modern composition

Tributes paid to Aberfan police officer Charles Nunn

Tributes Paid to Aberfan Police Officer Charles Nunn (BBC News, December 31, 2019)

Aberfan

“Mr. Nunn described in detail his experience of the 15 days he spent in Bethania Chapel [above] in an article to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster in 2016.”

I am deeply saddened.  For all the questions he answered as I researched for my composition, Aberfan, for all he endured and so willingly relayed to me, Charles remains a living link to Aberfan.

Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) is a sponsored project of the 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.

Photo reportdigital.co.uk, Bethania Chapel, Aberfan, 1966

Two Hymns: Aberfan Funeral 27th. October 1966.

“What hymns were played during the funeral services following the Aberfan disaster of October 21, 1966?”  I posted this question at Old Merthyr Tydfil Forum when first researching for my composition Aberfan, a work in progress.

Gratefully, here is one of the first responses that I received:

“My name is Jeff Adams. I used to live in Aberfan (left in 1966 to join the Royal Navy). I used to attend both Pantglas schools and used to, as a boy, play on those tips!  You are lucky. I have been reading as much as I can get my hands on over the past few months regarding the disaster.  Although the local mines had safety inspector engineers the tips did not…unbelievable.

The service itself lasted just 15 minutes (perhaps to spare more grief among the families?).  The first hymn on the sheet was:

‘Loving Shepherd of thy sheep,
Keep thy lambs in safety keep;
Nothing can thy power withstand,
None can pluck them from thy hand.’

The Salvation Army played the music.  It continued:
‘…Loving Saviour thou didst give,
Thine own life that we might live…’

The Bishop of Llandaff read from the Bible. (Among others) The Lord’s prayer was said.  Second hymn was, ‘Jesu Lover of My Soul,’ to the tune of ‘Aberystwyth,’ composed by Joseph Parry (19th. century Merthyr composer) :

…’That of life the fountain art,
Freely let me take of thee;
Spring through up within my heart-
Rise to all eternity.’

5000 silent people on a Welsh hillside, the bitter cold unnoticed.  Fifteen mintues later it was all over.

Taken from the book Aberfan : The Story of a Disaster by Tony Austin Pages 143-144. I suggest you get it from your local library-you’ll be upset throughout it and angry at the National Coal Board for its outright arrogance.”

Of these two hymns, I chose to arrange “Loving Shepherd of Thy Sheep” for Aberfan, calling this section of the music “Final Hymn”.

Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) 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.  I am currently seeking funds to complete the studio recording.

Photo courtesy of AP Archives Aberfan, October 1966

Aberfan and “The Crown”: All Things Bright and Beautiful

Yesterday, a friend mentioned she’d  been watching “The Crown” (Netflix) and its recent episode about the Aberfan Disaster.  I hadn’t seen it.

Upon reading one of the stories written about this particular episode (“The Crown” Recap:  All Things Bright and Beautiful), I felt I should share Ceri Jackson’s beautiful 50th anniversary story from a few years ago, which speaks to this hymn, addressing what may be a misconception :

“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 Childrenby Ceri Jackson, BBC News, October 21, 2016)

Until seeing Ceri’s article I had the same misconception:  Several years ago, when I first began to reach out for specific information related to the Aberfan disaster for my own composition, I posted my question about hymns sung at the funeral service at Old Merthyr Tydfil Forum.  Several responses came in, one of which was:  Finally, you may wish to know that during morning assembly (9am.-9-15am) the children sang:  ‘All things bright and beautiful, the lord God loves them all.’

In composing Aberfan, it has been imperative that the facts of that day be honored, that in creating the sequence of musical events, I know what the actual events were. My arrangement of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (called “First Hymn”) is placed in the music right after “Interlude” in which the children are walking to school, only to be interrupted by the catastrophic collapse, “Rock Sequence”.

Given that “All Things Bright and Beautiful” was typically sung during morning assembly, I felt it was fitting for it to remain in the composition.  Here is a demo sample:  Excerpt from Aberfan, “First Hymn”

Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) is a sponsored project of the 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.

Photo courtesy of South Wales Police Museum.  Aberfan, 1966

 

MONDAY 21st.OCTOBER 2019.

