The Soundtrack to War and Peace
The author in his living quarters (studio) on post somewhere in Baghdad,
equipped with keyboard and M-16 rifle (behind him, on his bed)
The Iraq War and music makingFor many people, the beginning and end of war is the beginning of a seemingly new life. No matter what type of life you lived before war, you can be sure that the most absurd will come full circle upon its embankment. What does this mean for a twenty-four year old jazz pianist and composer from New Orleans Louisiana? For me, it was the most potent of experiences. Prior to being deployed in the Army National Guard as a Counter Intelligence Agent, I literally did nothing but go to music school, practice and listen to music. Music was all I new. For better or worse, it was the muse that I communed with. This is perhaps the one thing that did not change at all for me. Although, I was dealing with some pretty heavy decisions when I first learned of my mandatory, all-expense paid trip to Iraq. My first reaction was one of great depression. I wasn't even thinking of the fact that I could get hurt or hurt someone else.
by William A. Thompson IV
Ignorantly, I mourned the death of my musical life. I could not see myself returning to music after a year and a half of service in this strange place. In an act of desperation, I made one final grasp at this sinking ship. That effort resulted in my initial interest in creating electronic music. I armed myself, days before I left, with a Powerbook G4, some software, my keyboard, and a microphone. That's right, an acoustic piano zealot who had loathed anything not jazz or classical, was about to make some seriously insane electronic music.
And so I did. My manifesto was at first unspoken but understood. The goal of my project was to convey though music the experiences of one soldier's tour in Iraq. I wanted to make a political statement that only the audience could decide. If you think all this sounds like a lot of work, you're right. But it saved what sanity I had to start with. As a result, the music, in my opinion, is very dark and introverted. Night after night, I experimented with new sounds, many of which were a result of the samples I collected by day with my I-pod. I began to understand that there essentially is no difference between music and "noise." Music is said to be organized noise. After transcribing note patterns inherent in "noise," I realized that sound is not an exception to the rule that patterns emerge after careful study of anything that exists in nature. I became even more infatuated with speech patterns. Arabic being my data set, I now believe that each dialect, and more precisely, each person, has their own preferred note set and rhythmic template.
Having no audience to play for, I made my audience using technology. The Internet allowed for something that had never happened in music, the communication with an audience by an individual employed in war, while that very employment is taking place. However, as far as I could tell, this music was something so personal and while intended for the worlds ears, too private.
In retrospect, it seems that my having to go to war is far overshadowed by the absurdities of returning. It is odd that we can all feel so safe. A peaceful environment is the most stressful place for some one who is used to a more real presence of fear. Life and music seem so real when you are close to losing them. After writing music that attempts to say something about war, it can be hard to find a new worthy topic of inspiration.
But I'll digress from my pessimisms. Life as an American is a beautiful thing. As an exponent of free jazz, I now see it as an even more beautiful thing. I can't think of two other words together that say so much about this nation. As an example, I would like to site my experience at the annual High Mayhem festival in early October. High Mayhem Emerging Arts is a not-for-profit emerging arts facility, record label and multimedia production collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who challenge the homogenizing effect of pop-culture groupthink by providing opportunities for and fostering collaborations with underrepresented "experimental" artists (www.highmayhem.org). This organization and festival represents much in the way of freedom. Before even playing at the festival, I knew that High Mayhem was one of the only venues that would give my trio pure and uncensored freedom without any fear of judgment. This is a concept that is still somewhat hard for me to imagine.
While in Iraq, whenever possible I spoke with Iraqis about the state of music in Baghdad specifically. To this day, the people there are still dealing with Sadam's control. This control excluded music almost altogether to the point that most great Iraq musicians fled to Egypt, escaping persecution.
Days later, I was faced with the type of freedom that some or most Iraqis cannot understand. Having literally taken my boots off hours before getting on a plan, I arrived and played live music for the first time in almost two years. The music poured out of my trio in an unconscious selfless purifying religious act. So much so, that I was almost catatonic afterward. And of course, I was finally reunited with my comrade musicians who had been scattered about the country as a result of Katrina. We've all been though so much. I have found that such is powerful material from which to draw. When inspiration is abundant, the artist disappears. William Blake says much.
Each man is in his spectre's power
Until the arrival of that hour
When his humanity awake
And cast his spectre into the lake.
For more information about my Iraqi project check out my site at, www.wativ.com.
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