Ian Smith-Heisters

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

ABERFAN WALES 1966On 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.

Envisioned at the crossroads of modern music, experimental media and environmental justice, my new composition Aberfan incorporates excerpts from a folk song my mother wrote following the 1966 disaster, as well as hymns — one the children would have sung at morning assembly that day and another sung at the mass funeral less than one week later.  Music will be presented in live performance, immersive installation and exhibition with black & white photographs — such as the one above — taken by Life photojournalist IC Rapoport, who went to Aberfan to “photograph the psychic mess”.

MUSIC SAMPLES  of work in progress

By addressing the visceral, personal experiences of the disaster, Aberfan investigates how art, together with technology, can be used for experiential transformation, while implying the disaster’s universal relevance as an almost-forgotten humanitarian crime against a future generation.

I am seeking support to fund the recording and presentation of this project.  


A psychological and spiritual rendering as much as a musical one, Aberfan is an excavation into my own soul. As Alice Miller discovered the trauma of her own childhood through spontaneous painting and wrote about in her many books, Aberfan propelled itself through me.  This is the story of power and destruction wrought over all the world in the willful, negligent and unconscious devastation upon the most vulnerable and the call to transform, through my music, the inscrutable events.


Michael Farquharson  Studio Producer / Engineer, Mix One Studios, Boston, MA

Ian Smith-Heisters  Media Design, Berkeley, CA

Denise Wallace-Spriggs  Art Direction, Boston, MA



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:  Vault of the Valley Music, 27 Abbott Street, Greenfield, MA, 01301.

Here is a demo sample of voice and piano parts:  

“Their daily rendition [in morning assembly, 9am] of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ – a hymn written a few miles away in the bucolic tranquillity 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.

Aerial view, October 21, 1966, courtesy of AGU Blogosphere

(Photo top of page by IC Rapoport 1966)

Aberfan is funded in part by Puffin Foundation, Thendara Foundation, Puffin Foundation West and Deupree Family Foundation.

Screenshot 2016-07-22 at 5.51.53 PM

“…Continuing the dialogue between art and the lives of ordinary people.”

thendara foundation




Ian Smith-Heisters


Today I want to tell you about someone I met several months ago, quite by happenstance (though, of course, that’s hardly the whole story).  In what had become a daily online search for anything simpatico with my current project Aberfan, I came across Ian’s profile on LinkedIn.  Ian Smith-Heisters 

Within moments of scanning his profile, I felt certain we were going to be working together.

And so we are.   He will develop the visual element for Aberfan.  

Ian will create an immersive space using projection of imagery and semi-transparent scrims, capturing subjects of people, nature and 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 still, inducing pause.  The kaleidoscopic nature of the music — random entrances of pianos, eruptions of trauma, shifting rhythmic emphasis, a lyrical voice — coexists with imagery that envelops the viewer.  One can walk inside, behind and around the moving images, inside the performance.

In his words:  “I am approaching Aberfan as a ritual of healing that is part of a longer, ongoing trajectory of coping with the Aberfan disaster.  My approach to the performance is informed by years dancng with Anna Halprin, who uses performed ritual to address personal and communal trauma.  In doing so, I hope to work with Laura to create a performance that addresses the personal experiences of the disaster using photography and video, while implying the disaster’s universal relevance as an almost-forgotten environmental crime against a future generation.”

For the performance or installation of Aberfan, we need money to create a studio recording and develop a design for the visual element.  Our hope is for presentation across the United States within the next several years.

Make your tax-deductible donation here:  www.tinyurl.com/FundAberfan