Monday, October 27, 2008

Imperial War Museum

Today Teriann and I went to the Imperial War Museum (notice that my blog is at last up-to-date and current!). I made a short visit there a little more than a week ago (that visit was about a music competition — more on that later), on which, because of time constraints, I saw only one exhibition, In Memoriam. I thought the rest of the museum would be good to come see with Teriann anyway, hence the trip today.

In Memoriam is foremost an exhibit about remembering World War One, not necessarily the war itself. It is presented in a light, modern, almost austere series of rooms that are white with light hardwood floors. Everything is bright and clean — even old artifacts and mementos have been scrubbed in the way that only museums can. During both visits I found the exhibit interesting and moving.

The rest of the museum, however, which features among other things an elaborate and relentless permanent exhibit about the Holocaust, is presented in darker, indeterminate tones. The edges of spaces are not defined and items from the horrible corners of our history are not pristinely displayed but thrown and piled together as a reminder of how their owners were likewise treated. The whole thing was sickening — like watching Schindler's List without the constant knowledge that they are actors on a set.

This brought to mind two thoughts: first, how appalling it is that man has over his history invested so much time, energy, and blood into killing each other, and second, what Europe might have been like without either of the wars. The first point needs no comment other than to say that it is clear that man has not, as a species, caught on to this yet. The second idea, however, seems overflowing with possibility if only I had a firmer grasp of history.

I believe that Europe was well on a path to consolidation and peace in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries (for instance, Italy and Germany were bundled together into nations). Both because of their colonial conquests and their centuries of civilizational development, European countries held arguably the most cultural and monetary capital anywhere in the world (I'm not sure where Eastern countries come into this — China or other nations may also fit this description). The effects of the wars were so deep — I simply can't provide a laundry list — that it's hard to fathom what would new developments would have come in music had not so many Jewish artists musicians moved to America (or been killed) or in science had the kind of cooperation we today see in the European Union been in place in an age of similarly staggering technological advances. The gross inhumanity of it all overwhelms me.

In any case, back to In Memoriam. As I said, the reason for my first visit was a music competition; the museum wants composers to write a string quartet based on something in the exhibit (or on the theme of In Memoriam in general). I have a few options for titles and I thought I'd put it to a general blog-reader vote. (Plus, this may actually convince people to comment! Readers, where are you?!)

Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting down to a concert of music for string quartet you have never heard before. Which piece are you most interested in hearing?

1) Vase fashioned from an exploded shell case

2) Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message

3) But it will have a bitter truth

The first title is a piece in the exhibit that is, you guessed it, an exploded shell case that someone has peeled back to form a crude vase. I love the vase itself as well as the idea of making something beautiful from the worst mankind has to offer, but I'm afraid the title loses something without the visual element.

The second and third options are from a letter the artist Paul Nash wrote to his wife shortly after arriving on the warfront. Paul Nash was commissioned to paint scenes of the war for both government propaganda and historical purposes. The entirety of the quote reads:

'No pen or drawing can convey this country.
I am no longer an artist interested and curious,
I am a messenger who will bring back word
from the men who are fighting
to those who want the war to go on forever.
Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message,
but it will have a bitter truth
and may it burn their lousy souls.'

The last phrase being a bit crude, I still think this is a titanic piece of writing. Truth be told, I'm leaning on using option 2, mostly because in contemporary music these days, titles are typically extroverted and hyperkinetic, designed to convey the most confident and hip composer possible, and I would like to try to stay away from that model. In addition, the 'feeble...' line tells me the most about the writer. Without that line, his writing is almost generic in its righteousness; but a feeble and inarticulate man is moved out of brokenness, out of necessity. It is that characteristic that, for me, makes his writing ring true.

If it sounds as though I've made up my mind, I haven't, and I would still very much value your opinion — especially if you're the kind of reader that has made your way all the way through this insufferably long post.

1 comment:

Taylor said...

I'd be in favor of "But it will have a bitter truth."

But, I also think taking words from the first line, "No pen or drawing can convey," might be interesting...especially since you're depicting through neither pen nor drawing, but rather music.