Mỹ Lai. © 2022 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

CD Spotlight

Shooting and Madness

GEOFF PEARCE listens to a powerful opera about the Vietnam War

'This disk will shock you like very few other recordings ...'


I can remember as a boy hearing about the Vietnam War daily, and being absolutely shocked and saddened when the news of the Mỹ Lai massacre came out. It illustrates, only too clearly, the horror of war, how innocent people are often casualties and how a situation can spiral very quickly out of control, and become just one more in a line of human tragedies. This opera is a very powerful work and largely seen through the eyes of helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who tried to prevent what was occurring, even threatening to fire on his own troops, and in the rescue of one survivor.

The work is the reminiscences of the now dying Hugh Thompson who is alone in a cancer ward, after being virtually nationally vilified as a traitor for refusing to stay quiet about what had happened.

There are moments of great sorrow, and in fact much of the music is derived from a prayer recited towards the end of Yom Kippur. The work starts with a movement called Mỹ Lai Lullaby – simply by a woman singing a simple lullaby, soon a solo đàn bầu (my favourite Vietnamese instrument – a monochord instrument that expresses deep emotion), this gradually intensify as the string quartet and other sounds are added, then other Vietnamese instruments, and filtered sounds and a male singer enters. The movement becomes edgy and complex. It illustrates the confusion, suffering and the horror of war.

Listen — Jonathan Berger: Mỹ Lai Lullaby (Mỹ Lai)
(SFW 40251 track 1, 5:52-6:38) ℗ 2022 Kronos Performing Arts Association :

Track 2 begins with sounds of a helicopter emerging in the early morning light and Hugh Thompson sings 'Oh Lord, what a morning', and then he mentions his cancer, how he always wanted to fly, but those that died could not, and he did really not want to go on with his suffering of the memories of what happened that day. Rinde Eckert is a very powerful singer and portrays the anguish that this poor man is wracked with. This is followed by an interlude that simulates the shooting and madness below.

Listen — Jonathan Berger: First Landing: Flight (Mỹ Lai)
(SFW 40251 track 2, 6:09-7:08) ℗ 2022 Kronos Performing Arts Association :

At first, the next movement, First Landing: Descent, is rather wondrous and he wishes his young son could see it. It rapidly becomes a nightmare as the horror of what has unfolded becomes apparent. He is confused as he thought the people below were going peacefully about their business, until he saw the carnage, and a person badly injured lying in a ditch and he sees the captain kick her with his boot and then shoot her.

Listen — Jonathan Berger: First Landing: Descent (Mỹ Lai)
(SFW 40251 track 3, 4:17-5:11) ℗ 2022 Kronos Performing Arts Association :

The fourth track represents a ditch with bodies, many of them children, dead or dying and no one trying to help. The music is desolate, a đàn bầu playing over a background drone. The sorrow and stillness are palpable. Other string instruments enter and the drone pedal-point is released. A sole đàn bầu remains as a deep sorrow descends, before Hugh Thompson again enters, surveying the ditch in horror and shock and despair. This intensifies and an edgy frantic call for help on the radio asking for medical help, and then asking why there is not medical help. This fades to an inane game show with inane humour and canned laughter, and it appears that Hugh has absolutely no control, and he is being scorned for having pity and compassion. This is followed by the sort of music one might hear at some sort of country dance.

The next track opens with the đàn tranh (a Vietnamese zither) playing a deeply moving and mournful tune, and this is later joined by the string quartet picturing the confusion as Hugh the pilot is hovering, wondering what he can do next. He knows that he has to go down. The music intensifies as a traditional xylophone enters soon, followed by the vocalist. He knows he has landed and that there is no turning back. He is anguished.

Listen — Jonathan Berger: First Landing: Descent (Mỹ Lai)
(SFW 40251 track 5, 6:09-6:48) ℗ 2022 Kronos Performing Arts Association :

The next track, Second Landing: Bunker, is very edgy and the horror unfolds. Hugh realises that he has to try and stop this. He is desperate. 'My Lord ... what a morning' comes back before he extorts his gunners to shoot at their own soldiers if they shoot the children in the bunker. He orders the captain on the ground to stop this, but realises that he will be forever caught up in this tragedy and will never be the same.

Listen — Jonathan Berger: First Landing: Descent (Mỹ Lai)
(SFW 40251 track 6, 3:32-4:23) ℗ 2022 Kronos Performing Arts Association :

The inane game show continues. Hugh tries not to engage, and he is asked what he ordered the crew to do, and he protests that the troops were not human, not soldiers. It then depicts a congressional hearing for which it appears that he is a scapegoat and justice will not be delivered. The whole thing is a travesty.

Third Landing: Postcard is a slow lament in which Hugh phones one of the gunners, but is unable to get through to him. He leaves a message, and that he does not have much longer to live. He muses that his two gunners were just boys, caught up in the madness of his crazy country, and that his crew showed great courage.

The last movement, Third Landing: Fishing, describes Hugh walking in the ditch and finding a small boy, about the same age as his young son. The boy has been badly wounded and he and his crew rescue the boy and fly him to the nearest city to be saved. This is the most touching movement and is poignantly beautiful, requiring great repose from the string quartet, superb vocal control by Rinde Eckert, terse writing at the beginning for the xylophone, and some sorrowful đàn bầu playing as the music fades to static.

This one of the most shocking and powerful works I have ever heard, and tells a story that must be remembered. It reduced me to tears on a few occasions. The skill of the Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ and the choice of Vietnamese instruments is a major part of why this music succeeds as does the consummate skill of the vocalist Rinde Eckert and the Kronos Quartet. This disk will shock you like very few other recordings will, and I believe Jonathan Berger has composed a masterpiece that will be remembered for a long time to come.

Copyright © 22 May 2022 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia







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