Composer Nick Bicât writes:
I was first prompted to write this piece when I saw a photograph in a newspaper depicting two boys walking through the wreckage of what looked like a recent guerrilla attack, past an open car with dead bodies strewn around it. The older boy has his hand over the other’s eyes, and is leading him through this hellish scene so that he will not see the full horror of it. I could immediately sense the nature of the music I should write about this terrible event, the brutality and the tenderness it expressed, and its tragic recurrence throughout the world; however I couldn’t proceed until I knew what specific narrative and text I could work with.
I spoke about the idea to my brother Tony, and he showed me a poem he’d written called Two Voices about the Beslan siege in 2004. Our grandfather came from Chechnya, and so this story has a particular resonance for both of us. I could see that this text could represent the first part of the piece, but that it needed an introduction, and a second section about the aftermath of the tragedy.
It seemed to me that the siege itself was so horrifying that it couldn’t be set to music so soon after the event without the resulting work being opportunistic. For that reason I wanted to find a musical style which didn’t inflate the emotions of the two central women in the narrative as if the whole thing were a libretto, but instead try and depict their situations with a naturalistic or documentary quality. The attack itself is not dramatised, and the scene moves from before to after this horrific, transforming event, focussing on what people do to make sense of tragedy, how they seek to rebuild their spirit, how they strive to heal themselves and each other, just as the older boy in that picture is instinctively trying to protect some part of him from harm so that his spirit will one day recover.
I’ve worked with Andrew Parrott frequently over the years on projects which have involved a wide variety of instrumental and vocal styles and techniques. In particular I value the way he approaches new music without any pre-formed idea of idiom, always searching for the nature of the music itself, and how best to deliver what it seeks to express without affectation or mannerism. In the case of Beslan, I’ve combined this experience with research into traditional Caucasian music to find a lean modern style which serves the narrative.
Librettist Tony Bicât writes:
For the armed protagonists, the Beslan siege had no winners. It further demonised - if that is possible - the Chechens in the eyes of Russia and the World, and emphasised the incompetence already demonstrated at The Nord-Ost Theatre siege by the Russian Special Forces. No authority or faction came out of it well or gained any credit from it, but individual acts of bravery and generosity did shine out amid the overwhelming filth, cruelty and chaos. As always, the innocent, mainly children, suffered and died. When I watched the siege unfold on TV, the last thing on my mind was writing.
Two Voices took me by surprise. It is a fiction but a fiction with its feet in fact. The two women, a single mother taking her daughter to her first day at school, and the Chechen terrorist, the ‘Black Widow’, a mother too but one filled with despair and anger, sprang to life. I wrote them down as honestly as I could; making no judgements. I showed the poem, which felt unfinished, only to my brother and sister. Our grandfather came from Chechnya and so recent history of the Caucasus has had a particular and painful resonance for us all. I put the poem in a drawer. However Beslan would not go away and I continued to follow the story long after it had left the headlines.
When Nick had the idea of setting the poem to music, I was surprised. For me lyrics and poetry are very different disciplines and had the work been destined for a musical setting I would have written it very differently. But to say this is academic as, had I been asked to write a ‘libretto’ I would not have been able to do it. Nick however began to search for a musical voice for the two women. When I heard the setting of Part One, it gave me the inspiration to write the second part. Nick and I worked together on this at the piano as we usually do with songs.
The ferocity of modern explosives, both the ones dropped from planes and the ones placed by terrorists in public places, is literally terrible. Also under oppressive regimes, people still just disappear. So the cry of ‘Give me a body to mourn’ is increasingly heard in the world. Every dead victim, every dead terrorist is the end of a life. Till we listen to all those lives, this carnage will never end.