GENESIS OF THE WORK
So hot is a multimedia work for mezzo soprano, actor, chamber ensemble, video and fixed audio. Four different sources were used for the composition of the libretto:
• A video that shows an interview of children who attend an English primary school.
• A second video, with an interview to Mrs. Shigeko Sasamori, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.
• A poem by David Roberts, an American soldier who submitted the poem to a website that gathers testimonies related to the experiences of war: www.warpoetry.co.uk
• A Japanese Haiku, composed by Hashin, one of the old masters of this genre.
The initial idea for this project was to compose a chamber opera and I began searching for a good libretto. I considered the possibility of mixing different sources as well as utilizing different languages while still trying to maintain a coherent thread of events and thoughts.
Unexpectedly I encountered an intriguing video of English primary school children being interviewed. A series of videos from this school are available online. The children’s ages range from 6 - 8 years old.
Their teacher asks them simple questions, but their answers are surprising and fresh. The students appear very serious and interested, and the variety of intonations of their voices makes the video a precious source for selecting audio fragments. I decided to use it, not only as an introduction, but also as a guiding thread for the libretto.
Transcription of the first questions and answers:
Question A: How hot is fire?
A1: So hot
A2: Burning hot
A3: Really hot
A4: Really, really, really, really really hot
A5: Very hot
A6: Extremely hot
A7: Almost burning, just like the sun
A8: About 3 hundreds and 55 degrees
A9: Burning, burning hot
A10: Very hot, you can burn your bottom
Question B: Have you ever touched the fire?
B1: I wouldn’t be alive
B3: It’s very dangerous
The only words used in the first part of this work are these short answers to the question, “How hot is fire,” and thus, the term hot becomes the leitmotiv of the work. Before choosing this first video I was also reading interviews of witnesses of war and poems about war, and I was impressed by some interviews about the Hiroshima tragedy and the accounts of people who, that August 6, were just living their normal lives, going to work, walking in the streets, doing the shopping. These are some abstracts from the interviews. The interviews are taken from the program Hiroshima Witness, produced by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center and NHK, the public broadcasting company of Japan.
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“When the blow came, I closed my eyes but I could still feel the extreme heat. To say the least, it was like being roasted alive many times over. It was terribly hot, much worse than the pain which one must endure when an incision is made during surgery. While trying to withstand the terrible heat, I moved my hand, but there was no feeling in it. [...] We could hear voices calling ``Help!'' or ``It's , it's so hot. Help us!''
[...] “For a few years after the A-bomb was dropped, I was terribly afraid of fire. I wasn't even able to get close to fire because all my senses remembered how fearful and horrible the fire was, how hot the blaze was, and how hard it was to breathe the hot air.” Ms. Akiko TakakuraAbstract 2
“...It was so hot as the result of the heat produced by the fire. The electric-light poles burned down. All of us wore raincoats to protect us from the fire. “
Mr. Yosaku Mikam
“In a few seconds, the heat wave arrived. After I noticed the flash, white clouds spread over the blue sky. It was amazing. It was as if blue morning-glories had suddenly bloomed up in the sky. It was funny, I thought. Then came the heat wave. It was very very hot. Even though there was a window glass in front of me, I felt really hot.”
Mr. Isao Kita
“I remember an airplane appeared from behind the mountains on my left. I thought it was strange to see an airplane flying that time all by itself. I looked at it and it was a B-29. It seemed very strange since there were on anti aircraft guns firing at it. I watched it for a while, then it disappeared. As soon as it disappeared, another airplane appeared from the same direction. It seemed very, very strange. I was still wondering what would happen. Then, suddenly there came a flash of light. I can't describe what it was like. And then, I felt some hot mask attacking me all of a sudden. I felt hot. I lay flat on the ground, trying to escape from the heat.” Ms. Toshiko Saeki
I found these sources as written testimonies, but I also found a video, where Mrs. Shigeko Sasamori, an old lady from Hiroshima, who was 13 years old when the bomb was dropped, gives her testimony in a television program. She also appears in many other videos, because she considers her account a necessary warning, especially for young generations, to avoid that such a tragic chapter of human history could ever come back.
After studying these interviews I thought that I could introduce the theme of war working with the key words of these testimonies, hot, fire, and burning, which are the same words found in the contrasting video of the English school children. I liked the idea of having a transition where the nice voices of the children could gradually be modified (with a audio editing software) and introduce the second video of the Hiroshima survivor. In the first video, one of the children says in regards to the question about fire, “It’s very dangerous,” with a worried intonation in his voice. I thought this could be a good point for the transition to the second video. The juxtaposition of the contrasting atmospheres of the two videos is a key approach that I chose to generate attention and emotional involvement of the audience. As a result, the survivor’s testimony comes as an unexpected shift in thought after the pleasant, candid video of the children.
At this point, I intended to use the two videos, projected on two different screens. I was also planning to have an actor on stage as well as a singer interacting with the videos. For the actor I wanted to use some of the abstracts provided above. After beginning work on the videos, I elected to follow a different approach after I encountered two important issues. The first is that I wanted to extract from the videos only short fragments, probably de-synchronized from their own audio. The second issue relates to the function of the videos on stage. I wanted to stay true to my original idea which was to use the videos, the audio fragments, and the actor’s interventions in a way that did not make the videos the constant center of attention as the main element of the performance. I chose to have the images appear and disappear, giving space to the other protagonists, included the instrumental ensemble. In some passages, for example, the video is off and the actor occupies the centre of the stage.
