David Woodard, who has been featured in these pages
experimenting both with the disinhibiting powers of the Feraliminal
Lycanthropiser machine (Issue 8)
and the chthonic properties of ketamine (Issue 11), is, by profession,
a requiem composer and a DreamMachine fabricator.
More than a little preoccupied by what gives on the "other side",
Woodard has composed requiems for subjects as varied as a mutilated
heron and the victim of a cable car accident.
Woodard coined the term "prequiem" so that those in deaths
throes could hear his masterworks before they shuffled off this mortal coil.
Woodards latest and most publicized project to date involved composing
music to salve the soul of the Oklahoma Bomber, Timothy McVeigh. In the process
of organizing this unorthodox musical tribute, Woodard made contact with McVeigh,
though it is unlikely the mass-murderer ever got to hear the music composed
especially for his execution. Tessa Laird spoke to Woodard, a resident of Los
Angeles, just days after the execution took place.
Tessa: Could you describe the scene at Timothy McVeighs execution in
Terre Haute, Indiana, on 11 June, 2001? I have heard it referred to somewhat
cynically as "Bloodstock" and a "media circus". I never
saw any of the sordid TV coverage - I was cocooned by politically correct
public radio. However, I imagine that most Americans saw a very different picture.
Could you give an overview of the event itself from your own perspective, and
more specifically, the performance of your "prequiem" Ave Atque
David: The word "Bloodstock" was invented by Tims former Terre
Haute death row cellblock-mate David Paul Hammer, whose prison diaries at one
time (in the months leading up to Tims execution) appeared on the Internet.
It is of course a play on Woodstock, the 60s rock music festival which
shared with Tims execution the conspicuous presence of a vast "tent
city" and the spiritual function of a destination point for pilgrims.
In Tims case, the pilgrims primarily took the form of rabid media agents,
with an extremely scant sprinkling of concerned individuals. Woodstock, quite
conversely, was a pilgrimage of drugged-out hippies surrounded by a smattering
of entrepreneurial, fake-hippie media.
The Federal prison grounds are much larger than I had expected, having read
at www.bop.gov, the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, that they were merely
33 acres. Several football fields could easily fit into the front yard of the
prison, where I observed four cordoned areas under extremely tight security:
an area for protesters, who were bussed in from a designated meeting place
in a Terre Haute park at specific times; a death penalty supporter area, which
was separated by perhaps 200 yards from the protester area; an utterly massive,
sprawling media circus area; and what to me seemed the most dubious penned-in
field - the "media briefing" area, which served as the official
interface between the government and the media. All media representatives were
required to first attend a "media briefing" here before being issued
a media pass.
I was asked by the FOX network for an interview on Saturday morning. They sent
a "limo" (van) to my motel to collect me, as parking anywhere near
the prison was out of the question - due not to protesters and/or supporters,
both of whom were practically nonexistent, but rather the 1,700-strong media
presence. I was asked if I would first like to see the make-up lady, to which
I consented. After passing through security, and in that process personally
meeting Terre Haute Prisons Public Affairs Officer Jim Cross, with whom
I had spoken on the telephone a number of times during my attempts to secure
use of prison grounds as a prequiem venue, I was carefully escorted to the
make-up trailer. The make-up artist was friendly, encouraging and from Indianapolis.
Next, a FOX producer, who was really just a kid, nervously brought me into
the media yard, initially keeping a watchful eye on my every move (it seemed
that perhaps Mr. Cross had identified me to the producer as a potential problem).
Only when I made fun of his paranoia (by remarking that he was making me self-conscious
about running and jumping over the three rows of 12-foot electric barbed-wire
fences) did the kid cool his heels and allow me to explore the media tent city
on my own. During my brief wandering, as I was snatched for an interview by
rival news company Reuters, I understood the FOX producers true concern.
The interview took place on a stage that FOX had erected along the media area
periphery closest to the prison buildings, which formed the backdrop. The FOX
anchor asked how it felt to have contributed to the lasting body of work that
will ultimately be attributed to Mr. McVeigh - as though Ave Atque
Vale and American Terrorist, the McVeigh biography, like Warhol
paintings conceived, created and screened with Warhols signature by
anonymous Factory drones, are pyramids that may have been physically built
by slaves but were of course willed into being by Pharaoh McVeigh, cultural
institution. When I introduced the subject of the Wishing Machine, the radionic
device which had first compelled Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek McVeighs
execution with absolute determination, then compelled Tim to will Ave Atque
Vale through me and American Terrorist through Lou Michel and Dan
Herbeck, the FOX anchor swiftly concluded our otherwise nice interview.
