Elegy for Aberfan. Contemporary world music. Composer Laura Siersema.
On October 21, 1966, in the small mining village of Aberfan, Wales, a man-made mountain of coal waste catastrophically collapsed on a primary school and nearby houses, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
The National Coal Board was found to be entirely responsible for failing to act to prevent the disaster. Reading about this tragedy in the newspaper at the time had such a profound effect on my Mom that she wrote a folk song. Memory of this song, deeply embedded, has compelled me to create Aberfan. Fragments of her lyrics and melody have become a part of my composition.
Through composed in a rotating pattern of musical sections, “Rain”, “Interlude”, “Rock” and “Hymn”, Aberfan is at times full of unsettling, discordant sound as if being subsumed in an avalanche of slag and at other times nearly silent. A tender voice juxtaposed with disjointed piano rhythms. Sounds of steel shovels, picks and hatchets erupt unpredictably through languid chords of a funereal hymn.
Music of Aberfan will be presented online with contemporaneous moving and still imagery — a confined, immersive space unfolding with historical text, archival footage and black and white photographs.
“Their daily rendition [in morning assembly, 9am] of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ – a hymn written a few miles away in the bucolic tranquility of the Usk Valley – was postponed that day. They would sing it before they went home when the head teacher planned to wish her pupils a safe and enjoyable holiday.” (Aberfan: A Mistake that Cost a Village its Children by Ceri Jackson, BBC News, October 21, 2016) The catastrophic collapse occurred about 9:15am.
Aberfan is an expression of the collective unconscious of our time. A psychological and spiritual rendering as much as a musical one, it is an excavation into my own soul. Propelling itself through time, Aberfan is the story of power and destruction wrought over all the world in the willful, negligent and unconscious devastation upon what is most vulnerable in ourselves and in others, and the practice of transforming what cannot be fathomed through my music.
In the greed of our global imperial, capitalist systems, we are destroying ourselves, the Earth and every living thing.
I am seeking support for the experimental media design of an online presentation, combining the music of Aberfan with contemporaneous still and moving imagery.
RADIO INTERVIEW “I see [Aberfan] as the epitome of the folk process, because folk music, in all its definitions, is about stories.” (Nick Noble, WICN)
Aberfan is a sponsored project of New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization. Contributions on behalf of Aberfan must be made payable to NYFA, and are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. All donations will be acknowledged on my website and project page unless requested kept private.
If sending a check, please make payable to NYFA & mail to:
New York Foundation for the Arts c/o Fiscal Sponsorship 29 West 38th Street, 9th Floor New York, NY 10018
Aberfan is funded in part by Puffin Foundation, Thendara Foundation, Puffin Foundation West, Deupree Family Foundation, M. S. Worthington Foundation and The Cricket Foundation.
“…Continuing the dialogue between art and the lives of ordinary people.”
“My unpublished works cried out that they wanted to live.” (The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
This past month, I received word that Aberfan would be awarded a grant, enough to go back into the studio and continue recording. Been a long time. I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. A tremendous gift, tangible and intangible.
Aberfan is an expression of the collective unconscious of our time. A psychological and spiritual rendering as much as a musical one, it is an excavation into my own soul. Propelling itself through me, Aberfan is the story of power and destruction wrought over all the world in the willful, negligent and unconscious devastation upon what is most vulnerable in ourselves and in others, and the practice of transforming what cannot be fathomed through my music.
144 people — including 116 children — were killed when 150,000 tons of coal waste catastrophically collapsed on a school and houses in the small mining village of Aberfan, Wales on October 21, 1966.
A Tribunal investigating the 1966 events found that the National Coal Board was entirely responsible for failing to act to prevent the disaster, though they were never prosecuted.
Sophie-Ann Williams of North Wales provided the photo below of her Grandfather, the late Reverend Colin Peter Bessant. He was helping to dig out after the Aberfan Disaster. Paula Bessant Williams, Sophie’s mother, said, “My Dad never spoke about it without getting really upset. Just said it was the greed of man…”
“…and yet…the innocent are those who get punished most zealously of all. And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper?
And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but …in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity…”
“The Ascent” from The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
On October 21, 1966, in the small mining village of Aberfan, Wales, a man-made mountain of coal waste collapsed on a primary school and nearby houses, killing 116 children and 28 adults.A Tribunal investigating the 1966 events found that the National Coal Board was entirely responsible for failing to act to prevent the disaster, though they were never prosecuted.
“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”
— Friedrich Engels, “The Condition of the Working-Class in England”, 1845
(quote excerpted from “The Age of Social Murder” by Chris Hedges, posted today on Scheerpost)
(Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, assassinated by the FBI & Chicago Police December 4, 1969)
“If we start with the presupposition that art constitutes a distinctive way of seeking truth — truth in the broadest sense of the word, that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience — then there is only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth. Thus, from the standpoint of the work and its worth it is irrelevant to which political ideas the artist as a citizen claims allegiance, which ideas he would like to serve with his work or whether he holds any such ideas at all. And just as the attractiveness or repulsiveness of political ideas guarantees nothing about a work of art and likewise does not disqualify it in advance, so, too, whether or not an artist is interested in politics neither authorizes nor disqualifies him at the start. If so much of the art shown in official exhibits is indeed below average, and better art can be found only on the periphery of public art (in marginal or seem-official exhibition halls) or entirely beyond public view (in studios), then this is so not because the creators of the former involve themselves in politics while those of the latter do not, but simply because the prospect of public recognition and lucrative commissions in our country, today more than at other times and in other places, is incompatible with that stubborn, uncompromising effort to reach out for some personal truth without which, it seems, there can be no real art. The more an artist compromises to oblige power and gain advantages, the less good art can we expect from him; the more freely and independently, by contrast, he does his own thing — whether with the expression of a ‘rebellious bohemian’ or without it — the better his chances of creating something good — though it remains only a chance: what is uncompromising need not automatically be good.”
