War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Listener's Guide to *Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation*

A Listener’s Guide to:
Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation
Based on a concept and the libretti of SMSteele
(CFAP/Task-Force 3-09 Afghanistan)

Composed by Jeffrey Ryan
copyright Jeffrey Ryan/SMSteele

Listen to the CBC Broadcast of Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation


Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, is a collaboration between composer Jeffrey Ryan and SMSteele, which follows the structure of a traditional Catholic Latin requiem mass for the dead. The work is based on the libretti of SMSteele following her experience as a war artist from 2008-2010 and was composed in 2011-2012 by award-winning composer, Jeffrey Ryan. The piece was commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and One Yellow Rabbit Productions, and premiered 10, November 2012 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, conducted by Maestro Roberto Minczuk.

The soloists include: soprano Zorana Sadiq, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Hass, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, and baritone Tyler Duncan. Other performers include: the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus (Timothy Shantz conductor), and the Cantaré Children’s Chorus (conducted by Catherine Glaser-Climie).

The movements chosen by the collaborators include the: Requiem Aeternum; Kyrie; Dies Irae; Offertorium; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Lux Aeterna; Libera Me, and In Paradisum.

The work is written for four soloists—soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone— representing a medic, a soldier’s beloved, an “everyman” soldier, and a soldier suffering from war injury (PTSD). The adult choir represents parents, family, friends, soldiers, and the war engine (including a helicopter). The children’s choir alternately represent Afghan children, children of soldiers everywhere, angels, and a flock of birds.

Though the structure and Latin text have been stripped to its barest—in reflection of a post-religious generation engaged in the Afghan war—the requiem retains fragments of the ancient Latin rite, as well as English and French (the official languages of the NATO mission), and Pashto – one of the Afghan languages—set to contemporary symphonic and vocal music. The music incorporates traditional Afghan modes, intense time signature changes, lyric and percussive vocal and musical lines and orchestration.

The references to Christ and God in this piece have been confined to desperate invocation, in recognition of our barest selves and a “post-Christian” or ecumenical context, and in recognition of the cliché that there are “no atheists in the trenches”. The use of technical military jargon, or language, and the soldier vernacular, has been included to give the work a sense of timeliness, veracity, and location. The Pashtun, primarily sung by children (representing the Afghan children in the war), represents the presence of children in the warzone, and the author is grateful to the Afghan interpreters who advised on this.

Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation is both a meditation on the stages of grief—disbelief, shock, bargaining, profound depression, confusion, reluctant acceptance—hope for redemption, and a love letter to all who lost and suffer, or who have lost. Structurally, the requiem is fragmented, often frenetic, and sometimes is close to silent as it reflects the fragmentation and dislocation of war.

Ultimately, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation is a plea to us all to stop for just one hour of our lives and to contemplate/listen/hear the voices of all who suffer, especially the children who suffer, “I’m so cold”, as they sing in Pashto in the second movement, the Kyrie. It is the children for whom we live, hope, and to whom we promise a better life. And it is they—children in warzones, and children of soldiers everywhere, who suffer the most as they endure war everywhere and at all times—they never signed up for this.

The “characters” in this requiem are not based on any real persons, alive or dead, but are fictitious amalgams of the many, many people with whom I shared just a tiny portion of a road to war and back. I sincerely hope that this work gives them some sense that someone was listening to them and wishes them true peace.

The following is a brief précis of the movements with some of the text. A full-text has been published as a chapbook and will be republished with illustrations.

I Requiem aeternam (Prologue The North)

The opening movement begins with images of landscape from the far north, as a Medic (healer) sings a call to prayer in English but in Afghan musical modes. The imagery of natural beauty of a winter solstice night in the far north, rapidly begins to become embedded with the language of war (“[white] phosphorus”, “frag”):

Winter moon, winter stars/Seeded like pomegranate/Phosphorus flecks Elk Island sky/Stars frag silver, gold, winter night,/Lapis lazuli.

A woman, the Lover, asks for the return of her lost beloved, ‘Lost heart, lost head, his beauty/Sharded, si mort, so dead/Through dust … through ash … through war/Relentless sand/Afghanistan’.