Tessa: Im not terribly familiar with the Wishing Machine
David: A brief explanation occurs on my website: <http://davidwoodard.com/farewell2.html>.
Incidentally, I sold the model in question (i.e. the Wishing Machine used for
Tim McVeigh) to a young Texas man who was suffering from a malignant brain
tumor and given less than a year to live; he writes to me regularly, claiming
the machine caused his tumor to go into remission. A short story concerning
the device appears around p. 250 of William Burroughs novel The Western
Lands. When I complemented him on his story during a 1997 visit, William
introduced me to the machine itself. I was in the process of correcting his
improperly constructed model (i.e. replacing its cheap, low-conductivity aluminum
plates with copper ones) when he keeled over and croaked in August of the same
Back to Ave Atque Vale. Forming an ensemble to play the piece was a
difficult task to complete within less than three days. Judge Richard Matschs
denial of McVeighs appeal (based on the FBIs fraud against the
court) was announced on Wednesday; I departed Los Angeles on Thursday and arrived
in my motel room, which had been reserved by the Catholic Church, at midnight;
I awoke Friday morning with a Sunday evening Federal execution prequiem beckoning
before me in this claustrophobic town. First I marched into student-run amateur
radio station WISUs studios to ascertain that they would indeed broadcast
the music, as promised by program director James Britt in May prior to the
initially scheduled date for Tims execution. The engineer now sitting
at the front desk appeared stunned and nervous by my presence, and proceeded
to tell me that Mr. Britt was no longer with the station. He had graduated
and was perhaps not even in town. I recalled Britts earlier explanation
to me over the phone, in which he said that the stations Board of Trustees
was resolutely against participating in a McVeigh-hatched scheme until he offered
a compromise: just announce at a specific time (when Tim would be listening), "We
now interrupt our broadcast to play a special piece of music for a special
listener." According to Mr. Britt, the Board of Trustees had consented.
I began calling musicians. All prospects in this predominantly Bible Belt fundamentalist
territory overtly exhibited adverse knee-jerk reactions to the idea of being
involved in any way with McVeigh. Slowly my rhetoric evolved from (very early) "intended
to honor Tim McVeigh and the Holy Fathers request for his clemency," to "intended
to honor the sacredness of human life" (which seemed to immediately translate
as pro-McVeigh), to "intended to honor the sacredness of the death process," which
proved neutral-sounding enough to engage significant discourse.
On Saturday evening I attended a concert on the banks of the Wabash River given
by the Terre Haute Community Band, whose repertory included Sousas The
Star Spangled Banner and Gladiator March, as well as Grundmans A
Scottish Rhapsody and even Ployhars Impressions of a Gaelic Air.
Impressed, and very relieved to be sitting in front of a real live brass section
on the eve of the scheduled prequiem, I enjoyed the concert and approached
the trumpet and trombone players afterwards - ready to employ my newly
evolved "intended to honor the sacredness of the death process" line
if necessary, which it certainly was. By the end of the night, through the
assistance of trumpet player John Penry, who also happens to be Treasurer of
the Terre Haute Federation of Musicians (the local musicians union),
I had my brass sextet and a contract waiting to be signed - sure to deplete
the balance of my funds. I had convinced Penry to convince five other musicians
that Ave Atque Vale was a "neutral" piece of music, neither
in favor of nor against the death penalty. When apprised that this piece was
scored for not only two trumpets, two trombones, and tuba - but also cymbals,
Mr. Penry replied that it would be easy to find any dumb-dumb to play cymbals.
Indeed, the cymbals part merely accentuates cadential points - very intuitive
Tessa: Perhaps you could talk a little bit about musical structure and influences,
so that those readers who are unfamiliar with your work might imagine what
it sounded like.
David: The first of the two sections of Ave Atque Vale, scored for strings,
winds and baritone soloist, was inspired by Sicilian composer Giacinto Scelsis Aion.
Due to time, financial and Bible Belt constraints, I was not privileged to
perform this primary section of the score on the eve of Tims execution.
I was, however, able to perform the slow and stately brass fanfare coda - which
was inspired by Wagnerian arias such as Liebestod and Magic Fire
Music, i.e. music intended to create tension that opens into greater and
greater tension and ever dashed expectations of resolve, ultimately for the
sake of a tremendous, otherworldly resolve.
