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Music against the Mad Cry of War: Mary Gauthier and Michele Gazich

Claudio Zonta SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Feb 19th 2020


The album Rifles & Rosary Beads is Louisiana folk singer Mary Gauthier’s latest album. The singer-songwriter has had a complex life, marked by suffering and pain after her parents abandoned her as a child. A life of many excesses followed, before she found her salvation and identity through music.

Rifles & Rosary Beads was composed with veterans of the war in Iraq. Its civil and social themes evoke the roots of folk and blues music. The album came about through an intense collaboration with Songwriting with Soldiers, an association that helps veterans combat post-traumatic stress disorder and reintegrate into society and into their family context by the writing of songs, which serves as a sort of psychoanalytic confession. Through song, in fact, they can manifest their discomfort, articulate complex and painful stories, and facilitate a resonance that makes all-important human connections. As the singer herself states: “Every song on this album is a laceration in the heart and soul of a veteran (or of their partner).”

An important artistic contribution was made to this project by the violinist and singer-songwriter Michele Gazich, a versatile musician with profound musical experience.[1] The notes of his violin are impregnated with echoes that reflect his family’s roots. These characteristics are also present in his own album Una storia di mare e di sangue (A Story of Sea and Blood),  songs which lead us through the streets of Istanbul, to the shores of the island of Zadar, to Hamburg, and to New York, giving the album the feel of traveling on an existential journey.

Stories of women

Rifles & Rosary Beads is an album with an acrid and sparse vocabulary, with radical metaphors that are as rough to the touch as rock edges, but also full of mercy and humanity. The album cover reflects this, depicting two outstretched arms, the right hand clasping a rifle, while the left, half-open, is holding out a rosary.

The arms emerge from a dark backdrop. They are illuminated by a glow and the cross of the rosary as if to indicate the power of light coming from the desire to love, contrasted with the darkness of hatred, which is represented by the rifle and the pitch-dark background.

The song “Brothers” is an all-female composition, written with Meghan Counihan and Britney Pfad, both of whom are Iraq war veterans. The song tells the story of a female U.S. soldier who was sent to the war zone while she was still breastfeeding, immediately after giving birth to a child: War ripped my baby from my breast / Now my name and rank cover my chest / Twenty–three hours I flew and wept / Twenty–three hours I never slept / Wiped my face, changed my soaking bra / Told my body not to feel at all.

This song illustrates the scarce legislative protection the military affords women. As the words of the two veterans testify, female soldiers must adapt to a totally male universe; for example, the boots they wear are shaped for men’s feet, with consequent bleeding and blisters.

Another reflection on the issue of the condition of U.S. female soldiers is present in the song Iraq, which deals with Military Sexual Trauma (MST). This song reveals the extent to which women suffer sexual assault or harassment during training, acts which are as brutal as the war itself. As the singer puts it, after having listened to the many stories of female soldiers: Soldiers bartered and traded / That’s the way our world worked / Trading favors for favors / The sand and the dirt / What I wouldn’t give them / They’d try to take / When I refused them / They made me pay.

The semantic framework of the lyrics of this song is predominantly mercantile: “to barter, to trade, to work, to exchange, to take, to pay.” It shows how women become objects and commodities of exchange. The dynamic created is totally inhuman and brutal, focused exclusively on the woman’s body. The final part of the refrain is emblematic: But my enemy wasn’t Iraq, where the song makes a long pause after the word “enemy” creating suspense, reflecting the effort to admit – And it was so hard to see ‘til it attacked – that the enemy this time does not come from the outside, but from soldiers who live next door, who give their lives for the same flag.

Rifles and rosaries: the contradiction

The song – Rifles & Rosary Beads – that gives the title to the album uses as the opening words of the first stanza: Rifles & Rosary Beads / You hold on to what you need. These are two contrasting and counterpoised images: the rifle and the rosary, which, because of their intrinsic symbolic meaning, should not be placed next to each other; however, we see how war subverts all the rules and these two objects are held at the same time by the soldier. War confuses and transforms military existence into a dramatic folly, which cannot be humanly endured, except with the help of Vicodin and morphine: soldiers must be drugged to be able to endure what they see in war: Whistling sunset bombs / I couldn’t trust the sky.

War subverts every element. For example, a sunset, a poetic scenario par excellence where everything is reconciled and rests, is wounded by the whistling of the bombs that tear to shreds its beauty. The infinite sky, which evokes trust and a reliance on the mystery of the inscrutable, becomes the place without meaning. The sky and the earth, at the end of the second stanza, become A blackness that has no sound. War, therefore, annihilates both creation and creature: “Darkness came over the whole earth” (Mark 15:33), and everything is muted, silence reigns. Nothing is heard because there is only Bombed out schools and homes / Kids in the streets alone.

