War Requiem

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This essay accompanies a composition by the same name created by Gabriel Saloman as Sade Sade. The composition is comprised of video pieces culled from YouTube which are to be played simultaneously by the viewer. These videos are embedded on a website, www.diademdiscos.wordpress.com/releases/ddm6, and their order and timing are to be determined in part by the viewer, thus making them the performer of the piece. The videos include music by Benjamin Britten, John Cage, CRASS and Arvo Pärt, all of which is referenced below. – GMS 2009


War Requiem

by Gabriel Saloman

It’s rare when discussing the 20th century avant-garde for the subject of CRASS to come up. To be fair, it’s rare when talking about CRASS to have the subject of 20th Century avant-garde art come up. This is unfortunate, because CRASS is so perfectly situated as the inheritor of some the most insightful and inciting traditions of Modernism, from Dada to the Beats, Situationism to Fluxus (the latter with-whom they had some correspondence in the form of their pre-CRASS performance art group EXIT). They’ve never been shy about this lineage, or at least not since their formal dissolution in 1984. I suspect that some members of the collective were more concerned with the politics, and certainly some were just punks really, but a serious look at their vast array of what Dick Hebdige might have called “bricolage” shows a cohesion and rigor to their activity.(1) As multi-media artists, interventionists and instigators of “Happenings” CRASS managed to be subversive and potent on many levels.

One doesn’t have to dig too deep for evidence of pretension. Penny Rimbaud is oft quoted saying that “[CRASS] composed in the classical way, using atmospheres and development… it sounds ridiculous, but if you knew [Benjamin] Britten, you would hear a lot of Britten in our stuff. A lot of the chord sequences are very beautiful dissonances.”(2) So it would seem that the violent ambiences, sound collages and symphonic oddities such as Acts of Love are not the art brutality of ignorant gutter punks. Either way, the point is made and enshrined by their own curation as the Crass Collective of the English Chamber Ensemble’s interpretation of Britten’s War Requiem at a concert presented in opposition to the Iraq War at Queen Elizabeth’s Hall. Be they fans or students, the connection alone is compelling.

I’d often mused over this strange relationship, between Britten and CRASS, marveling at the utterly vast difference of class and context, and yet genuinely touched by the implications of their affinity. Britten wrote some of his native England’s finest Operas, while Crass is enduringly one of England’s most influential music groups (honestly not so far behind the Beatles), but the metaphysical line that carries between Peter Grimes and Penis Envy would most likely be both camp’s unequivocal stance against War. Britten had been living in the U.S. at the outset of World War II, but he returned home to England with his musical and romantic partner Peter Pears in 1942. They both claimed the status of “Conscientious Objectors”, thus avoiding being enlisted, though now burdened by the prejudice of a nationalistic audience and press. Upon his return Britten was commissioned to create the opera Peter Grimes, which starred Pears as the persecuted titular character, whose haunted quality of otherness seems to speak to Britten’s own sense of estrangement and precarity, both as a homosexual and a pacifist. The Opera premiered in June of 1942 barely a month past VE Day to wide adulation and none of the protest which had been rumored.(3)

Twenty years later Britten premiered the harrowing and phenomenally gorgeous War Requiem. Written to commemorate the reconstruction and consecration of Coventry Cathedral which had been destroyed in a World War II bombing raid, Britten created what will long stand as one of the world’s greatest works of art in opposition to War. It fascinates me to consider an artist who has the ability to make work that speaks to a certain class, a certain sphere, of powerful individuals, and who actually chooses to voice his grievance with their inhumanity and greed. It is few of us who will be asked with deference to speak truth to power by Power itself. It’s not just that Britten conducted himself with such decency, and I would argue courage, but that he did it with a belief that the particular Totality that is Western Culture could be powerful enough to change human consciousness. In terms of this Totality he failed. Across the world the US was escalating its war in Vietnam even as the UK’s former colonies in Africa were violently claiming their independence.

I can’t help but see CRASS’ methodology as a response to the failures of so-called High Art to affect meaningful change towards a peaceful society. In a sense I see the Totality of Britten’s great work fractured and dislocated from a central point of pressure; a luminous ball of light becoming a night sky full of stars. CRASS attempted to change the world by creating a whole culture, a true gesamtkunstwerk. In a sense their approach had more success. I would use two criteria to argue so, the first being their continuing and international influence, and the second being that their work actually inured the anger and legal violence of the actors of modern warfare. Being taken to court is evidence just shy of disappearance or assassination that an artist has touched on an area of vulnerability, and that CRASS was an unloved topic of conversation in the UK Parliament and the US Congress compels me to argue that their work in opposition to War perhaps came closer to actually undermining something.(4)  Who knows… perhaps if Britten had squatted The Royal Opera House to host a free and peaceful festival of Opera for dissidents, anarchists and bohemians he would have a different story to tell.