 

As the day of the 53rd anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster nears, I am reposting this story by Ceri Jackson, BBC News, written for the 50th anniversary of the Disaster.

Aberfan: The mistake that cost a village its children

Photo from AP Archives , the graves of Aberfan, October 27, 1966.

 

Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) is a sponsored project of New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Contributions are tax deductible.

SUNDAY 21st.OCTOBER 2018

52nd anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster

Detective Sargeant Charles Nunn, Welsh Regional Crime Squad, 1966, wrote in a story for The Police Review in 1987.  TheDisasterOfAberfan_CharlesNunn_ThePoliceReview_

Charles Nunn story

I would like to repost the story Charles wrote and other details he has so generously shared with me.  Charles first contacted me several years ago, offering his help in response to my inquiry at Old Merthyr Tydfil Forum.  I was doing research for my composition, Aberfan.

Taken from one of our email exchanges, he wrote:

“The team in the mortuary were composed entirely of Regional Crime Squad Officers drawn from all over Wales….We were tasked to set up a mortuary, and identify the 144 victims of the disaster. I was designated the Senior Identification Officer and worked with my team in the mortuary at Bethania Chapel in Moy Road, Aberfan for 15 days until the last body, and body piece, was identified.

Aberfan was a small village. No police station, no town hall, no gymnasium which was why we had to use the totally inadequate facilities of the Sunday school room at the rear of the chapel for receiving, washing the bodies etc. and the body of the chapel itself to place the bodies for viewing. Once a body had been identified and the cause of death recorded by a pathologist, without exception asphyxiation and multiple crush injuries, Death Certificates needed to be issued.

It now sounds very incongruous and bizarre but they were issued from a local land mark, the village fish and chip shop.

In my handwriting, a notice was placed on the door of the chapel directing families to that location.”

My composition Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) is a sponsored project of the 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.

 

America: The Farewell Tour

I must share this.  Interview with Chris Hedges on his latest book America:  The Farewell Tour.

“This moment in history marks the end of a long, sad tale of greed and murder by the white races…Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering , exploiting and polluting the earth in the name of human progress.”

As an artist, I work on the inside.  Yet everything I experience — and compelled to compose — is mirrored on the outside.  This book describes us in the context of history and fault, a world whose series of oppression and slaughter, greed and inequality, change only in details of the time.  My composition Aberfan, which I continue to hold, is microcosm for the macrocosm of our drawing extinction.

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.

Puffin Foundation Awards Aberfan

Aberfan is being awarded by Puffin Foundation a second time!  Many thanks.  

The Puffin Foundation Ltd. has sought to open the doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and art organizations who are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy.

Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) 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.

Tragedy at Aberfan

“Tragedy is not deep and sharp if it can be shared with friends.”  Varlam Shalamov, The Kolyma Tales 

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, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

How do you personally account for a violation of this kind except through one’s own soul?  What I believe, what I know to be true, is expressed in my music.

Aberfan is a sponsored compositional and media 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.

Photograph IC Rapoport, Aberfan, 1966

Rev. Colin Peter Bessant at Aberfan Disaster


A few days ago, Sophie-Ann Williams of North Wales contacted me.  She was hoping to find out more about her Grandfather, the late Reverend Colin Peter Bessant, who helped to dig those days of the Aberfan Disaster.  She sent along this photo of him which had been cut out of Life magazine.  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…”

If anyone has any information about him, please leave a reply at the bottom of this post and I will pass it along to Sophie-Ann and Paula.

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.  

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.

My composition Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) is part of a larger project, envisioned as an immersive multimedia installation with photographs taken by Life photojournalist IC Rapoport.  A sponsored project of New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a 501(c)(3), nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.  Contributions on behalf of Aberfan must be made payable to NYFA, and are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue)

Entering now the fourth year of its journey into the world, here marks a summary of my composition project, Aberfan, for those new to this blog or to the tragic event itself.

South Wales Police Museum6 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, killing 116 children and 28 adults.  

