Shining the Artistic Spotlight on a Decade of War

By Guest Bloggers Arlene and Larry Dunn

Well past the 10-year mark, we are engaged in the longest war in our nation’s history. We have spent at least $1.5 trillion dollars prosecuting war in Iraq and Afghanistan – much more if you count the full costs, such as the interest on the debt to borrow this money. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been deployed, many multiple times. Over 6,000 have died, and another 42,000 wounded. At least 132,000 Afghan and Iraqi civilians have died as well. And yet the large majority of American citizens are oblivious to the stark realities of these wars and only a very small percentage of us actually serves.

On May 23 and 24 in Chicago, Spektral Quartet, in collaboration with High Concept Laboratories, presented Theatre of War. This artistic effort to raise the level of discourse about our wars was scheduled just days after the NATO Summit, where our leaders negotiated our future military commitments in Afghanistan. All ticket proceeds from the event were donated to the Vet Art Project ( to support their vital mission.

Theatre of War was a disquieting evening in which artists from a variety of genres brought forth elements of our nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an awestruck audience. Music, film, poetry, and drama were presented without breaks and with a request to the audience to hold their applause until the end. We were reminded of the nightly TV News reports during the War in Vietnam which brought the horrors of war into our living rooms every evening. That war affected everyone. Young men of all backgrounds were drafted. Everyone knew someone in uniform or waiting for a call from the local draft board.

For us, the knockout punch of the evening was the combination of Richard Mosse’s film "Killcam" and George Crumb’s Vietnam-era string quartet "Black Angels." “Killcam” juxtaposes two settings. Injured soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital are enthusiastically playing a video war game, with images that look eerily like combat locations in Iraq. Interspersed are scenes from actual Iraq war footage (via LiveLeaks). Men and vehicles are blown up by missiles delivered via remote control. The targeting crosshair images in these clips are nearly identical to the crosshairs in the video game being played at the hospital. But these are real people getting blown up by real explosives and really dying. Frightening enough just to look at, it is even more disturbing that these deaths were caused by antiseptic remote control.

Shortly after ”Killcam,” Spektral Quartet performed “Black Angels,” the original raison d’etre for Theatre of War. In this extraordinary piece for amplified string quartet, the musicians are challenged far beyond the standard bowing and plucking techniques. They used a panoply of accoutrements from thimbles, small bells, and glass rods, to tuned wine glasses of various sizes. At times they also chanted number sequences in several languages, in loud bursts or almost at a whisper. Crumb wrote this piece about the Vietnam War. The opening, THRENODY I: Night of the Electric Insects, was startling and terrifying, thrusting us into the jungle theater of that war. Quiet interludes were suddenly disrupted by shrieks of sound, like a surprise attack by guerrilla fighters. Death is ultimately portrayed in near silence; the stunned audience was held in it’s thrall. It is hard for us to imagine a more deeply committed performance of “Black Angels.”

The other most moving piece of the evening was “Blackbird,” a short story by Virginia Konchan, adapted for the stage by High Concept Laboratories Artistic Director Molly Feingold. Mitch Spalding, a soldier struggling with post-traumatic stress, is about to be redeployed. He finagles the Army for access to psychiatric counseling before he departs. But he finds no healing in it. Dustin Valenta, as Mitch, ably portrayed the anxiety plaguing soldiers overdosed on combat. He personified the human cost of serving in today’s military. Jeremy Clark, as the psychiatrist, maintained a cool, detached demeanor. He repeatedly stated “Good,” as Mitch reeled off examples of how bad things are, callously invalidating Mitch’s every emotion. ”Blackbird” powerfully illustrated the disconnect, not just between the soldiers and the general public, but also between those who serve and the people assigned to help them bear that burden.

The evening’s other components -- pianist Lisa Kaplan’s nerve-jangling performance of Drew Baker’s “Stress Position,” two additional Mosse films, and readings of poems by Wislawa Szymborska -- each contributed meaningfully to making Theatre of War a momentous achievement. We commend Spektral Quartet and their artistic partners for their boldness in holding these troubling realities up to the light for the audience to confront. So where does that leave us?

No matter where one stands on the rightness or wrongness of our continuing military actions, we are going about this in an irresponsible way that is not healthy for our society. We owe it to our “Mitches” that we fully understand what we are asking them to do in our names, whether they are shrugging into a kevlar suit for face-to-face combat in Afghanistan or sitting down at a remote control drone command center in a bunker in South Dakota. And we owe it to ourselves to demand from our elected officials that decisions about committing the lives of our soldiers and our treasury to war-making must be vigorously debated in the public square.

