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Secular in Battle with Spiritual

New York
John Jay College of Law
09/29/2010 -  
Sound + Vision At War: Photographs from Iraq and Afghanistan with music of Johann Sebastian Bach

Chris Hondros, Getty Images (Photographs)
Fusion Bande Anthony Turner (Baritone), Amanda Pabyan (Soprano), Akiko Hosoi, Jerry Chiu (Violins), Joan Topper (Viola), Christopher Hopkins (Cello), Andrew Trombley (Contrabass), Kenneth Harrick (Artistic Director, Conductor, Harpsichord)
John Chassen (Producing Director)

K. Hamrick (© Kenneth Hamrick)

General Mark Abrams, the Commander of United States troops in the Vietnam War, told me once in an interview, that after a long hard day directing the killing of his enemies, he enjoyed going back to the base and listening to Mozart.

After that admission, I have always been suspect of serious music as accompaniment to war.

So have most composers. Beethoven made a mess of it in Wellington’s Victory, and Prokofiev never took it seriously in his war cantatas. Shostakovich probably parodied war in his “Leningrad” Symphony, Tchaikovsky excelled himself in 1812, though Strauss gave us all the sounds of war in Heldenleben.

As for pictures and war together, Nevsky and Samuel Barber’s Adagio from Oliver Stone’s Platoon did the best jobs of all.

But Mozart? Never. And one hesitates to think of old J.S. Bach grinding away in his organ loft or the composing desk or making babies, hardly had time for anything but church and musical politics. Writing for both Lutherans and Catholics, he never participated in in local conflicts, and rarely made it part of his codex.

Still, a great war photographer like Chris Hondros confessed that “The music of Bach often runs through my mind in conflict zones…his meditations on emotion and loss seamlessly apply to war, whether fought in the 18th Century or the 21st.”

Mr. Hondros’s images, I believe, need no music to back them up. And about 100 of them were shown in full screen mode at the Gerald Lynch Theatre last night. Whether in black-and-white, color or stop-motion, they showed the best of war photography, in mating compassion and violence, movement and stillness, Iraqis, Afghans and Americans in equal share.

So many pictures glided by that one can remember only a few. The wounded (a special section), with father or soldiers grieving over victims, the wildness of Tora Bora (another section), two girl violin players (in “Daily Life”), and most terrible of all, “The Detained.”

We think of Abu Ghraib Prison as an aberration, but Mr. Hondros caught dozens of prisoners in blindfolds, in hoods (three of them resembling Halloween merry-makers in Ku Klux Klan headgear).

Doubtless these pictures will find their way into a book, as they have already been shown on the covers of virtually every magazine. But even a coffee-table volume of Mr. Hondros’ images would be different than that shown on a large screen.

With a book, one has time. With the screen, one has space. But only the sights and sounds of war, which Mr. Condros has witnessed for so many years, are legitimate.

The sounds here were provided by a miniature string orchestra, two singers and conductor Kenneth Hamrick a master harpsichordist. Each work supposedly was a picture of the screen chapters, and they were chosen sensitively.

Bach’s Cantata 158 was most prominent, perhaps for the last chorale lines: “I shall behold God, true peace….world, war and conflict are nothing but pure vanity.”

More to the point of the images, though, was the gory recitative from Cantata No. 199: “My heart swims in blood, since the offspring of my sins in the holy eyes of God, make me monster.”

These, sung with great passion, and played with a lean but acceptable sound from the six players, were adequate in themselves. But I am unsure how much they added to the images themselves.

In Spain once, I went to an art museum, where the Renaissance Crucifixion pictures were underlaid with Renaissance church music. In an adjoining room, mediocre Spanish Impressionist pictures had, behind them, Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Both combinations were appropriate, non-interfering, and at times, actually enhanced each other.

Last night was a valiant effort, but those who wanted to not only see but experience Mr. Hondros’s efforts, perhaps could not concentrate entirely, since the Bach, conducted well by Mr. Hamrick, did not heighten the emotion so much as form a pretty frame around the emotions.

One must honor Messrs and Hondros and Hamrick for attempting the impossible. Mr. Hondros’ work stands all-encompassing: the suffering, the attempts at normalcy, the haunting faces in the arid emptiness are all too striking.

Bach’s music too stands on its own, with (in Goethe’s words) an eternal harmony.

What Bach and Hondros have in common is they both considered themselves to be artisans, producing their work day by day. Bach’s inspiration was from the world of the spirit, Hondros’ from the earth. Putting them together is less a chemical transformation so much as pairs of monuments standing side by side.

Harry Rolnick



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