The chorus begins the Latin Requiem, but it is a low rumble, like an idling Light Armour Vehicle (LAV), the rumble of war.

Together (though physically apart), the women—as every-women—ask, “Who made this,You? How could you/Turn a hand towards them then against—/Storks, roses, children, mothers, lovers/What happens in your desert, Afghanistan …”

The fragmented Soldier 1 enters, he is home but cannot come home, his mind is shattered in the desert with the loss of his men: ‘O Christ the sun, the sun/I’m split, I’m done/Embered jaw … I want them back …”

A second “Everyman” Soldier 2 sings (from a great distance away) to his suffering friend, ‘Wolf! Un loup traverse le lac/Qu’il est beau comme la patience … la fidélité … comme vous …’. He urges his friend to see the wilderness, and the beauty of the lone wolf crossing the lake in winter, as a sign of redemption/hope.

Soldier 1 sings “I live I’m dead I’m skinned alive … I’m blind/I fall I fail/I’m done I’m damned …”

The chorus begins to chant the chaos in Soldier 1’s head, mixing the landscape of home with the landscape of the war in Afghanistan: “Break/icy/trail/patrol/the stroll/the heat/the IEDs/the RPGs/ambush/ambush/ambush/alley/martyr hill …”

The Lover and Soldier 2, sing the points of the compass to Soldier 1, “North/le sud/East/l’ouest”. The adult chorus begins to sing the points of the compass to the confused, suffering Soldier 1.

Soldier 1 imagines an ambush, “An axe my life it splits my skull is bashed a rusty axe/and Christ is in the seasoned wood/my axe is dull o/God they hide”.

His beloved reassures him, “I’m tracking you, I’ve got your back/I’ll hold, I’ll bear you …/See you through, never abandon you/You’re home now /new fallen snow/not sand, patience love, my faith holds you/safe I’ll bring you home from Afghanistan …”.

Soldier 1 names all his dead men: “Scott, Doggy Boy, Andrews, Andrews! McTodd, my old comrade Johnny V/I said “I’ll bring you home alive …/I am guilt … shame …”.

The Lover urges him, “Soie tranquille …/Love, silent as wolf tracks in new snow, this winter/solstice, delicious as our bed/ … let me carry you through the longest night/bring you home/from the dead … our bodies/generous, so generous is love/after war”.
She sees a raven flying above them in the stillness and silence of the winter north, tells her beloved to “Look above! Raven! Corvus corax!”

Soldier 1 believing the raven is a sign from his dead officer Andrews sings, “Andrews! Un corbeau! Andrews! Alive!”

II Kyrie

The children’s choir open the movement with the evocation, “Kyrie eleison [Lord have mercy]”. The Kyrie is a key that opens up the barely-supressed fear and grief of this movement. Simultaneous, it is the beginning of an invocation for redemption.

The adult choir as parents begin their haunting lament, a “pre-grief”, to their children so far from them in the desert at war: “O my son, o my daughter/ o mons fils, o ma fille/Can you hear me?” The ghostly distance of the vocal score and orchestra, evokes the thick sheet of ice that grief lurks beneath in the IVth Movement, of the de profundo lacu, and the frustrating echoes and distance of a phone call from the desert on a Satellite phone.

As the parents lament, Soldier 2, sitting by a smouldering fire, writes home. He sings: “Dear Mom, Cher papa/cold, I’m cold/que j’ai froid, si froid …/it’s raining ice/it’s raining cold … we hunker here by smoking stoves …/the food, our heads, nos coeurs sont froid/our beds, nos lits sont froids/so cold/we’re missing home …”

The children’s choir sing in Pashto, “Zhe der yakh yem [I’m very cold]”.

Soldier 2 continues: “the winter blaze, le feu d’hiver … de la famille/home’s winter fire so far from us/ … et maintenant le danger est notre feu [now danger is our fire]/o Mother, cher Papa … I’m so damned cold …”

The parents sing their lament, “O mon fils, o ma fille/O my daughter, o my son …” and the movement fades.

III Dies Irae (Days of Thunder)

The movement begins with a quiet but suspenseful orchestration that rapidly gains momentum as a soldier on patrol is injured by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and a 9-liner, an emergency medical evacuation, is called out.

