Here’s something that shouldn’t happen, but does. One should be able to protest garbage being dumped in one’s village or the environmental effects of a coal-fired plant without getting shot. But dozens of people have been abducted or killed in Thailand during the last couple decades while attempting to protect their rights. For Those Who Died Trying is a multi-media presentation that shines a light on the horrible truth that sometimes evil wins. The alternate name for the set is the Thailand HRDs (Human Rights Defenders). The project hopes to draw enough attention and motivate enough people to swing the pendulum back to goodness.
The impetus for the project is a series of photographs taken by British photographer Luke Duggleby, each placed at the spot of the activist’s disappearance or murder. In concert settings, the photos are prominently displayed as each piece is played. Canadian composer Frank Horvat uses only the letters (pitches) found in each victim’s name to prepare these short, sharp pieces, performed here by New York’s Mivos Quartet.
35 victims, 35 pieces, 35 lives lost, 35 spirits sonically recovered. These compositions are gifts, tenderly composed and gorgeously played. The timbres of Thailand are sprinkled throughout, adding just the right amount of regional connection. The pitch restriction is a source of inspiration, leading Horvat to be creative in his choices, lending each track a unique feel. Each surviving family can proclaim, “this is the song of the one I love.” Averaging only two minutes apiece, the songs operate as snapshots, mirroring the photos, producing an impact far greater than their size and duration.
Given such an inspiration, we’d probably be happy with these pieces no matter how they turned out. But they are universally moving. Every piece is strong in its own way, just as every activist was strong in his or her own way. According to Horvat, the pieces are meant not only to be “melancholic but have a tinge of defiance.” Opener “Ari Songkraw” sets the stage with peaceful plucks and mournful bows. There’s life here, even in the presence of death. When the strains of “Charoen Wat-Aksorn” enter, the powerful cello sounds more like a continuance of the initial theme than a new work, underlining the connections of community. These activists were all distinct, but they all shared a common bond, even without meeting. “Narin Phodaeng” is playful and romantic; was he the same in real life? The strains of “Boonrit Channanrong” are foreboding, as if to signify impending danger. Most of these activists were warned, but continued to fight, a second wave of courage that led to their deaths.
For once, we don’t want to choose any favorite tracks. There’s little point, as the quality is so high. Instead, we invite those who interact with this project to treat it as one might a yearbook of significant strangers. Listen to each piece as you gaze into the eyes of the deceased. Send a prayer to the cosmos on their behalf. Pause, if you will, in silence. And then, if you are so moved ~ if the violin vibrates in your heart, if the cello touches your soul, become an activist. It doesn’t take much, and it’s probably safer where you are. Let these stories, that ended all too soon, continue. May evil be drenched in goodness. May hate be drowned in love. (Richard Allen)