“Six Asides About Culture” an essay from Vaclav Havel or Living in Truth Hradecek (Prague) 11 August 1984
Sometimes it helps to read things I’ve written in the past. To be reminded of what is vital, what I may have forgotten, what is integral to where I’m going.
To be a creative artist was born in me — a most slender thread connected to the core of the earth, through my very being and up beyond into the skies — a seriousness of such resiliency it could never be broken and would take all of life to realize.
Whether music, paint or word, whatever the form, if it takes you by surprise, propels itself through you — it is your art, a conscious spiritual calling, and your task to bring into the world.
In the arc of my own creative life, my earliest poems and lyrics came from this unconscious place, without thought — vaguely familial, words hacked out of walls or erupting through an external image — phrases which I instinctively pieced together. I had grown up surrounded by music, yet my first experience of the truly deep, creative source within myself arrived in dreams and the silence of written words and images.
So it was, through prose poems and lyrics of my first three recordings: When I left loss became the title of my first album (1999), a singular phrase that arose as I lay still; the dream of a two-story house, pressing unnaturally down upon me, its cover photo. Another dream, a man kneeling at my feet says Love Flows Like the Blood of a River — words of such import, I knew they would be the title for a song one day. So, too, the title of my second album (2003).
Free-writing, without editing, upon a randomly chosen word or image, provided more material. Full stories articulated on the plumb line of an external image — a woman wearing a turban on a bus became “Eileen” ; another woman, leaning forward, clutching her purse, the central character in “There is a Silence / Rolling of Time”.
During this period I also began to study voice for the first time — what had been, over years, petrified and buried.
“Talon of the Blackwater and Graces” , title track to my third album (2009), was presaged in a dream I had of black water gushing from a neighboring backyard (a woman’s shelter for those transitioning out of abusive situations) into ours — dark, lyrical material surging out over just a few days. The title itself came from a prose poem I had written years before. Was this the image of a disaster erupting from my own unconscious recollections as a child?
It was only during the process of recording Talon of the Blackwaterthat my poetry, subsumed in lyric, and my voice, fully became part of my music. I was, in fact, a songwriter and arranger, yet when I first heard the songs on the working demo, I believed someone else must have written them.
Starting in 2008, to my surprise, I began writing pieces for solo piano. Included in these was the instrumental development of “Aberfan”, a folk song that my mother had written in 1966 following the Aberfan landslide disaster. My first arrangement of her song was recorded on my second album. Over the years it has become a full length, modern composition.
“I believe that virtually everything that is within a person is revealed in both their speaking or singing voice and their music. And your music is very paradoxical, as I experience it both intuitively and analytically. It’s very simple, really almost so simple that I could believe that you had never taken lessons and yet there’s an intelligence about it that’s informed from an interior place which creates true originality and I’m using that word in its true meaning, “emerging from the origin, the source” as opposed to merely being novel or different. This duality of a simplicity and a uniqueness is very refreshing.” Joseph Marcello, The Recorder, speaking in an interview with Laura about her work
“Dreamy, visionary, cutting edge.” Holly Hopple, Herndon Festival
“Siersema brings the power of her crystalline voice and compositional skills to bear on her third release…understated accompaniments are at times brilliant…Siersema takes the traditional spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ and makes it her own with a ghostly arrangement reminiscent of Daniel Lanois’s work…the excellent 14-minute ‘Along the Fenway’ features cellist Eugene Friesen and is strikingly beautiful.”Progression, The Quarterly Journal of Progressive Music
“We LOVE your music.” Kelley & Cyrus, Yurt Radio, Hampshire College
“Experimental, serene and surreal…” Sarah Craig, Caffe Lena
“Siersema has power in her words…Some of the songs begin with her reading poetry, and let me tell you, I could sit enraptured listening to a full album of her simply doing this…it sets up the tunes in a fashion that I’ve never quite experienced before. ” Mish Mash Indie Music Reviews
“The major labels are always looking for artists who fit in neat categories, to simplify their marketing efforts. Artists know this, and try to make music that will fit. But some artists are driven to make music that falls between the cracks, that fits no musical genre very well at all. Sometimes, there are traces of various musical genres, but combined in unexpected ways. And sometimes there is no genre that can describe the music fairly. Always, these artists show a fierce originality. Some of the best music I have ever heard also defies categorization. Just as the English language is neither French nor German, but is derived from both, this music is a new language, one that speaks eloquently.” (Oliver di Place blog on Laura’s work)
“She sings like an angel.” Gary Lee, Mt. Wachusett Folk Cafe
“A touch Celtic, a touch New Age, she is uncategorizable, a passion rare in folk music today.” John Henry, WCUW, Worcester
“Laura is an acoustic craftsman, a wordsmith…with the soul and lyrics of a true poet…” Indie-Music Reviews
“STUNNING!!!” David Weide, KUNV, Las Vegas
“A few can carry us beyond….by indenting our souls, effecting change in the soul whereby the mood is retained and perhaps never lost…your music has the power to do just this! You have given a ‘storehouse’ for our spirit’s garden. Places in greatest need of nourishment are thereby fulfilled.” Vincent Tripi, haiku poet
Aberfan (7 pianos, voice and tools of rescue)is an elegy not only for the people of a village who suffered the loss of a generation and the wounded soul of the Welsh who saw their beautiful country destroyed when the coal mines came to the valleys, but for our world, besieged by unbridled industry pillaging the land and its people, exploiting riches for a few. Aberfan is our entire structure under collapse — the condemnation of a corrupted capitalism and the truth of our entrapment in a world that reduces to rubble all that is sacred.