Early in the process of making this piece, we latched onto the idea of including a chorus of extra musicians. Initially we modeled their role after the choruses from the great Greek tragedies. We even resolved to read Aeschylus and to meet with an expert on Greek tragedy at Princeton University to examine how that might work.
In the end our chorus skewed away from providing direct commentary (a role we increasingly assigned to overhead slides). They started more to represent the anonymous crowd, engaged in mourning, remembrance, and action.
During the development process we met with the late Tim Vasen, then a professor of drama at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. We asked him to give us a layman’s tour of how these ancient Greek dramas really worked, to see if there was anything that would help us. One of the themes he emphasized was that tragedy and comedy embodied distinctive roles.
In Ancient Athens, comedy was the genre wherein a playwright could address contemporary issues and even real living characters.
The deflective nature of comedy provided an escape valve, and it was actually considered a badge of honor for a statesmen or sponsor to be “roasted” in one of these plays. He was judged by the public on how graciously he accepted it.
Tragedy, on the other hand, confronted serious pathos, horror, and pity by telling stories of remote historical or mythical characters. The audience could experience some level of identification without being triggered to feel the events too closely.
I was struck by how much we still imitate the Greeks. Comedy and satire allow a performer like Steven Colbert to stand right next to a sitting president and mock his foibles.
We realized that this laid a kind of trap for us dramaturgically with A Gun Show. We were going to be neither funny nor remote in the way we tackled this subject. We had to find a way to make compelling art about this difficult and traumatizing subject without traumatizing the audience.
While researching the project, Josh investigated information and resources about the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, CT, the events which were the initial impetus for the project.
What he found was chilling, as much for what was left unseen as for what it showed.
In the Sandy Hook reports, a lot of information and photographs were released to the public, but heavily redacted. For the most part (unless you are a full blown conspiracy theorist), the redactions make sense. Based on what we know of the event, what happened to those children is beyond imagining. And yet, the redactions force us to do exactly that – to create our own internal images of the unimaginable.
In the section labelled “photographs,” there are documents consisting entirely of pages and pages of black rectangles with number codes labelled on them, such as “01 02 03 06 12.”
These codes indicate a category of what lies beneath: minor protected by privacy laws, homicide, etc.
Early in our creative process, this theme of redaction came up over and over again. Just as the police used it to shield the viewer and protect the privacy of the victims, we thought we might use it to make our work, approaching the topic and yet not having to look at the whole awful thing all at once.
Many times the redaction manifested as a creative altering process. One collaborator would come in with a story or composition. Another might apply some redaction to that piece, either through number patterns or in a more symbolic way.
The very first movement we perform in A Gun Show is a hand ballet which was originally a piece for snare drums. The drums were placed vertically, so that the wire snares on the bottom of the drum could be scraped on the side. Emily Johnson loved the look of this piece so much that she asked us to take the snare drums away, just to see what the hand motions would look like. Without the context of the drums, they were strange but effective.
Thus our entire show begins in silence with a redaction. In a way it is our tribute to these blank black pages, full of numbers and patterns but devoid of content.
Elsewhere, straightforward texts are redacted microcosmically, leaving them on the verge of incomprehensibility. During the climactic tam-tam piece near the end, Jason passes the cacophony of the tam-tam through pedals that mute the sound off and on, constantly redacting the chaos in a controlled fashion.
We originally even considered calling the show “content redacted,” but we felt that this itself was too much of a redaction of our real purpose, which was to explore gun culture. Also, it might confuse the subject with other pressing issues such as NSA surveillance.
The snare drum is one of the fundamental instruments in western classical percussion training. It is the first instrument that a young percussionist learns on is a snare drum. Everything about being a “drummer” relates to it.
Jason wrote a lot of music for A Gun Show revolving around the snare drum. This is partially a nod to the symbolic history of the instrument as a military tool. Snare drums and their ancestors were used to signal troop movements, coordinate marching, and inspire courage. In colonial America, they also served more mundane functions in village life, calling citizens to town meetings.
In many ways, the snare drum is the central metaphor for A Gun Show. Although not designed for direct violence, it played a role in facilitating conflict. But the modern percussionist hardly thinks of this at all when studying percussion. There is nothing inherent in the instrument that makes it violent.
The relationship of a musician to an instrument can be similar to that of a gun owner and gun. Setting aside the connotations about what the instrument is used for (yes, this is a huge thing to set aside), it is something that has feel, weight, action, response. The operator comes to know it intimately, obsessing over how it feels in the hands, or how it vibrates.
All of us in So Percussion are accustomed to this intimate, obsessive relationship with an object – but none of us have that relationship with guns. An instrument like the snare drum stands in for that other object in A Gun Show.