Transfer of Memory: Music and Tragedy

By Patrick Marschke

Patrons view the Transfer of Memory exhibit at a concert on September 16, 2016. (Photo by Gretchen Hazelton)

What is the medium by which memory is transferred?

We have words: transferred from mind to mouth to ear. Or the more stable written word: words that are wrestled into semblance by those who take the time to do so. They can feel slippery and inconsequential or they can grab hearts and minds of millions depending on the orator.

We have images: via pixels, film or abstracted by the human hand, moving or otherwise, supposedly telling us more than words.

We have places: spatial keys to buried thoughts and feelings that were left behind as our places changed and we changed places.

There is smell, allegedly the closest to memory anatomically and conceptually.

And there is music.

The current season contains a number of works by composers who were victims of the Holocaust, together with others displaced from their homes during World War II. At selected concerts beginning this weekend, the SPCO hosts Transfer of Memory, a touring exhibition featuring photos and stories of local Holocaust survivors, presented in collaboration with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Together, the music performed by the SPCO and the exhibit offer audiences the opportunity to explore art’s potential to express, interpret and transcend tragedy.

“This exhibition illustrates Holocaust survivors living in Minnesota, in their homes, in full color. Each is a story of survival during exceedingly difficult circumstances. As a collection, these images focus on life and hope. From Europe to Minnesota, it was here they fashioned their dreams, their futures, and their families. Their lives are constant reminders about the value of freedom and the enduring human spirit.” via

In addressing catastrophic tragedy and mass trauma, music seems to serve three distinct roles:

It is a document of a time and place. Gideon Klein’s Partita for Strings,  heard in performances this weekend and during the orchestra’s upcoming European tour, wasn’t necessarily written about the Holocaust: it was written in the Holocaust. It serves as a musical primary source of a person’s response to a devastating circumstance. Klein’s music isn’t blatantly tragic, bleak, or melancholy. In many instances it is quite the opposite–it has an energy and strength that transcends Klein’s situation. Its perpetual energy embodies the hope of a brilliant young mind that was able to aspire in the darkest of circumstances. We can hear this in similar musical “documents” from Klein’s contemporaries Erwin Schulhoff and Leo Smit, whose works will be performed by the SPCO later this season.

There are also several composers who were able to escape the tragedy–their music is also a document of that time and place, but could then go on to became a reflection and a rumination. Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was premiered for 400 prisoners and soldiers at the Stalag VIII prison camp. Messiaen later reflected “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” He went on to write some of the most imaginative music of the 20th century. Paul Hindemith fell in and out of favor with the Nazi powers that were, eventually emigrating to America and where he distilled his distinct “German” musical language. Then there were the composers who did not directly experience the horrors of the Holocaust or World War II, but reacted and responded to their understanding of the experience, perhaps in a conscious or unconscious attempt to codify the complex cultural and societal grieving process–an idea as old as the Requiem and as current as William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Works like Krzysztof Penderecki’s Dies Irae, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw (to name a few) make music into a type of cultural hard drive–not only documenting but capturing the grief and pain in a visceral way with the aid of hindsight and historical context. Future generations can listen and in some way feel the tragedy and the trauma instead of simply knowing the facts and the dates.

Living in a time when information is hurtled at us faster than the streams of our consciousness , it is easy to wonder if society has become desensitized to tragedy. It is also easy to avert our thoughts and minds from the pain of what has become all too familiar. The SPCO’s performances this weekend with Patricia Kopatchinskaja invite communities to come together to process the unimaginable grief that our world continues to throw at us. In experiencing Klein’s Partita for Stringsand the SPCO and Kopatchinskaja’s meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, accompanied by the Transfer of Memory exhibit, the audience and the musicians can witness art’s power to tell our stories, elicit deep emotion and connect us to one another.

Patrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a member of the fluid soundmaker collective Six Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center.