Diary note 12: Kronos Quartet: My Lai

1 IX 2017, Singapore International Festival of Arts*

The lunch was a prolongation of the night before that had seen as the Kronos Quartet said: the first full performance of My Lai. My Lai was in my youth synonymous with the massacres of the Vietnam War and recorded by the photograph of naked children with phosphorous on their bodies. I had not been expecting much of this theme, mainly because it is easy for the Americans to worry after the deed and easy for the Vietnamese to forget. Dutch conscience is still reworking the killings of independence fighters and villagers in Indonesia, which Indonesia itself forgot.

But during the recital of the words of Hugh Thomson, at the time a 24 year old helicopter pilot, as he lay dying in the hospital thirty years later, the theme shifted from collateral damage to the simple good deed. It recreated the stark tension between obeying one’s orders or following one’s conscience. The repetition of the few impressions that mattered to him: the beauty of the sea and the rice fields and the ditch full of massacred people, made the libretto austere and inevitable. The simple words of the airman were sanctified by a deed that saved the honour of mankind, like the good citizen Jericho.

The music was composed by Jonathan Berger, a dialogue between fluid contemporary music and traditional Vietnamese instruments. It was convincingly sung as a modern cantata by Rinde Eckert, in an enormous range of tenor tones.

After the first evocative passage, the audience applauded. But the tension gripped us and made us silent and brought KS and myself near tears at the end. As the singer said at luncheon, beauty and sadness are not contradictory. For the first time against all odds, I gave a performance five marks for a shattering but beautiful experience. It reminded me of Aristotle and his soul-cleaning catharsis, that was the main and therapeutic aim of theatre.

On a somewhat lighter note, I spoke with several members of the Kronos Quartet about a childhood experience. As a child I had been visiting my grandparents in Delft, perhaps five years old. My parents at night had called me out into the little garden to see the over-flight of the Hindenburg, a zeppelin sent by Hitler across the Atlantic for propaganda purposes. The Americans seemed to have known of this mainly as an aviation disaster, because the airship burst into flames while docking in Chicago. I have a vivid image in my mind of this big white whale up in the night sky but as I was also called out as a child to witness the passing of Halley’s Comet, I do not think I may trust my memory without further facts.