This shows the non-sense of warfare: the places intended for education and human growth – school and home – are torn apart, blasted, with the consequence that children remain on the streets, prey to hatred and violence. The extreme annihilation described in the last stanza refers to the soldier himself, through a mirror’s symbolic meaning: Mirrors frighten me / I don’t recognize what I see / A stranger with blood on his hands / Brother, I’m not that man. It is the annihilation of one’s own humanity: the soldier sees himself as a stranger, his hands soiled with blood. This verse brings to mind the famous passages of the Book of Genesis where God asks Cain about his brother: “Where is Abel your brother? … What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground!” (Gen. 4:9-10).

The song is not just a complete abandonment of the human being into the abyss of contaminating evil; in fact, in the last verse of the stanza there is a dim, faint but important glimmer of hope, indicated by the lapidary expression: Brother, I’m not that man. It is a last, extreme expression of awareness: the protagonist turns to a “you” – perhaps the listener – called “brother,” highlighting how humanity has not been extinguished entirely by the shedding of blood. The words I’m not that man expresses the last act of willpower, an attempt to recognize one’s own identity, a last cry of a humanity that does not want to succumb to the unstoppable momentum of evil.

The music that accompanies Mary Gauthier’s punctuating and spelled out lyrics is a guitar arpeggio accompanied by sparse long notes on Michele Gazich’s violin and the constant presence of the piano. If, in fact, the text is violent and relentless, the music and the lyrics are extremely calm, as if to soften the pain of the text or to make a prayer of these anguish-laden verses. It seems that the music wants to resume the sense of the last verse I’m not that man, to repeat it, musically, throughout the song.

The madness of deportation

A subtle existential line links the album Rifles & Rosary Beads with the latest album by Michele Gazich. Titled Temuto come grido, atteso come canto (“Feared as a cry, expected as a song”) it is an album of intense humanity and spirituality. As we read in the introduction to the CD: “I wrote this album in October 2017. That month I lived on San Servolo, an island facing Venice, hosted by Waterlines, an international artist and writers-in-residence project. San Servolo was a psychiatric hospital from 1725 to 1978.”

Michele Gazich consulted the archive of the former psychiatric hospital in the mornings. In the afternoons and at nights he wrote the songs for the album. The singer-songwriter focuses in particular on the stories of Jewish patients who were later taken away to concentration camps. Having carefully studied their medical records, he notes how their descriptions contain almost nothing clinical, but seem to contain the mad ravings of the doctor in charge of the hospital. It was on the patients that this doctor vented his prejudices: “The medical records soon become a pretext for anti-Semitic satire,” Michele Gazich comments, showing above all the deprivation of dignity and lack of consideration shown toward the patients interned in the facility.

On October 11, 1944, the Jewish patients were taken away from San Servolo’s psychiatric hospital and deported to German extermination camps. Each song seeks to go beyond a narration, beyond a retelling of their story, to establish an encounter with the patients. As Michele Gazich says: “I looked at their faces, I reread their stories in the medical records in an attempt to give them something back, which will never be enough, but to give them back their voice. Their stories are unknown: my mission is to make it known. We need each other, we need to find these women and these men who were ‘taken away’ from here.”

The musician, therefore, was directly inspired by archival documents, some of which accompany the CD. Instead of using the photographs of the people described, he has chosen to use woodcuts, inspired and created by Alice Falchetti, in a style akin to German expressionism, to depict the patients.

A new Homer

The album opens with a lyrical narrative, an almost epic text, titled L’isola (The Island). The urgency of the story, the complexity of the narrative, the pain of those who have made this journey and who have subsequently told it with song are introduced – as in a real epic poem – in this opening passage. With “Island” Michele Gazich becomes like Homer who sings of the experience of this physical and inner journey, summoning the listener’s attention with a direct address: Friends, I will speak to you about the island.[2] And so begins this long and complex journey of pity and sorrow.

The listener hears vibrating, poignant, endless notes produced by his violin. It feels almost like a wave that continues to break on the shores of the island, while Michele’s voice, in a sung recitation, begins the story of this journey: Nobody arrives here alone / Neither harbor nor safe dock / You Island will never be home / You Island will never be home.[3] As in the song “Still on the ride” by Mary Gauthier, the stanzas are full of lexical elements that express absence and a sense of negation, like the pronoun “nobody,” the adverb “not,” and the conjunction “nor.” Even the adverbs “only” and “never” continue to build the sense of deprivation, of lack of life, of fear.

San Servolo becomes a place of damnation, a shore laden with hatred, because Attentive men do not come here / They do not come here guided by the wind.[4] This island becomes the symbol of existential isolation, of compulsion, of an uprooting from one’s own land and affections: If someone comes here they have been forced / Nobody will ever take me away / You, Island will never be home.[5] Michele Gazich sings with an insistence on the adverb “never,” which seems to be the unifying element of the first three verses of the song.

