I’m planning a new piece for what probably will be an ensemble consisting of two women’s voices, violin, cello, marimba, bass clarinet, bass guitar and possibly piano. The work is tentatively going to be titled torture memos (a survivor from guantánamo). The music is already largely written, in that it will mostly be derived from several recent improvisations that were done as part of James Combs’ improvfriday sessions on various social media networks. Almost all of my works started off as improvisations, so this is pretty much standard operating procedure for me. I had thought of using the title Room 101 as that was the torture room in Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984 but I thought the significance might not be obvious to anyone who hasn’t recently read the book.
Why torture memos? Because I’m horrified by what this country has done, how it has taken a detour from its original ideals, and the fact that our last administration contained what amounts to war criminals who have yet to be brought to justice.
Another reason: I’m very much taken by the notion of music as a form of social action. The standard teaching has always been that “political music” tends to be very forgettable in the end (think some of the “Communist” works by Shostakovich or Prokofiev, or even Copland), so invoking political topics in music is a recipe for bad music. But I disagree; some of the best things out there have political or historic connotations, such as Reich’s Come Out, Rzewski’s Coming Together, Glass’ Satyagraha, etc. It’s not that political music is automatically bad. Rather, some political works that have been derided over the years just might happen to have been bad music. If you write decent music, the underlying social message doesn’t make the music bad. Similarly, a lofty social message doesn’t make bad music good. Two of my recent works already deal with social messages, such as darfur pogrommen and zichron
My original plan was to set actual words written by some of the torture survivors from Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantánamo, and possibly some of the rendition sites. But I haven’t been able to find such texts. Many of the victims remain incarcerated, some of whom undoubtedly are evil men, but many of whom are and remain innocent of wrongdoing. I’m sure at some point their words will be captured, but in some ways, the most meaningful takeaways remain the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the full extent of which remain to be seen. Then there was the idea of setting the actual legal memos “justifying” torture by John Yoo and John Bybee, and indeed one of my friends recommended this approach as well. However, a fairly mundane list of approved torture techniques, however terrifying, cannot do as much justice to the abhorrence of the torture idea as can the actual words of the victims.
As of now, I’m thinking of letting the music speak for itself, to use a bad cliché. I might preface the score with some passages from the torture memos, but I have come to the belief that setting either the torture memos themselves or actual accounts from victims is not optimal, since both of these speak well for themselves.
The “a survivor from guantánamo” part of the title is an obvious reference to Schoenberg’s work A Survivor from Warsaw. I do not mean for this to suggest that the things that have gone on, and continue to go on, vis a vis torture are morally equivalent to the massive genocide of the Holocaust. However, I do want to imply that just as Schoenberg drew upon the words of a survivor to describe the unspeakable horrors he suffered through in the Warsaw Ghetto, I want to draw upon music to solicit thoughts about the multiple horrors committed in our name over the years since 9/11/01. That doesn’t mean the music is anything other than music, any more than darfur pogrommen depicts what goes on in Western Sudan. The music is just that; music. But if the subject matters stimulate more thought about their respective topics, then that’s all the better.