My mother wrote a folk song in the wake of the disaster, that I heard as a child.  Using excerpts of melody and lyric from her song, as well as portions of hymns — one the children would have sung at morning assembly on the day of the disaster and another sung at the mass funeral less than one week later — Aberfan splices 31 musical Sequences of Rain, Sunrise, Interlude, Hymn, Rock, Rubble and Field with their Alterations.  Piano parts are specific; percussion, and to some extent, voice, are improvisatory.  Steel shovels, picks and hatchets, spades, breaking glass, bare hands — these are the tools of rescue.

Envisioned at the crossroads of modern music, experimental media, environmental crime and the psychology of trauma, Aberfan will be presented alongside black and white photographs taken by Life photojournalist IC Rapoport, who went to Aberfan to photograph the “psychic mess”.

Investigating how art, together with technology, can be used for experiential transformation, Aberfan addresses the visceral, personal experiences of the disaster, while recognizing its universal relevance as an almost-forgotten humanitarian crime against a future generation.  Merging the music of Aberfan and photos of this particular disaster’s aftermath lays bare the great cost of ignoring the habituated, presumptive violence in our human systems.  

This is my tie to Wales.  An interior carnage.

Is art radical?

Initially, I wrote 7 musical Sequences and experimented with them.  Each was altered, cut up, broken, repeated in different octaves, turned upside down and backwards, then reassembled.  For example, the Rain Sequence is developed out of a two bar phrase using an intuitive formula of increasing prime numbers, to presage the inexorable movement of the spoil heap.  Over a week of heavy rainfall prior to the tragedy becomes the gradual dissolution of recognizable harmony, even as the number of pianos increases and one habituates to the erosion of sound.

Specific choices respect the physical event:  7 (pianos, Sequences) refers to the number of the coal waste tip that collapsed; each Interlude contains 144 beats, one for each person killed. Through-composed, the music spirals — as did the actual collapse — periodically and unpredictably interrupted by Trauma, amalgamated portions of the Rock Sequence.

During final revisions I had a miraculous dream I was certain pertained to Aberfan:  the presentation would be as a film that could roll forward and backward, through and beyond.  One could participate, could follow, could see the moment of death entering, when the soul was coming through, opening into eternity.  

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.

What happens to trauma over time?

Aberfan is participatory.  An immersive space will be created using projection of imagery and semi-transparent scrims, capturing the landscape and people, the tactility of coal, ingrained in their faces. The viewer will move through the space, at times full of unsettling, discordant movement as if being subsumed in an avalanche of slag and at other times nearly silent, inducing pause. One can walk inside, behind and around the moving images, inside of the presentation.

A psychological and spiritual rendering as much as a musical one, Aberfan is an excavation into my own soul, propelling itself through me — the story of power and destruction wrought over all the world in the willful, negligent and unconscious devastation upon those most vulnerable and the call to transform, through my music, the inscrutable events.

What is the value of connecting to your soul?

This is another beginning that I write to you, another revolution around the greatest wound in the psyche of humanity — the loss and attempted destruction of soul.  Aberfan, itself a disruption of artistic practice, is a transformational (creative) experience that can happen to anyone, this

visitation by a child.  Through the sounds and images of Aberfan, where the boundary between what is divine and what is human is fluid, where time is anytime, and geographical distances absent, notating what I have seen and heard and felt is to resurrect, is to record for anyone else access to what has long been buried.

We are living now the upheaval — the turning outside what was in, what has long been buried — and must live now to extricate ourselves from what would obliterate good, what is bright and free.  The underbelly, black water out my dream now burst upon the land, no sorcerer could have done without people. We are in the confines of a trained evil.

Aberfan is an elegy not only for the people of Aberfan 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 exploiting its riches for the few.  In this desperate time, it is urgent we activate moral and creative counterweights to intellectual arguments for climate change:   awaken the spirit of shared humanity and responsibility that lives in each of us.

Aberfan confronts and aims to disrupt our complacency, inciting change in the only way possible, speaking directly to what is at the heart of our survival as fully actualized beings on a thriving planet — the need to reconnect with our innermost being, where one lives in balance and reverence for the natural world.

In bearing witness to the specific atrocity of Aberfan, we recover connection to the past and expose our present challenge.  In sensing what is greater than ourselves, we re-envision a sustainable and just future.

Aberfan is a sponsored project of New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization. Contributions are tax deductible.

Photo courtesy of South Wales Police Museum