They express the drama of non-return, the impossibility of an emotional and relational life, the tragic nature of an existence now destined to end within a psychiatric hospital, and which will become a gateway to the concentration camp of the San Sabba rice mill, the destination of this inhuman journey. The sound of the violin, with a melody of prolonged and vibrant notes, introduces, intersperses and concludes the piece, transporting and delivering the sweetness and beauty of these lives that have not been able to blossom, to those who are willing to listen.

Fearful as a cry, expected as a song

The song San Sebastiano (St. Sebastian) is perhaps the dramatic peak of the album. Here the text is sparse, the words balanced and sung with difficulty, accompanied by a dark and vibrant electric piano. The violin grows silent. Michele Gazich presents the song with these words: “The man of medical record number 1943/186 became for me an embodiment of St. Sebastian. His torment: 26 electroshocks. His mouth in the photograph on his file is disturbingly similar to St. Sebastian’s mouth as depicted by the painter Mantegna.” The notes of the archive state: “1944/June 12: electroshock was used 26 times, and then Cardiazol and 12 injections of sulfur, but his mental state didn’t change… October 11: he was taken away by order of the German military command.”

This Saint Sebastian is legato al letto (tied to bed), with la bocca aperta al grido (mouth open to cry). It is precisely by contemplating this abyss that the singer does not abandon his story to despair but delivers it to song, poetry and art, which once again become the bearer of infinite mercy through the verse that gives the title to the whole album: Temuto come grido / Atteso come canto (Fearful as a cry, expected as a song). In this bold passage, the voice also elevates, rises and is urgent; it does not sink into the acceptance of evil but steers the path towards an expectation that, although it lasted many years, can now be expressed through song and beauty.

Expectation is a stance that leans toward fulfillment, to the coming of a perhaps unexpected act or encounter. This expectation is dissolved by a musician whose roots, as we stated above, are far away and who carries on his shoulders the meaning of many family migrations. In his song and in the strings of his violin, lost and forgotten stories live on, waiting to be brought to light through an act of profound humanity and compassion. It is a dynamic that is not “cheap,” but becomes, to cite Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words in The Cost of Discipleship, grace “at a high price, because it costs man the price of life; it is grace, because precisely in this way it gives him life.”

Being immersed in San Servolo Island meant experiencing the humility and fragility of knowing the faces and lives of those who never had a voice and whose breath was tragically taken away.

These songs represent a desire to restore the memory of existence, the dignity and the warmth of affections to the many psychiatric hospital prisoners. Therefore, the decision was made to tell their stories humbly in the form of song, and not to represent their faces preserved by the photographs attached to their medical records, but to entrust them to the symbolism of woodcuts.

Songs of madness and mercy

The two albums Rifles & Rosary Beads and Temuto come grido, atteso come canto represent the faces of the countless victims of an evil that rages on in the lives of ordinary people.

The pain that issues forth from wars continues to reap victims. The war for American veterans does not end when they return home, since the wounds of the heart are open and continue to bleed, even if The enemy has fled, has lost, is beat.[6]

In the same way, the psychiatric hospital becomes the place where affection is absent and is the antechamber of the concentration camps where Jewish patients tragically end their journey.

On the one hand, the subtle force of these songs lead the American veterans to let their own lives reemerge so as to not fall into the abyss of despair; and, on the other, they permit the memorial articulation of the dramatic, inhumane events that occurred at the San Servolo psychiatric hospital.

With Rifles & Rosary Beads, Mary Gauthier returns the desire for life to former soldiers, to safeguard and protect relationships and affection; meanwhile, with the album Temuto come grido, atteso come canto, Michele Gazich brings to memory these stories drenched in evil and horror, giving a drop of splendor of humanity, of truth[7] to the humble people of this earth.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 1, article 8, Jan. 19: 10.32009/22072446.1901.8

[1].Cf. C. Zonta, “Michele Gazich e ‘La via del sale’. Itinerari umani che conducono alla speranza,” in Civ. Catt. 2016 IV 301-304.

[2].Amici vi parlerò dell’isola.

[3].Qui nessuno ci arriva da solo / Né porto né approdo sicuro / Isola che mai sarai casa / Isola che mai sarai casa.

[4].Non giungono qui gli uomini attenti / Non giungono qui guidati dal vento.

[5].Se arriva qualcuno lo portano a forza / Mai nessuno che mi porti via / Isola che mai sarai casa.

[6].The line is from F. De Gregori, in “Generale.” Original: Il nemico è scappato, è vinto, è battuto.

[7].The line is from F. De Andrè – I. Fossati, in “Smisurata preghiera,” orig: Una goccia di splendore di umanità, di verità.





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