The Medic and Lover sing, “T Triple C [combat first aid], 9 line/Role 3 [combat hospital] jet to Germany [advanced combat medicine in Germany]” and urge the injured soldier to “Fight!/Soldier/Breath…”. The chorus chants, “Fight! [to breathe]”.

The two soldiers repeat the women’s lines, then add, “Breathe hang on to tubes and /wires not twisted trips dust, cobra/traps lash smash bloody grab/blast/Hideous misstep fuck IED/fucking fucking IED limbs bleed/out almost gone O2 Sats [Oxygen saturation], chatter/radio net/Wheeze life support not Apache/fast air Chinook [helicopter] fast air over/KAF [Kandahar Air Field] out of there …”.

While the chorus begins to make the sounds of a helicopter evacuating the injured soldier, the women echo the soldiers’ words, “Smash/Bloody grab/O2 Sats … Breathe/Breathe”.

The two soldiers urge their injured man to “Hang on breathe hang on son/Son/Son!/We wait we wait/will to live/Will you to live will you live/… Hang on son … almost gone breathe son breathe/Over the red desert you’re almost gone…”.

All choruses and soloists sing, “Hang on!”

The soloists sing “O God John/O God John”.

The chorus sing a descending “Dies irae, dies illa/Solvet saeculum in favilla/Mors stupebit et natura/Cum resurgent creatura [The day of wrath, that day/Will dissolve the world in ashes/Death and nature will marvel/when creation arises]”.

IV Offertorium

This movement begins with the Beloved (mezzo) grieving at the news of the death in the desert just two days before the lost one is to come home. The woman sings of grief as being a “De profundo lacu ‘[bottomless, dark lake]” where “Grief hides beneath the ice/I wait for you my beloved, I wait/Cannot breathe the thousand deaths of who you/were, who you are/unrecognizable, a thousand/ petals, a thousand kisses fall, a thousand cries …”.

The Beloved begs grief to “Hold me down … drown me/force my face beneath this icy sheet …”, then speaks to her dead, “O were I dead with you …I am dead with you in this death …”. She sings the Latin, “Libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum/de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu [Free the souls of all the faithful departed/from infernal punishment and the bottomless lake]”.

The chorus, as parents/next-of-kin, try to make a bargain with death and offer two days (or any number of days) of their own lives in order that their lost ones might live those two days more and come home safely, “If we could give you two days, just two days/Those two/Si nous pouvions te donner deux jours, seulement/Ces deux-là/We have so many …/Too many days, trop de jours/If we could give you …/We’d forfeit, si je pouvais/give them all/si nous pouvions/… for you/Deux jours, to live just two more days …/Cars sans toi il y a trop de jours [because without you there are too many days]/My daughter, ma fille, my son, mon fils …”.

The soloists sing “Libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum/de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu [Free the souls of all the faithful departed/from infernal punishment and the bottomless lake]”.

V Sanctus

The children’s choir sing, “If metal rain [ordinance] made blossom/Then desert birds would sing again”.

The male chorus sing, “Sanctus/Sanctus/Sanctus [Holy, holy, holy]” as the body of the young soldier comes home.

The Medic sings, “He’s come home again/Sweet sting, prairie Spring, he’s come home again/Moon-dust Afghanistan washed from his body, his face/A fine Chinook [helicopter and a western wind] blessed him with soft rain …pushing silver, blue flax, opening again/Blades of grass, the fox feathering/New born Pasque [wild anemone], brown hawks circling, conquering earth/sky as once he traversed/Fatigue, despair, ricochet, near miss, glanced bullet/Heat, KAF’s putrid, poison, lousy air/His left right left into wire spider trap/Afghan winter his last/That boy tried so hard to inhale, breathe/Hang on to Spring, hang on to Home”.

She finishes with resignation, “O now comes the petalling/Now comes their[the next-of-kin] shattering—season forever emptying/Now comes the never shall be.”

VI Agnus Dei

The chorus begins to sing the traditional “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem/dona eis requiem sempiternam [lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us … grant us peace”.

