I write this essay in the throes of the aftermath of our national election. Donald Trump will be president of the United States. It seems impossible now to write about the intersection between social issues and art without acknowledging this new reality. I personally was very much against Trump, and have been suffering from what feels like some sort of low-grade depression since his victory. Many of my friends feel this way too.
In the week since that shocking turn of events, I have been trying to reach out to people who have a different perspective, including some who voted for Trump. It isn’t easy for me to cordon off the emotional space to have these conversations, because I have to repress a palpable and physical panic-urge about the direction I believe the world is taking.
But it seemed like a way to make myself useful. I grew up in Georgia and Ohio, but also Massachusetts and Maryland. I have histories and relationships with people who made this choice, however much I’m against it. That project has only begun, and I suspect it will consume me for a long time to come.
When So Percussion [Sliwinski, Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, and Jason Treuting], along with our collaborators Emily Johnson and Ain Gordon, began making our newest work for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, we were driven by an increasing sense of urgency about forces in our nation that influence issues like gun control. Some of us grew up in more rural areas where guns are commonplace, others didn’t. Many of us still had friends and family in places like Ohio, Alaska, or Virginia, who owned guns and held varying combinations of beliefs about them. We wanted to gain a better understanding of America’s peculiar attachment to guns.
We started this conversation after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in December 2012. Some of us were actually together working on a project called Where (we) Live. The events of that day seemed unreal. As common as mass shootings had become since Columbine in 1999, this one was especially gutting. I myself have a stepson who was exactly the age of those children at the time, and this tragedy penetrated all of my attempts to cope with it emotionally.
At the time, we imagined that our views on the issue were probably perfectly in sync. As we talked and explored, a murkier picture emerged. We were still on the same page about the most fundamental issues, such as the need for sensible gun control. But when examining the issue closely, many other social questions spill out. It would be virtually impossible for six people to be perfectly aligned in every way. Intense and productive discussions followed this initial burst.
Making art in response to unspeakable acts is difficult – at least it has been for us. The first problem that is so easy to stumble over is “what do we say?” But we realized that the first question for an artist could also be: “what do we make?” When young musicians talk to me about the many forking paths ahead of them, I remind them that artists, like artisans, always make things.
We were four musicians, a choreographer/performance artist, and a director/playwright, who brought ideas for new work piecemeal into the studio when gathered together – a fragment of text, a number pattern for musical structure, a thematic concept. We didn’t really know how to start, because the subject felt too large. It was recent, immediate, and full of engulfing sadness.
We embarked upon research: visiting a gun range to learn how to shoot, joining rural hunters for a day of hunting, leafing through statistic after statistic about gun violence, interviewing family and acquaintances who support gun rights. Gradually, single disassociated ideas coalesced into a multi-genre production.
Ultimately, we DID have something to say, but the relationship between work and idea was fluid and ever-changing.
In the end, we decided to call our performance A Gun Show.
Early in the process of making this piece, we latched onto the idea of including a chorus of extra musicians. Initially we modeled their role after the choruses from the great Greek tragedies. We even resolved to read Aeschylus and to meet with an expert on Greek tragedy at Princeton University to examine how that might work.
In the end our chorus skewed away from providing direct commentary (a role we increasingly assigned to overhead slides). They started more to represent the anonymous crowd, engaged in mourning, remembrance, and action.
During the development process we met with the late Tim Vasen, then a professor of drama at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. We asked him to give us a layman’s tour of how these ancient Greek dramas really worked, to see if there was anything that would help us. One of the themes he emphasized was that tragedy and comedy embodied distinctive roles.
In Ancient Athens, comedy was the genre wherein a playwright could address contemporary issues and even real living characters.
The deflective nature of comedy provided an escape valve, and it was actually considered a badge of honor for a statesmen or sponsor to be “roasted” in one of these plays. He was judged by the public on how graciously he accepted it.
Tragedy, on the other hand, confronted serious pathos, horror, and pity by telling stories of remote historical or mythical characters. The audience could experience some level of identification without being triggered to feel the events too closely.
I was struck by how much we still imitate the Greeks. Comedy and satire allow a performer like Steven Colbert to stand right next to a sitting president and mock his foibles.
We realized that this laid a kind of trap for us dramaturgically with A Gun Show. We were going to be neither funny nor remote in the way we tackled this subject. We had to find a way to make compelling art about this difficult and traumatizing subject without traumatizing the audience.
While researching the project, Josh investigated information and resources about the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, CT, the events which were the initial impetus for the project.
What he found was chilling, as much for what was left unseen as for what it showed.
In the Sandy Hook reports, a lot of information and photographs were released to the public, but heavily redacted. For the most part (unless you are a full blown conspiracy theorist), the redactions make sense. Based on what we know of the event, what happened to those children is beyond imagining. And yet, the redactions force us to do exactly that – to create our own internal images of the unimaginable.
In the section labelled “photographs,” there are documents consisting entirely of pages and pages of black rectangles with number codes labelled on them, such as “01 02 03 06 12.”
These codes indicate a category of what lies beneath: minor protected by privacy laws, homicide, etc.
Early in our creative process, this theme of redaction came up over and over again. Just as the police used it to shield the viewer and protect the privacy of the victims, we thought we might use it to make our work, approaching the topic and yet not having to look at the whole awful thing all at once.
Many times the redaction manifested as a creative altering process. One collaborator would come in with a story or composition. Another might apply some redaction to that piece, either through number patterns or in a more symbolic way.
The very first movement we perform in A Gun Show is a hand ballet which was originally a piece for snare drums. The drums were placed vertically, so that the wire snares on the bottom of the drum could be scraped on the side. Emily Johnson loved the look of this piece so much that she asked us to take the snare drums away, just to see what the hand motions would look like. Without the context of the drums, they were strange but effective.
