So the Dead May Speak, a Function of Classical Political Music


English: Photograph of a Female Demonstrator O...

Photograph of a Female Demonstrator Offering a Flower to a Military Police Officer, 10/21/1967 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giving a voice to the murdered, the martyrs, those who cannot speak for themselves is one of the ways in which sociopolitical music can function.  Witness the case of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman in 1934).  He worked as a draftsman for a company which assigned him to work on designing new offices for the Chase Manhattan Bank in the then apartheid Union of South Africa.  He became outraged at the inequality and quit his job there as a result.  He became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party.  He was arrested in 1969 for his involvement in 8 bombings.  He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

sam-melville

He was transferred to Attica prison in upstate New York where he continued to work as an activist attempting to improve prison conditions for him and his fellow inmates.  He is suspected of being involved in organizing the prison riots which erupted there in 1971 which the state’s response resulted in the deaths of 39 people of which Melville was one.  Subsequent lawsuits for violations of civil rights resulted in the payment of $12 million dollars by the state of New York to the families of the victims.

The first recording of both "Coming Together" and "Attica", an iconic record for this writer.

The first recording of both “Coming Together” and “Attica”, an iconic record for this writer.

Later that year Frederic Rzewski wrote his piece for speaker and ensemble (the score is open as to instrumentation) “Coming Together”.  The title and the words the speaker repeats are taken from one of Melville’s letters:

“I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate–sometimes even calculating–seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”

The text is repeated usually with dramatic license over a driving minimalist substrate which suggests the chaos that must have imbued that time.  The piece lasting about 20 minutes is a powerful experience, even more so when the listener comes to know the context.  It has been recorded at least four times.

A sort of companion piece, “Attica”, also written in 1971, uses the words of one of the survivors of that riot, Richard X. Clark, as he was being taken away from the prison:  “Attica is in front of me now.”  Mr. Clark, who was released from prison in 1972, wrote a book about his experiences and went on to work in social services as a case manager helping drug addicts recover.

This second piece (lasting about ten minutes) uses the minimalist style to create a calmer atmosphere, that of a man who is saddened but relieved to have this event over and to have survived.  This piece has also had several recordings and is frequently performed as a companion to “Coming Together”.

In future blogs I will include more music that speaks for the dead in this ongoing series of political classical music.

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