Hoopla

Q+A: Remembering 'My Lai' in music

"I always had the sense that this is a story that cannot be forgotten"

“My Lai,” coming Wednesday night to Hancher Auditorium, shortly after the 50th anniversary of the infamous Vietnam War massacre, combines Eastern and Western music through the Kronos Quartet, vocalist Rinde Eckert and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo on traditional Vietnamese instruments. (Courtesy photo: ZORAN ORLIC)
“My Lai,” coming Wednesday night to Hancher Auditorium, shortly after the 50th anniversary of the infamous Vietnam War massacre, combines Eastern and Western music through the Kronos Quartet, vocalist Rinde Eckert and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo on traditional Vietnamese instruments. (Courtesy photo: ZORAN ORLIC)

Shortly after the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, Hancher is bringing that chapter of the Vietnam War back into focus Wednesday night, by presenting a 2015 work featuring the Kronos string quartet, vocalist and University of Iowa graduate Rinde Eckert, and Vietnamese musician Van-Anh Vanessa Vo using traditional instruments.

“My Lai,” by composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman, tells the story of the massacre from the perspective of Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who tried to intervene and was denounced for relaying the horrors he saw when American soldiers destroyed a Vietnamese village 50 years ago, on March 16, 1968.

Hoopla recently spoke with Berger, 63, an award-winning composer and music professor at Stanford University in California.

Q: How do you go about taking any chapter of history, but especially one as horrific as the My Lai Massacre, and turning it into an artistic expression?

A: There’s a long history for me with this piece. I was a teenager — I was a kid — when the story of My Lai broke. My brother was draft age and refusing to go to war; my father was a World War II veteran who was a great patriot; and the Vietnam War just disintegrated that sense of ‘America could do no wrong.’ It was a hugely politically important moment in my life.

As I developed as a composer, I always had the sense that this is a story that cannot be forgotten — the American psyche must keep hold onto this. But then when I was teaching at Yale many years ago, I spoke with a history professor who told me the story of Hugh Thompson, and suddenly there is a shining light, albeit a very difficult shining light, but there’s a shining light that here’s this person who sees wrong and confronted it on the spot, and had the ethics and morality and scruples to try to stop this and insist that it never be forgotten. At that point, I said, ‘This is a story that really must be told.’

The musical form speaks for itself, because Thompson, in this insanity of what happened 50 years ago in that very short time, involved him landing his helicopter three times. The first was trying to ascertain what was going on and trying to get medics down to help. The second was at a moment of absolute rage, where he had his young, teenage gunner (Larry Colburn) train his gun on American troops ... And then finally, after the massacre, going down once more and saving one child. That story is so poignant that it dictated the musical form. I felt that I could not not write this piece.

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Q: How does music become an entry point for helping us learn about pages from history?

A: It’s certainly not the only way, and I’m never convinced that it’s the best way. One has to stop and say, ‘What can music do and what can music not do.’ Music is incredibly powerful at going right for the gut of emotion. If I’ve succeeded with ‘My Lai,’ it’s in touching raw nerves, both in the audience, but also in exposing raw nerves in Hugh Thompson as he recalls these events in the last days of his life as he’s dying of cancer.

The short answer is that music is incredibly powerful at touching these raw nerves, it’s incredibly powerful in bringing together highly contrasting emotions ... It’s not good at stating facts. This piece, although it’s based on fact, it’s not a documentary. We learn how the story unfolds, but we don’t learn the details and history of it.

Q: What kind of collaboration did this project entail?

A: It was the richest and most amazing collaboration I’ve experienced, and I do a lot of collaborative work.

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from experiencing this piece?

A: I hope that they’re emotionally moved. I hope they come out in a slightly different place or dramatically different place than when they went in. I hope that the persona of Hugh Thomason and of Larry Colburn — it’s not so much important to me that they remember the history of these people — but that (audiences) keep in mind that there are people like this who are shining lights in a very dark world, and that our world is very dark.

Get out!

WHAT: “My Lai,” Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (3/21)

TICKETS: $10 to $50, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/MyLai

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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