Poems from Guantanamo: A Staged Musical Work Inspired by Poetry of Detainees Held in Guantanamo

Curator's Note

My contribution to this forum is a brief reflection on my recent musical composition, Poems from Guantánamo for narrator, two violas, and television, which premiered in 2014. This work is based on a collection of poetry with the same title, which was published in 2007 by the University of Iowa Press.

One of the greatest challenges in creating this work occurred in the initial stages, specifically in making a definitive decision on the way in which the work should be presented. An idea that became immediately apparent was that the traditional method of classical text setting seemed too ironic and inappropriate for this poetry. Most of the past concert works I wrote with text were ironic and humorous song cycles based on found text (Missed Connections, from Craigslist posts; and Leave a Message, comprising answering machine messages and spam emails), so this was a significant shift in direction for me. During this time, I pursued several different though substantially developed sketches that were ultimately thrown out. A central conceptual question was, how can I create a new work to express my feelings about the injustice at Guantánamo without diminishing the original material or merely creating a reading of the poems of the book? What ultimately informed the presentation and instrumentation was a mixture of practicality, intuition, and process of elimination. The final draft is the version presented here, with a stage divided in two parts: a CRT-style TV on one side and the narrator and violas on the other, behind a scrim.

For a composer brought through the university system in the United States, and primarily working in the classical concert music tradition, there is often an expectation to avoid political statements and also to work within the confines of music that offers audience “accessibility.” This, of course, is a thread for another discussion, but these pressures weighed heavily on my decisions. While creating this work and growing more aware of other political works, I also realized there is a serious risk of exploitation that hangs over this approach, and a temptation for many artists to “provide” a voice to certain populations. In contrast, I hoped to amplify these texts and present these poems in a new setting.

The video clip provided is a three-minute excerpt from the complete thirty-minute piece. Watch the complete performance here: https://youtu.be/8m5RCUkvDDs 



This is a really powerful piece. The music adds the intensity of emotion that the spoken word alone cannot fully capture. It gives the audience an opportunity to contemplate the prisoners' difficult position and experience. I can appreciate the difficulty with which a composer must approach a political piece, but without the willingness to face this challenge (and possible backlash), the broader society is losing out and is unable to really visualize the emotions the prisoners are experiencing.

One of the effects for me of this extraordinary piece is the way in which the music brings to the forefront the emotion but also the complex issues of poetic voice and censorship that surrounded the release of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak. For those interested in reading more, the editor, Marc Falkoff, has written about the process. One of his essays is included in the Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights, which I co-edited with Sophia A. McClennen.

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