But CRASS failed too. As I write this, only a few weeks have passed since Remembrance Day, and the bitter ironies of its totemic devices seem especially cruel if not cynical. The red and white poppies of Flanders Fields have become far more plentiful in the farm fields of Afghanistan which unhappily provides over 90% of the world’s opium.(5) Scandals are reaching a Spectacular pitch as people grapple with the hardly novel concept that British and Canadian soldiers commit murder, torture and rape. War hasn’t slowed its pace nor has Pacifism become any more or less universally held a belief. I acknowledge that artists such as CRASS and Britten can only have failed if their work held the promise of actually ending War. No matter how brilliant they may have been, the fact that both of their works seemed to truly aspire to this possibility is why they may be held to such a standard. Their work failed, but it was a luminous, inspiring, Icarus type of failure.

Another of CRASS’ favorite composers was John Cage, whose 4’33″ was referenced not once, but twice on their debut album The Feeding of the 5000.(6) Cage himself identified as an Anarchist, saying so explicitly and going on to say “I don’t know whether the adjective is pure and simple, or philosophical, or what, but I don’t like government! And I don’t like institutions! And I don’t have any confidence in even good institutions.”(7) It’s hard not to see in the zen gesture of 4’33″ an act of conscientous objection itself. I see in Cage’s beckoning us toward real listening a solution to the question of how a real lasting Peace might be achieved. CRASS used his notion of Silence to similar effect in their song They’ve Got a Bomb, constructing within their anti-nuclear war anthem a gap of silence in which the audience might momentarily feel confronted with the seriousness of the lyrical subject. I find it hard not to hope that Cage may have found a still underutilized methodology that could actually persuade a public to change, but he may have found this solution inadequate. In the same year that Britten wrote and performed War Requiem, John Cage wrote 0’0″, a sequel of sorts to 4’33″ who’s original performance was scored by the sentence “In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.” Perhaps CRASS was closer to his endgame.

Upon Britten’s passing, Estonian mystical composer Arvo Pärt wrote an elegy in mourning. Its score is written with silence book-ending an ever escalating drone of ecstatic sadness. The cyclical body of Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is born and decays by the touch of a bell, a toll that echoes both Britten’s War Requiem and Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth, the 1917 War Poem that forms the tenor and baritone’s text in Requiem.

“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs…” (8)

War is despair. The act of making a work of art in opposition to this, the utter worse that humanity has offered the wold, is an act of despair. What can make a work like Pärt’s Cantus, Owen’s Anthem, CRASS’s What the Fuck or certainly Britten’s Requiem move us beyond despair is the belief in the potential for a peaceful humanity that could even be despaired for. No works such as these come from misanthropy, but rather they expose a vast anthrophilia. They are “Acts of Love”, of hope, of possibility. I write this because in my small way I have attempted to create art in the same spirit, even if not of the same magnitude. In my own despair at seeing the world torn asunder over and over, seeing the Jewish mantra “Never Again” betrayed well before my childhood had ended, at seeing so few voices raise themselves in opposition, I have held out a hope against hope that War can end. That Art can be a part of its end.
War can end. Peace can reign.

Notes:

1. Hebridge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979)
2. McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty (1996)
3. Carpenter, Humphre. Benjamin Britten: A Biography (1992)
4. George Berger. The Story of Crass (2006) – This refers specifically to “Thatchergate”, a tape collage created by CRASS that made it appear that Thatcher and Reagan were discussing using Europe as a battlefield for a nuclear war with the USSR, though this was not the only case of their being a concern for British courts and MPs.
5. Chouvy, Pierre-Arnaud. Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy (2009)
6. McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty (1996)
7. Montague , Stephen. “John Cage at Seventy: an Interview”. American Music (1985)
8. Owen, Wilfred. Anthem For Doomed Youth. The Wilfred Owen Collection, The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford University <http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/owen&gt;

 

Artworks | Music | Writings | Dance | Concepts | CV

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