Friday, October 21, 2005

Terry Riley - Requiem for Adam

Thirty-nine years ago today on 21st October 1966 144 people, 116 of them children, died when abnormal rainfall caused a mountain of coal waste to collapse onto a school at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. The disaster happened just as pupils of Pantglas Junior School (right) were starting their morning lessons. It took nearly a week to recover the last body. An inquiry found that the National Coal Board was wholly responsible, and ordered them to pay compensation. Both the National Coal Board and the UK Treasury refused to accept full financial resposibility, and the cost of removing the coal waste from the disaster site fell partly to the charitable Aberfan Disaster Fund. It was not until 1997 that the fund was repaid by the UK Government.

The death of a young person is a most tragic and moving event. It is also one of the hardest to express through music. Gustav Mahler set the bar very high with his song cyle, Kindertotenlieder. But contemporary American composer Terry Riley responded to the challenge beautifully with his Requiem for Adam.

Terry Riley pioneered what came to be known as minimalism with his In C which was premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1964. While teaching composition, improvisation and North Indian Music at Mills College in Oakland he started working with the Kronos Quartet who had a residency there in the late 1970s. This was the start of a string of collaborations which resulted in works including the two hour long Salome Dances for Peace (1985).

Requiem for Adam is rooted in another tragedy. On Easter Sunday 1995 Adam Harrington died of natural causes while walking with his family on Mount Diablo, near San Francisco. Adam was the sixteen year old son of Kronos leader David Harrington. Terry Riley knew Adam well, and was moved to write a string quartet memorial. The work is in three movements. The two outer ones are for string quartet alone. The middle movement, Cortejo Funebre en el Monte Diablo, combines the quartet with an electronic soundtrack of horns, bells, electronic percussion and gongs in a moving procession of sound. The superb Kronos recording includes a coda in the form of a solo improvisation by Reilly inspired by Pandit Pran Nath.

Requiem for Adam is one of those works we all wish had never been written. It must have been very difficult for Riley to write, and even more difficult for the Kronos to play. Terry Riley says that he composed the Requiem to resolve the sadness shared with Adam's family, and we are privileged to be able to share in that experience on today of all days.

For a very informative research project on the Aberfan tragedy follow this link
There are some immensely moving pictures of Aberfan today at this link
Picture credits:
Aberfan - Wilson Almanac
Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath - Terryriley.com
Album sleeve - Musicweb

For more like this take an overgrown path to Rare Romantic Requiems in Avignon invisible hit counter

4 comments:

Garth Trinkl said...

This was very moving, pliable. Thank you. That Welsh tragedy of the children is very sad, as is the individual death of Adam Harrington.... Other American composers have responded, in varying ways, to the deaths of their own teenage children -- George Rochberg, Richard Wernick (in his Piano Concerto -- or perhaps it was his Violin Concerto), and Andrew Imbrie, in his Requiem for his son John. I recall that John Imbrie died of natural causes the day before he was to leave California to start university at Princeton.

Unfortunately, not too many choruses, at least in America, sing moving, contemporary classical works such as the Imbrie Requiem --preferring instead Carmina Burana and 5 or 6 other choral blockbusters which are repeated year-in, year-out. Yes, the Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi are supreme works, but repeat performances of them alone do not comprise a musical or national culture.

I am sure there are other sad cases of the deaths of composers' children.

JACK REILLY said...

I got the shivers reading this poignant/tragic story. I have composed a Requiem Mass intended for the living, not the dearly departed. I don't think I could take pencil to manuscript to compose one for one of my children let alone my wife if the died before me.
So my Requiem is my insurance that I get it played "one mo' time"; at my own funeral!!!!

In fact I have a tacit agreement with mt wife that I not only get my own Requiem played but the Brahms as well!!!

There's a morbid wish that in the middle of the Brahms,(which is performed second),I will rise from the dead on the spot and scare the mourners out of their astral bodies!!!

I admire Mr. Riley for composing the piece for Adam Harrington and for Dad in performing it. It is in the Brahms, about 12 minutes into the work, that my entire body shakes from the power of the work and leaves me transported to the other side. So the reason to hope for the reverse!!

Pliable said...

Garth Trinkl's thoughtful comment above omits what I personally consider to be the greatest 20th century musical tribute to a departed young person.

In 1935 Herbert Howell's nine-year-old son Michael had died suddenly of polio. He composed his infinitely moving Hymnus Paradisi in 1938, but for years it remained what he described as "a personal, almost secret, document". But with Vaughan Williams' encouragement Howells conducted it at the Three Choirs Festival in 1950 to great critical acclaim.

There are several fine recordings in the catalogue including one from Naxos. I savour a BBC recording on CD from the 1977 Three Choirs in Gloucester Cathedral with Donald Hunt conducting.

By one of those moving overgrown path coincidences Victoria's sublime Officium defunctorum of 1605 plays on BBC Radio 3 as I write this on a beautiful autumn morning in the UK.

Garth Trinkl said...

pliable, my omission was not intentional since I knew that Herbert Howell's and his son would be on your mind, and that you could cite Howell's Hymnus Paradisi and its circumstances much more poignantly than I could. (Wasn't the Howells Requiem also a shorter tribute to his son, if I am not mistaken?)

I mentioned George Rochberg, Richard Wernick, and Andrew Imbrie simply because -- like Terry Riley they are nominally American composers -- and your readers both in Europe (incl. UK) and the U.S. might not know about these composers' tributes -- all to their sons.

(I knew Andrew Imbrie's son John --though not well at all. My family rented half a rambling old brown shingle house in the Berkeley hills from John's piano teacher, Helen Scheville, and I used to join them sometimes on the violin for simple pieces and arrangements.)