My project was finding a precise direction. At least I knew what it was not. It was not a chamber opera intended as a work with a libretto involving a sequence of events, a plot and characters. I had the starting materials for my text, and my work came to be a dramatization involving present events - the kids and their voices, a live performance with real players - and memories of the tragic Hiroshima story through the testimonies proposed by the videos.
I gradually reduced the individual durations and the number of selected fragments to a very limited group. I chose for the composition of the score to dictate the form of the piece allowing for instrumental sections where I did not want to include video materials. Additionally, I wanted the vocalist and actor to have on-stage interaction with the instrumental ensemble and the videos.
According to my first selection for the video fragments, the abstracts by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center were no longer well-suited to the piece, because I found the materials to be too explicit. I wanted to address the theme of war without using pictures of war scenarios, or even passages of the survivor’s interview when she reports dreadful details about her experience. What happened in Hiroshima is well-known, and I wanted the expressive strength of my work to depend more on what was not told as opposed to obvious portrayals of the real accounts and images. I therefore elected to not utilize the abstracts in favour of using “The Pilot’s Testament”.
There is a Website, www.warpoetry.co.uk, where everyday poems written by soldiers presently living in war scenarios, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in other parts of the world are sent as a live testimony of what war really is. “The pilot testament”, by David Roberts, dated 15- 22 December 1999, immediately attracted my attention. This is the complete poem:.
The Pilot’s Testament
I seek no glory.
I bear no anger.
I hate no man.
I do the unspeakable
on behalf of the ungrateful.
I bomb targets chosen by others.
I have surrendered my will
to a higher authority.
I trust the cause to be right
and the methods appropriate.
There is no place for questioning.
There can be no other way.
I do my duty.
You can rely on me.
I will not let you down.
Though my task may be dangerous,
neither fear nor doubt
will prevent me.
Physically and mentally
my ability is exceptional.
My judgement and reflexes
are trained to perfection.
I am chosen from the elite,
the very best.
Many accord me
I possess power beyond imagination.
Like a god I roar through the heavens,
the earth beneath me,
the whole of creation
available to me,
awaiting my quick shot
of death and destruction.
My victims are unaware of me.
I am unaware of my victims.
They go about their lives
not knowing only a few seconds remain.
We are arriving
at the appointed time and place.
At a touch I fix their fate.
in mid conversation,
and they are gone.
I cannot pretend it was difficult.
Their will was done,
and I, merely an instrument of death.
I did my duty,
but I accept no guilt.
I come down to earth
as a man among men,
I easily blend.
I am not available for comment.
I am not an item of news. The story is elsewhere.
I return to my family
as if nothing has happened.
The actor, during his reading, is accompanied by the instrumental ensemble and the soprano, who sings some fragments from his speech in a sort of echo effect. “The Pilot’s Testament” occupies the second part of the work. In the first part the actor is not on stage. In his place there is an empty chair that is part of the essential choreography I was planning for a possible performance.
My choice of adding a Japanese haiku to the other sources came from a precise need that emerged during the writing of the score. I did not have traditional libretto, and I was using the two interviews as a source for my text. I wanted to have a female voice interacting with the actor, but the videos did not offer material suitable to the lyrical interventions I was planning for the singer. I was discussing this aspect with composer Lansing McLoskey, and he suggested the idea of using a Haiku. I found his suggestion very interesting and I started to analyze the fascinating and poetic repertoire of this genre. Eventually I found the Hashin’s Haiku I reproduce below, that was perfectly consistent with the atmosphere of my work because of its delicacy and expressive strength. This is the complete haiku:
No earth – but still
The Hashin’s haiku is the emotional counterpoint to the whole composition. Its short text is repeated many times during the performance, but the other contemporary events change each time its meaning, its sense and the impact it has on the audience. When we first listen to it, in the Preamble, it has been preceded by the recorded laughs of the kids and nothing presages the subsequent events of the performance. The audience will react to the haiku in a different way, when it is sung after the survivor’s interview and during the reading of the Pilot’s Testament, following the words: “a flash, and they are gone”.
The score includes five main sections: Preamble, Mechanical and rigorous, Concitato, Meno mosso, mesto, Recitativo and Aria sine voce. The following scheme shows the definitive distribution of the texts from all the sources mentioned.
THE WORK ON THE VIDEOS
For the realization of the videos I used three sources:
• The video of the British kids
• The video of the survivor’s interview
• Pictures of classical and contemporary sculptures
What is the common point between these sources? It is the recurrent theme of the countenance. The gradual unfolding of the different atmospheres and meanings of this work is accompanied by a sequence of faces: the interviewed kids, the survivor, the sculptures. The idea of using sculptures to show the suffering of war responds to the same choice, mentioned above, of avoiding the use of too explicit or descriptive elements. Sculptures are in the same time abstract and real.
The use of pictures of sculptures induced me to manipulate the videos in a similar way. I thought it was more artistically coherent extracting pictures from them and arrange videos that showed sequences of these pictures. In this way, the kids’ faces become sculptures themselves. The pictures have been manipulated to emphasize their abstract aspect.
This is the suggested position for the performers: