By Richard S. Ginell
PALO ALTO, CA — Writing a musical composition about the My Lai massacre of 1968 during the Vietnam War ought to be as difficult a task as writing about the Holocaust. How does one adequately convey in music the horror of such an episode, one that punctures the story line that all American soldiers were innately compassionate, kind, brave, selfless defenders of Mom, flag, and apple pie? And how does one do so without crossing the line into mawkish sentimentality or unbearable stridency?
Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University known for embracing political themes in his music, has tried to avoid these traps in a large-scale collaboration with librettist Harriet Scott Chessman called My Lai. Although the performance in the Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford campus on Oct. 10 was designated as the world premiere, it was really the first concert performance of a work in progress — well beyond the workshop stage but not yet the finished item. The fully staged version will be unveiled at the co-commissioning Harris Theatre for Music and Dance in Chicago on Jan. 29, 2016.
While Lt. William Calley, Jr., the only man to serve time for his role in the atrocities, had been the best-known figure and symbol of My Lai, Berger’s piece is a monodrama as told from the point of view of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., the man who blew the whistle on My Lai and tried to stop it. The piece is set in 2005, with Thompson, dying of cancer in a Louisiana hospital, recalling his experiences in the village of Son My (My Lai being only one of many tiny hamlets within the village).
Upon noticing the massacre on a routine helicopter reconnaissance flight and seeing no Viet Cong activity, Thompson made three landings to try to stop the killings and rescue some of the villagers. He became the star witness for the Army’s investigation of My Lai, and for his trouble was turned into a pariah, discredited by figures from President Nixon on down the line. Today, with the end of the war 40 years in the rear-view mirror and as the U.S. relationship with Hanoi continues to heal and even flourish, Thompson is regarded as a hero — and he lived just long enough to be honored for his actions.
Berger has divided this roughly hour-long theater piece into three continuous acts — or, as they are called in the libretto, “landings” (referring to Thompson’s three helicopter landings) — which in turn are subdivided into scenes. Thompson has agonized flashbacks of what he witnessed. They are still living nightmares to him, not heroic episodes. He frequently tries to sing an old spiritual, “My Lord, What A Morning,” perhaps as a way to ease the pain. Occasionally, you could hear the wap-wap of a helicopter through the loudspeakers; otherwise, everything was expressed through music, words, and a few lighting effects.
Between the landings, there are two hallucinatory passages in which Thompson switches on a TV via remote control to a stereotypical American game show (we only heard the audio from these sequences over the loudspeakers). Thompson shouts back to the screen as he is being railroaded by the genial emcee representing the American Establishment. There is some danger of trivialization here, but Berger and company just manage to walk a fine line between a parody of aspects of American pop culture that were far removed from the grisly realities of the war and a sadistic savaging of a soldier who bucked patriotic dogma to follow his conscience. In any case, no one in the audience laughed.
Prior to the performance of My Lai, there was an overture of sorts called My Lai Lullaby — also a world premiere — in which the four members of the Kronos Quartet joined the highly versatile Vietnamese musician Van-Ánh Vanessa Vo in a beautiful, jam-like, West-Meets-East cacophony that almost threatened to turn into a blues. Once My Lai proper got underway, Berger reverted to a sterner abstract language for the Kronos: passages of nerve-shattering dissonance careening about, agitated syncopation, and roiling, bludgeoning repetitions interspersed with elegies and passages of sustained quietude.
Meanwhile, Vo interacted with the quartet or soloed on a variety of Vietnamese instruments, including the almost human-sounding, vibrating, sliding one-string monochord (dan bau) that occasionally evoked the sound of a pedal steel guitar; the zither-like dan tranh, and the clattering, elaborately stacked bamboo xylophone (dan T’rung). The last was purportedly constructed with the same kind of bamboo that booby traps were made of during the war.
The sole singing role of Thompson was left to the considerable talents of the versatile theater artist and composer Rinde Eckert, who has made a career performing formidable solo pieces for more than 30 years. As he has before, Eckert dominated the stage with his still-powerful tenor, his clear diction eliminating any need for supertitles.
Yet for all of its good intentions and high intensity, for all of its largely successful efforts to unite a rigorous Western string quartet with the piquant sounds of Vietnamese instruments, for all of Eckert’s valiant attempt to make the audience feel Thompson’s pain, even for all the first-class, unobtrusive amplification, you can experience far more outrage and heartbreak by reading a historical article about My Lai. Berger’s work did not leave me emotionally drained or absorbed in contemplation, at least upon a first hearing.
For the staged Chicago performance in January 2016, a post-concert panel of the creators said they would be adding projections, among other tweaks. That could be a big help, providing more of a visual, visceral connection to a grim episode in our history that is already fading from collective memory. The creative team also plans to tour the piece, and that might create some interesting controversy if the work appears in certain patches of the country that aren’t quite as liberal as the Bay Area (the Hoover Institution on the Stanford campus notwithstanding). My Lai’s life is just getting underway.
Historical addendum: There was a flurry of quickie songs that came out around the time of Lt. William Calley’s trial, including this jingoistic period piece sung by Terry Nelson that actually sold nearly two million copies in 1971 and reached No. 37 on the pop charts. Clearly, the consensus about Vietnam has changed for most Americans since then.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.