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
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