Thus our entire show begins in silence with a redaction. In a way it is our tribute to these blank black pages, full of numbers and patterns but devoid of content.
Elsewhere, straightforward texts are redacted microcosmically, leaving them on the verge of incomprehensibility. During the climactic tam-tam piece near the end, Jason passes the cacophony of the tam-tam through pedals that mute the sound off and on, constantly redacting the chaos in a controlled fashion.
We originally even considered calling the show “content redacted,” but we felt that this itself was too much of a redaction of our real purpose, which was to explore gun culture. Also, it might confuse the subject with other pressing issues such as NSA surveillance.
The snare drum is one of the fundamental instruments in western classical percussion training. It is the first instrument that a young percussionist learns on is a snare drum. Everything about being a “drummer” relates to it.
Jason wrote a lot of music for A Gun Show revolving around the snare drum. This is partially a nod to the symbolic history of the instrument as a military tool. Snare drums and their ancestors were used to signal troop movements, coordinate marching, and inspire courage. In colonial America, they also served more mundane functions in village life, calling citizens to town meetings.
In many ways, the snare drum is the central metaphor for A Gun Show. Although not designed for direct violence, it played a role in facilitating conflict. But the modern percussionist hardly thinks of this at all when studying percussion. There is nothing inherent in the instrument that makes it violent.
The relationship of a musician to an instrument can be similar to that of a gun owner and gun. Setting aside the connotations about what the instrument is used for (yes, this is a huge thing to set aside), it is something that has feel, weight, action, response. The operator comes to know it intimately, obsessing over how it feels in the hands, or how it vibrates.
All of us in So Percussion are accustomed to this intimate, obsessive relationship with an object – but none of us have that relationship with guns. An instrument like the snare drum stands in for that other object in A Gun Show.
Gun culture in America is inescapably tied to its history of oppression through enslavement. The weary hopefulness of Afro-American diaspora music has had a profound influence on us, although we try very hard to be respectful and not appropriative of that influence.
Here it’s worth mentioning that the symbolism of the drum gets very richly complicated. I wrote above that percussion instruments were often invented to facilitate violence, which is true. But in America (and now really the world), those same instruments like the snare drum and cymbals are most closely associated with one of the great American instruments, the drumset. African-American musicians played a singularly important role in adapting these instruments from their purpose of violence to one of joy, expression, even ecstasy. To watch a drummer like Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, or Max Roach, one can only think of flow, creativity, and inspiration. Growing up as drummers, we worshiped these performers, and to be a percussionist in the USA is to be profoundly affected by this tradition.
We cannot ignore that two of the primary social movements of our time – gun control and Black Lives Matter – are intimately intertwined. In our opinion, one of the frustrating blind spots of the gun issue is when white proponents of gun rights refuse to acknowledge that guns have been a primary tool of oppression against people of color. They reduce this thorny history to “guns don’t kill people,” as if there’s no significance whatsoever to the power that widespread gun usage exerts in social hierarchies.
Noise has become one of the fundamental tools of the percussionist’s trade. In the musical sense “noise” has a somewhat more focused definition than in everyday life. It need not be “noisy” in an annoying or hectic way. In John Cage’s world, noise is simply the realm of sound that occurs when we stop obsessing about the tones of the piano keyboard and open ourselves up to all the many sounds that exist, or that can be produced by percussionists on ordinary objects like tin cans.
So Percussion is steeped in this kind of noise. We prefer not to think of it as the opposite of beauty, because many noisy sounds can be quite aesthetically compelling.
During the course of this project, we harnessed these sound resources to connect our tidy musical idea of noise with the more common association: noise as distraction, a barrier, a confusing sensory assault.
Many aspects of the gun issue suggest noise. Guns, as industrial machines, are exceedingly loud and abrasive by nature. The flood of perspectives and statistics surrounding guns create a kind of white noise for anybody who wishes to make sense out of the issue. Finally, how do we process our anger and hopelessness? Making noise is a primitive but innately human way of expressing such raw feelings.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – The Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution
The history of interpretation of the second amendment of the Bill of Rights might surprise many people who are currently bombarded by gun lobby messaging. The commonly accepted idea of a individual, virtually unlimited right to bear arms is a contemporary anomaly, not a standard historical perspective. More often legal precedent accepted a collective interpretation of these rights. And this one clause, “well regulated,” seems to have been the linchpin of the collective interpretation.
The clause has been systematically deemphasized by groups such as the NRA. It stands in the way of this organized assault on the collective interpretation.
So we emphasize it. I say it, rhythmically and hypnotically, like a mantra, into a microphone – “well regulated well regulated well regulated…” Jason loops up my voice until it resembles one of Steve Reich’s early tape pieces.
There is anger and futility in it, but there is also the artists’ prerogative to express our perspective. Saying those two words over and over again shouldn’t really be a radical gesture. But it symbolically attempts to place back into the discussion the elements that are most crucial to its meaning.
Adam Sliwinski has built a dynamic career of creative collaboration as percussionist, pianist, conductor, teacher, and writer. He specializes in bringing composers, performers, and other artists together to create exciting new work. A member of the ensemble So Percussion (proclaimed as “brilliant” and “consistently impressive” by The New York Times) since 2002, Adam has performed at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the Bonnaroo Festival, Disney Concert Hall with the L.A. Philharmonic, and everything in between. So Percussion has also toured extensively around the world, including multiple featured performances at the Barbican Centre in London, and tours to France, Germany, the Netherlands, South America, Australia, and Russia. So Percussion and Emily Johnson present A Gun Show at BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nov. 30-Dec. 3; www.bam.org