Rachel's Lament 

A music video memorializing the victims of Hiroshima
by Abbie Conant



Table of Contents

1.General Description


3.Program notes



1. General Description

For trombone and a quadraphonic recording of four voices and four trombones.  (16 minutes.)  Premiere: Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 5, 2005. Abbie Conant, composition, voice and trombones.


Rachel’s Lament is a music video about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The work was written at the request of Dominique Mazeaud for a memorial concert she organized for the 60th anniversary of the events. 


2. Video


The first 15 seconds are in darkness.


3. Program Notes

“Thus says the Lord:  In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping! Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more.”

Jeremiah 31:15-17

Rachel’s Lament is a documentary of my inner emotional experience concerning the dropping of the first atomic bombs, euphemistically named Little Boy and Fat Man respectively, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  New Mexico was the backdrop for some of the major events in the development of the Bomb -- Trinity Site and Los Alamos, as well as the location of several WWII Japanese-American detention camps.  I thus find it especially relevant to commemorate here in New Mexico’s capital Santa Fe, the City of Holy Faith, the 60th anniversary of the first use of atomic weapons on human beings.


The video includes original archival photographs of the horrific aftermath in both cities.  People were instantaneously turned into shadows, and those several miles away were severely burned, blinded and made fatally ill.  I show you the human heart of darkness, because without knowing the impact of our actions, the actual facts of our evil, if you will, we cannot really consciously turn toward meaningful peace.  I consider it a sacrament to endure the pain of viewing these images and a tribute to the victims.  Even though the video images are mesmerizing in their horror, I encourage you to especially listen to the music, since it is the essential expression of the work.  In fact, the music could stand alone as a self-contained composition.  Much can be said around the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- justifications, relativisations and the lack of 20/20 hindsight, but they became the bitter vision of what humans are capable of, and in a sense since that day, Hiroshima has never stopped happening.


The last part of the work probably represents my most radical aesthetic decision.  I wanted to contrast the old black and white photos that have a historical distance with modern day pictures of Japanese children that are far more immediate and present.  The modern pictures are banal in their ubiquitousness and content, but that is exactly the point.  We sometimes distance ourselves from the horrors of the world by aestheticizing them.  It is the almost cringing banality of the modern photos that forces us to consider humans as real and not merely as historical, representational, aesthetic artifacts.  The horrors of WWII are not merely those of another generation pictured in grainy black and white photos.  They are our own horrors, and they will be forever.  We should never become accustomed to evil.  We should never let it hide behind ubiquitousness or banality.


Especially significant to me are the images of the stopped pocket watch showing the exact time of the explosion, 8:15 a.m., and the partially destroyed bronze Buddha found among the rubble.  The symbolic ramifications boggle the mind. Light, which we associate with goodness and truth, was used in this case to turn human into shadows on concrete.  And the gentle wind was radioactive.


The piece is in the ancient spirit of the lament--a woman weeping for the dead, feeling appropriate feelings for the rest of the community, helping us process our grief and thus move on to a deepened experience of life.  The trombone has been used throughout Western musical history as the symbol of the underworld, a tradition established by Monteverdi in Orfeo.  It is also traditionally regarded as the noble mediator of death and as the sounding blast of the last judgment.  It is also associated with prophecy and revelation.  St. Hildegard von Bingen referred to herself as Posaune Gottes, or Trombone of God.  I consider it a privilege to play this sacred instrument in this context. 


Along with the weeping of the trombone, my voice inarticulately keens a lament called, “wie eine Posaune die sprach”, (“…as it were of a trombone talking…”.)  I also sing the Latin text of Rachel’s Lament, and speak a few lines of English text of my own.  Of the two melodic themes “…as it were of a trombone talking…” is original, while the other,  The Lament of Rachel, is borrowed from the 12th century Fleury (French) Medieval Drama, Slaughter of the Innocents from The Play of Herod. The surround sound creates a world where perhaps we can begin to truly empathize with the Japanese people.  The video is the altar or portal into which we gaze into our/their hearts.


Composer William Osborne, my husband, edited the video from hundreds of images I collected.  He edited the music from over an hour of recordings I made of the original medieval lament, “…as it were of a trombone talking…,” and my voice and trombone improvisations.  His contribution was absolutely invaluable.  Though it was not clear at the conception of this work, he should be listed as co-composer.  We often work so closely together that we can’t remember who had what idea.  This is our ideal and our practice.


In The Play of Herod, Rachel stands over and weeps for the murdered children of Israel while her women friends attempt three times to console her.  She will have none of it. Rachel’s final words are:


«Anxiatus est in me spiritus meus; in me turbatum est cor meum.»

“My spirit is anxious within me; within me my heart is troubled.” 


After Hiroshima, surely we are all Rachel’s children.


Abbie Conant




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