As to where we ourselves stand, we are deeply troubled. If we are going to war, we believe we should pay for it, and we do not mean by deluding ourselves that we can tax-cut our way to growth to cover the costs. We have to stop abusing our military families with endless deployments. We are driving them to despair. We hear people say: “They volunteered to serve; they knew what they were getting into.” That is simply unacceptable, self-delusional crap. We worry that the military actions we are taking are doing as much to prolong our problems with terrorism as they are to stop them. As we write this article, we are learning in the New York Times ( that our President is directly involved in the decisions about who will get death-by-drone rained down upon them. On the one hand, we are heartened that at least he is taking personal responsibility. But we find the whole secret drone strike campaign legally dubious and morally suspect. And if nothing else, it is hard to imagine a more effective terrorist recruiting tool.

We are grateful to Spektral Quartet for helping our community to confront these difficult issues. We fervently hope this leads to more serious public discourse about our ongoing commitments.

Arlene and Larry Dunn are avid fans of a wide range of contemporary arts and music endeavors as well as life-long social activists. They are frequent contributors of “audience perspective” blog postings for ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble. They live in rural LaPorte County, Indiana.   Follow them on Twitter: @ICEfansArleneLD

Old Man and the Screen

On Thursday morning we performed at a private home for a man who is no longer able to leave the house for luxuries such as concerts. A director of over two hundred films, you've undoubtedly seen his name listed near the top of a set of end credits as they scroll up and out of sight. Lest you assume this was some display of vanity, summoning a quartet to his home, our outing was at the request of the family for a father/grandfather/husband nearing the end of his life. One whose love of music is profound. A director who during his career frequently insisted on hiring a film composer and orchestra for his projects' soundtracks. Let's call him The Director.

The Director is infirm, but there are no IV carts or humming machines inhibiting his movement or the subtle one-corner-of-the-mouth smile that appears when the incorrigible violist of said quartet makes a crack about how "This house is great, but it could really use a painting or two" (we played beneath a Miró not one but two Siquieroses). Sitting beneath a towering, 12' totem as the family and guests absconded for post-concert sandwiches, The Director guided my questions about his work toward discussions of the music within them. Then we agreed that Stephen Daldry's 2002 picture, The Hours, was only The Hours because of the architecture of the Phillip Glass score buoying it. A family friend rounded the couch to ask, without malice (or understanding), if our intention was to "Do this music full-time." The Director's knowing smile squelched any desire on my part for a snide retort. Had The Director and I been at some high-society soiree back in his more agile days, we would have snuck in a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and one-upped each other on disparaging the collagen-jobs parading around the room.

The gratitude of The Director's wife and two adult children was heartfelt and earnest, and as we headed down the front steps, my thoughts began to coalesce: this Haydn and Brahms and Ravel could very well be the last bit of live Kammermusik The Director will experience. It's perhaps morbid to say, and yet the fact remains that this man misses concerts so deeply that his family was ultimately inspired to make the request. Music is vital to more than just musicians.

The only people likely to read this are the proverbial preached-to choir, but I'd venture to guess that this thought has surfaced, epiphany-like, for you as well at some singular moment. Hopefully, and likely, more than once.

Spektral has made every effort to create an event in Theatre of War that moves the dynamic of the concert as temporally-restricted art-moment to something with more tenacity. From the donation of ticket proceeds to the Vet Art Project to the post-concert interviews to the impact of each piece included on the program, it's all built to be like a handprint in hardening concrete. The kind of performance that moves beyond Holy-shit-how-do-they-play-in-parallel-minor-2nds into Holy-shit-I-had-no-idea-and-now-I-must-act.

Thanks to The Director for reminding me that this is the kind of music I want to make.

Realistic Statistic

In the months preparing for our May 23rd/24th performances of Theatre of War, I’ve necessarily been scouring the newspapers and government websites for information on military and civilian stories, not to mention casualty stats, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project may have leapt out of a giddy desire to perform George Crumb’s seminal “Black Angels,” but it has grown into something far greater than I think anything Spektral imagined. Let me take you down the rabbit hole with me for a minute:
10,000 Veterans Affairs suicide hotline calls per month. (Army Times: Apr 22, 2010)
In 2008, an estimated 300,000 returning soldiers are classified as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. (Los Angeles Times: May 11, 2011)
In the first three years of the Iraq War, the World Health Organization estimated 151,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. (Time: Jan 10, 2008)
The benefit of statistics is seeing the macro. The peril is missing the micro. In this case the micro is the human, and when a stat like “18 veterans commit suicide every day” (a Veterans Affairs-reported number), the brain goes sideways at the enormity of it all. 
To put it in perspective: What did I stress out about this week? Learning the viola part for Bernhard Lang’s Schrift/Bild/Schrift. A gouge left on my bumper by a careless parallel-park-er. Improper usage of “their” vs. “its.” 
While Theatre of War won’t be preaching from any pillory, it does intend to open this conversation about the effects of war for soldiers and civilians. What we’re hoping as artists is that for two nights this May, the current wars will become personal…and not just an evening news statistic.