As of Sunday morning, the 101 was still closed in Montecito, so I resolved to head down to Westwood for the Ecstatic Dance LA celebration. After lunch, rather than heading up to the Getty Center, I was inspired to visit the Armand Hammer Museum.
It was deja vu all over again as – just as when I visited with my sons during Kevin’s attendance at UCLA – most of the museum was closed for their annual rotation. Apart from the standing collection (mostly French and American oils from the 19th century), they had four environmental experiences.
The most profound is Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya. Saydnaya is the death prison established by the regime of the Syria dictator Bashar al Assad. During the course of the civil war, more than 13,000 people have been destroyed there.
The guards at the prison maintained control through a strict regimen of silence. Any significant noise was punished by beatings – even the screams of those beaten were punished with further abuse. As a result, every sound was impressed upon the victims. Through acoustic forensics, interviews with those released have reconstructed the organization and operations of the prison.
The installation is simple: at the entrance, two large speakers that first demonstrate the effects of a 19 decibel drop in sound – reflecting the drop in the volume of the prisoner’s speaking when the prison stopped serving any investigative purpose and became simply a death camp. The recording starts with a loud siren, and drops through a series of declarations of annihilation (including the extinction of frog species in the Amazon). When the volume is inaudible, the recording continues with the testimony of a prison survivor describing the use of silence as an instrument of torture. Finally, the artist and acoustic specialist describe their methods.
The entry is dim, as the main installation is set off by a large partition. Walking around the partition, we are confronted with a number of overhead projectors, each bearing a ray tracing of the acoustic reconstruction. Two smaller text projectors add testimony of the investigation to the setting.
I entered during a lull in the recording, and stood in the center of the room, amidst the projectors, trying to feel my way into the situation. It was distant until I turned around to look behind me, and found that my shadow had fallen across the ray tracing on the partition. The pain washed through me then, and I turned my back to the young female docent as I allowed it to penetrate. When I finally left, I made the mistake of asking her “Do they have a PTSD therapy program for you after you spend all day in here?” Her face nearly cracked with grief. I don’t think that she understood before that moment.
I went down to the Peet’s Coffee on the corner and resolved to soak in the sun and listen to music. Brahm’s First Piano Concerto seemed appropriate, but the street traffic was noisy. After finishing my coffee and scone, I thought to head back into the Hammer atrium where I’d be able to focus on the music. As I stepped into the quiet, I had the sudden inspiration that I should do my listening in Hamdan’s exhibit.
The first movement of the concerto is an elegy to Robert Schumann, Brahm’s unstable contemporary who committed suicide at a young age, leaving a wife and young children. Much as the exhibition’s recording, it opens with crashing orchestral chords that evoke the trauma of receiving news of a tragic loss. After extended orchestral development, the piano solo enters with an echo of those chords. It was at that point that I paused the recording before walking up the stairs.
As I settled on the floor in the back of the projection space and resumed the concerto, the exhibition recording started, blaring loudly over the music. Again, the trauma and sorrow washed over me.
This was the process, then: holding onto the pattern of the music as the noise and words stepped over it. The stronger chords exerted themselves even through the loudest sections, but Brahm’s meditation has passages of delicate arpeggios and simple, haunting melodies that even hushed voices would occlude.
The thought that I projected was only this:
If they won’t let you speak, then hear this; share it.
To not be forgotten. To receive evidence that love transmutes sorrow into beauty. And, as the first movement ends with it’s playful re-iteration of the opening themes, to hope that children would come to restore joy where greed and fear have made a wasteland of the human heart.