At about 9:15am on Friday, October 21, 1966, in the small Welsh mining village of Aberfan, a man-made catastrophe occurred when a mountain of coal waste collapsed. One thousand tons of black slag demolished a farm, then 18 houses and Pantglas Junior School.
“We heard a tremendous rushing as though a whirlwind had struck and then came absolute silence”.
116 children and 28 adults were killed.
Envisioned at the crossroads of modern music, experimental media and environmental welfare, Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue) catapults the disaster of 1966 into the present. Music will be presented both in a live performance and immersive installation with black & white photographs taken by Life photojournalist IC Rapoport, who went to Aberfan to "photograph the psychic mess".
My mother wrote a folk song in the wake of the tragedy that I used to hear when I was a child. I have been compelled for years to work on an adaptation of my own. Using excerpts of melody and lyric from her song, as well as portions of hymns sung earlier that morning and at the mass funeral less than a week later, Aberfan splices 31 musical Sequences of Rain, Sunrise, Rubble, Rock, Interludes, Trauma, Silence and a Field, with their Alterations.
Aberfan is a tribute not only for the people of a village who suffered the loss of a generation -- and the "wounded soul of the Welsh" who saw "their beautiful country being destroyed when the coal mines came to the valleys" -- but for our country and our world, besieged by unbridled industry pillaging the land and its people, enriching the few, killing our future. The tragedy of Aberfan and the music it informed manifest the abject sorrow and rage resulting from the devastating human and environmental impacts of the fossil fuel industry, more recently embodied by mountain-top removal coal mining and fracking. In this desperate time of upheaval for our world, Aberfan confronts and aims to disrupt our complacency.
A Tribunal investigating the 1966 events found that the National Coal Board was entirely responsible for failing to act to prevent the disaster, though they were never prosecuted.
To execute the performance and installation of Aberfan, we are in need of funds to make a studio recording and develop a design for the visual element.
I began recording in September 2016 with Juno winner Michael Farquharson producing. Ian Heisters of Berkeley, CA, will design and develop the visual element. Denise Wallace-Spriggs of Boston, MA, will consult on art direction.
Aberfan is participatory. Ian Smith-Heisters will create an immersive space using projection of imagery and semi-transparent scrims, capturing the landscape and people, the tactility of coal, ingrained in their faces. The viewer moves through the space, at times full of unsettling, discordant movement as if being subsumed in an avalanche of slag and at other times still, inducing pause. One can walk inside, behind and around the moving images, inside the performance.
Merging the music of Aberfan and photos of this particular disaster's psychic aftermath lays bare the great cost of ignoring the habituated, presumtive violence in our human systems. Penetrating musical vibrations in synergy with photographic art, resonating where words cannot, evoke a greater world where all are connected as living beings on a living earth. In bearing witness to the single atrocity of Aberfan, one can question the arrogance of "progress" built on destruction, absent the soul. Without this felt knowledge, we are doomed.
As Alice Miller discovered the trauma of her own childhood through spontaneous painting and wrote about in her many books, this is the story of power and destruction wrought over all the world in the willful and unconscious devastation upon children and the call to transform the inscrutable events.
Can I turn this music 'round in my hand?
Constructed from a deeply personal place, may Aberfan sound the immutable tragedy.
I invite you to visit Laura Siersema for samples of music and photographs.
We are living now the upheaval -- the turning outside what was in, what has long been buried -- and must live now to extricate ourselves from what would obliterate good, what is bright and free. The underbelly, black water out my dream now burst upon the land, no sorcerer could have done without people. We are in the confines of a trained evil.
Photos above courtesy of Alan George, South Wales Police Museum and IC Rapoport, Aberfan, 1966