Opera of the Unspoken: Island of Unrest

Artwork by my mother, Agatha Schwager, with a few small embellishments by me

This experimental jazz opera is a musical investigation into the mysteries of an ancestral tragedy from WWII, as revealed through vocal rituals, ancestral tarot, free jazz and dreaming.

With this work I wanted to answer several questions. The first was, what could I do to honour ancestors who were calling and asking to be heard? How did people in different cultures reply to these calls? And how could I express all of that musically? So I embarked on research into vocal mourning rituals from the East and the West and along the way I considered experimental composition. I am constantly searching for new and interesting ways to sing and so I set out to develop new ways to structure vocal work that would address the urgent energy I was feeling.

I developed a score, a celebration outlined in a series of steps that matched those found on both sides of the world. I felt this would match the mixed races of my ancestors well and I am searching for a vocal expression that is global. Universally we find women in groups singing wordless laments, sounding the emotions of loss from both sides of the veil. We also find the calling of names as a way of honouring those lost. I added these elements in as steps.

Singing Wild Howls in Berlin in the 1980s

In between these steps there were other common elements, engaging a vocalist, often a shaman, to sing poems about the lives of those being mourned and celebrated. I mixed oracles like tarot and active dreaming to compose poems in much the same way experimental composers like John Cage would turn to the I Ching to give form to his work. I borrowed dreams, reshaped dreams, revisited nightmares I had sung in my youth like Wild Howls, the spark that lit the flame of this project. I studied family stories, combined that with historical records and thus found some broad brushstrokes of imagery to create an impression of what happened.

What happened, I discovered as I peered more closely with these methods, was a story of people wrongfully interned, bombed when they’d been assured of being safe, locked in cages in a sinking ship, or writhing with malaria in a makeshift, tropical prison. A story of navigating the chaos of the end of a war in the absence of order and the rise of extremism, tripped up by a false sense of security in the newfound freedom rife with unexpected dangers. The nationalities are irrelevant as everyone was a victim of prejudice from one side or another and these sides were multi-faceted and treacherous.

And yet the human spirit was ever-present through all of this, stories of long dead mothers guiding vital information to the right moment, moments of quiet happiness under flowers with children within the confines of a prison camp. Or of the unacknowledged, remarkable strength of the women in the family who endured unfathomable suffering but then just got on with things when conditions got better.

My father Walter, standing behind his mother (seated) with siblings and cousins right before his sister Erna’s family moved to the Netherlands

In any case, that is what I set out to express, through this series of steps and with the help of vocalists an poets adept at picking up on energies, stories and carrying them out of the dream shadows and into our waking world. The great grandsons, my sons, the friends whose families have their own war tragedies from different places, these are the voices that joined me and turned the sorrow into beauty.

It’s music you can enjoy as if you are at the opera, not skipping around while making dinner, but sitting and listening from start to finish while considering your own ancestors and what they might want to tell you. We like to think we are all individuals with our very current concerns but we are all linked and linked back to previous times. So this kind of reflection helps to bring those thoughts together as a whole. At least I think so.

And I hope that vocal expression and mystical detective work can inspire others to celebrate their loved ones creatively as well. The trauma of war is unfortunately ongoing in so many parts of the world today and we all need strategies for coping with the aftermath.

Our (Michel and my) sons Jerome (van garden) and Theo (beamer!) are talented poets and vocalists, rappers, adept at improvising and freestyling and they had no problem working with ancestral stories that they could feel internally as well. Often they were creating their parts over instrumental arrangements I had developed from keening songs I’d recorded earlier. For those I enlisted the help of my good friends, talented vocalists Maureen Kennedy and Heather Morgan, knowing the depths of their political convictions and their own Celtic roots would allow us to express ourselves as a keening trio with little effort. Maureen and I first worked together performing shamanic poetry with Cecil Taylor at a jazz workshop in Banff. Heather is a high school friend of mine, a talented bluegrass singer who organizes and performs in annual celebrations in honour of Patsy Cline. Together they have a remarkable talent for pulling darkness from the shadows and offering biting political critiques so this project was a natural fit as I knew they wouldn’t be scared to go there.

I was happy to offer this project to my father who was there as a young child through much of this turmoil and he drew on his academic career for the calling of names. Reg and Michel are permanent members of my trio and tackled the impressionistic free jazz elements with their usual fluidity and finesse. I also want to thank the Indo researcher/historical writer Peter van den Broek who had uncanny timing in delivering never before seen documents and other vital pieces of information which lifted the fog for many of the stories contained in these songs.

Having created this work, I will admit to feeling as though a heavy weight is lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps one day we can perform this music on site where many lives were lost, in Nias, Onrust Island or Serang in Indonesia and have a grand celebration of the lives of those who deserve to be remembered.

For links on the tragedy of the Van Imhoff, the violence in Banten and information on ancestral healing see the links below:

Hard copies cloaked in a handmade batik bag are now available at my Bandcamp page. For more on my creative process, click here.

Website with extensive information on: the tragedy of the Van Imhoff

Netherlands Institute for Military History website about the Van Imhoff

Dutch documentary: the Doom of the Van Imhoff

Editorial by Peter van den Broek on Bersiap, original Dutch version

After Japan capitulated (in Indonesian): Revolution and violence in Banten

Ancestral Healing Summit

Review in The WholeNote

Review in La Gazette Bleue

Many thanks to my family, my ancestors, my dreaming community, my singing friends and the Indo community for all their help with this project.

I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for research and development stage of this project. #BringingTheArtstoLife