On Sunday, June 10 at 6pm, my musicians (which included Terre Haute Community
Bands conductor Glenna Gibbs, now in the capacity of trombonist) arrived
to meet me for rehearsal at St. Margaret Mary Church, about three miles from
the prison. Mr. Penry and another older man, trumpet player Vince Plank, looked
perturbed on arrival in the church parking lot. On the front lawn of the church
they could see protest materials. Soon the other musicians had all arrived,
sharing in visible expressions of distress. Pleased that they were at least
all appropriately attired in black, I attempted to look surprised myself - reiterating
that Ave Atque Vale is "politically neutral". However, among
their whispers with one another, the musicians had obviously divined the truer
truth of the matter: regardless of how "neutral" might be defined,
they would be accepting cash to honor the man they were determined to see executed.
Musicians Union Treasurer and ensemble organizer Mr. Penry pulled me
aside to verbally express his dismay. "I really had to work hard at convincing
each of these musicians that your piece of music is in no way politically motivated." Mr.
Penry looked glum, as though he had been snookered. Frater Ron Ashmore had
kindly provided a large space for us to rehearse in - upstairs in a building
adjacent to the church. I found it odd that my "dumb-dumb" cymbalist
would turn out to be Mr. Penry.
As we launched into our single hour of rehearsal, I found that Mr. Penry was
not paying any attention whatsoever to my conducting. Moreover, he was playing
the cymbals several quarter notes off beat. I decided to devote my entire left
arm to him, demonstratively signaling each of his already painfully obvious
cymbal lines. Still, he would not play correctly. "Mr. Penry," I
eventually announced in front of the ensemble, "I am afraid we do not
have time to master the cymbal part tonight." Slowly, without looking
at me, he placed his cymbals down. "But Ill pay you anyway."
At five minutes till 7, we slowly and quietly filed into the church, and the
musicians (except for Mr. Penry) assumed their seats below the cross. Frater
Ron introduced the prequiem, I ascended from my pew, and conducted the 3-1/2
minute brass fanfare coda from Ave Atque Vale. Afterwards, I returned
to my pew and watched as the musicians, quietly and somehow respectfully, collected
their music and filed out of the church. I then noticed that among the prequiems
listeners were Tims attorneys Rob Nigh and Chris Tridico, as well as American
Terrorist authors Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck. According to Frater Ron,
who took me out for chili later that night, the listenership included all of
the following mornings execution witnesses.
Tessa: Do you think McVeigh ever got to hear his prequiem?
David: Attorney Rob Nigh had phoned me in my motel room on Sunday morning (the
day of the prequiem, one day before the execution). He was calling from the
prison on his cell phone. Tim had asked him if and when he would hear the prequiem.
I had to explain that WISU had chickened out. Our only avenue of broadcast
now was television news. Remarkably, Tim managed to secure a small b/w TV set
with basic cable for the prequiem night - a significant breach of death
chamber protocol. Fifteen to twenty news cameramen were present for the prequiem.
I have yet to ascertain whether Tim was able to catch a snippet on the evening
news. Even if he did, it would have merely been a snippet of the coda section
alone. To date (to my knowledge), no one has heard Ave Atque Vale in
its entirety - unless, of course, Pope John Paul II has secretly invited
an orchestra to convene in the Vatican City for a reading from the copy of
the score that is in His possession.
Tessa: Given you have stated you have a deep belief in the spirit world, why
should it matter to you whether or not Timothy McVeigh is executed? For that
matter, why create a prequiem if the spirits can hear the requiem? Are you
more concerned by your works reception in this world, or the spirit world?
David: Actually, I have considered performing Ave Atque Vale in its
complete form since the execution. Perhaps the work can be properly conveyed
to its intended subject, without having to rely on media cooperation, now that
Tim is beyond our illusory world.
Tessa Laird is afraid of dying which leads to some frighteningly
sensible behaviour. She carries out this rampant moderation in Los Angeles,
but hopes to return to New Zealand's excruciatingly safe shores in the
Composer David Woodard in his Downtown Los Angeles Office,
relaxing with his ermine-trimmed Dream Machine. Photographs courtesy
of Steve Shimada.
For further information on David Woodard, prequiems, Tim
McVeigh, or Dream Machines, try http://davidwoodard.com.