, Penderecki‘s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Steve Reich‘s Different Trains, Sheila Silver‘s To the Spirit Unconquered, inspired in part by Primo Levi‘s writings on the Holocaust; Joel Feigin‘s Echoes from the Holocaust and First Tragedy, which addresses the losses sustained by the Vietnam War, George Crumb‘s 1970 Black Angels, yet another response to that war; many works by Dmitri Shostakovich, notably the String Quartet No. 8 and Piano Trio, Op. 67, which was composed in 1944, as WW II raged. In addition, there has been a recent slew of works written in response to a different kind of war – the AIDS pandemic – Chris DeBlasio‘s All the Way Through Evening, C. Bryan Rulon‘s SelfRequiem, my own And Trouble Came: An African AIDS Diary, John Corigliano‘s brave First Symphony, Robert Savage‘s Sudden Sunsets, all the songs contained in the AIDS Quilt Songbook. The list goes on and on.

And finally, I’d like to extract from a statement by Shostakovich on music and meaning. “We need brave music. Brave because it is truthful. Music in which the composer expresses his thoughts truthfully, and does it in a way that the greatest number of decent citizens will recognize and accept that music.” He goes on to say, “The question must be posed: what is the composer trying to say in a particular musical work? What was he trying to make clear? While the questions are na├»ve, they merit being asked.” And, he adds, rhetorically, “Can music attack evil? Can it make man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed?”

I ask each of you who are reading this essay to think about the creative endeavor of composers and their effort to convey meaning through their music, and to give to you, the listener, something to hold on to, to be touched by, to respond to, as they, and you, confront, through their musical expression, the manifold reactions of the individual to that most human, or, rather, inhuman, of human endeavors, the act of war. I urge all of you to stop and think.

[A note on this text: The following comments are excerpts from a lecture. Over the course of the past year, I have offered different versions of an expanded version of this talk, at St. Peter's Church in Chelsea, NY; at the Spencertown Academy in upstate New York; and in Washington State for the Seattle Chamber Music Society, the University of Puget Sound and Cornish College of the Arts. I have condensed material from each of these for the purpose of publication in this issue of NewMusicBox and am grateful to the American Music Center for offering me this opportunity to share my thoughts with so many readers. After having composed the Vukovar Trio in response to my personal and haunting experience in that war-ravaged city, I was invited to speak more generally about Musical Responses to War in the context of talking about my own piece, and was thus compelled to take a look at chamber music of our time - from the dawn of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st. As I surveyed the musical repertoire, I was stuck by the distressing fact that some of the most horrific and violent acts humankind has witnessed have taken place over the past 100 years and that much of the great music of the past century was written in response to these horrors.]

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