Soldier 1 and Soldier 2, reconnaissance soldiers (“reccie”) are sitting at a table drinking beer after war, swapping war stories with buddies. They tell the story of the time they were “Outside the wire/Waaay outside the wire …” and of being “Radio’d back after Andrews died …”, of meeting an old Afghan farmer along the way. They stop to search him and end up bargaining for one of the lambs—one black, one white—that he is dragging along to market. The old man slaughters the black one and heads off towards the market, while the soldiers bivouac for the night, pry the grill off the front of their vehicle and roast the lamb, their first hot meal in 40 days, “The best damned meal I think I’ll ever eat!”

VII Lux Aeterna

Fly Little Ones Fly Over Us

The children’s chorus are birds that fly in, one-by-one. First a single blackbird/raven flies in, then gradually many varieties of colourful Afghan birds. They circle the word “Lux [light]” then slowly fly off, one by one, until only the blackbird is left, and it too flies out of the movement.

Children’s Chorus:

Black bird, raven, Corvus corax, frugilegus, splendens, woroogh , woroogh
(common raven, rook, Asian house crow, raven)

Merghay, Hudhud, Totee, Shintagay, Qamargulay
(Sparrow, lapwing, parakeet, blue tit, nuthatch)

Wayendokay, Totee, Wotowaat, Wotowaat
(Babbler, parakeet, martin)

Gobakah! Gobakah!

Gulsar, Sayrah, Bulbul, Mashay khoronkay
(Rose finch, gold finch, nightingale, night jar)


Mashay khoronkay, Bulbul, Sayrah, Gulsar
(Night jar, nightingale, gold finch, rose finch)

Gobakah! Gobakah!

Wotowaat, Totee, Wayendokay, Wayendokay
(Martin, parakeet, babbler)

Qamargulay, Shintagay, Totee, Wayendokay
(Nuthatch, blue tit, parakeet, lapwing, babbler)

Woroogh, corvus frugilegus splendens corax, raven raven…
(Raven, Asian house crow, rook, raven)

VIII Libera Me

In this movement the Medic, working in triage in Afghanistan, frantically asks for guidance as to whom she should choose for immediate medical care, while the chorus punctuates the Medic’s desperation with “Libera [free me]”.

The Medic sings, “Which one … tell me, which one?/Our boy bleeding out, almost gone/The broken child, the burnt, the blind/The mother in labour? Which one in this house of pain [the emergency tent], I love them/you see, all of them/God help me”.

After the Medic finishes, Soldier 1, home, and after a long period in the wilderness, is beginning to find some semblance of himself. He sings “Somewhere the wolf is free/Somewhere the stacked wood …/the wind sweet is free/Somewhere I am, somewhere I am me/…the hawk/the wild grass …/the mountains, the almond trees/the river cool and green/the moon, the sun, the winter stars/Somewhere I am, somewhere I am me”.

The chorus sing “Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra/Dies magna/Saeculum per ignem/Tremens factus/Libera [When the heavens and the earth shall be moved/judgement by fire/I am made to tremble]”.

The Lover tells her beloved, “Que tu est beau comme la patience? … la fidélité/…comme le loup [you are beautiful as patience, faithfulness, as the wolf]”.

Soldier 2 asks “Libérez-les de la jalousie/… de l’envie/…de la culpabilité/…de tote les douleurs [free them from jealousy, envy, guilt, all sorrow]”.

The Medic asks to be freed, “Libera. God help me.”

IX In Paradisum

The children sing, “In Paradisum deducant te Angeli [May angels lead you into paradise]”.

The chorus as parents, husbands, wives, lovers, sing to their loved ones who are leaving to remember them, remember the scent of lilacs in spring, to use them a lodestone to bring them home safely again.

As the chorus sing “Lilacs”, the soloists recite, chant, or sing all the major battles of the past century, beginning with Ypres.

The chorus sing, “I say lilacs are heavy flower/ … [we] I cut them … this, your last spring before you go over/Hammer stalks, draw jars of cool, clean water/Place lilacs on all wish altars/that your portraits might inhale colour/sweet drifts of lilac smoke/…carry the lodestone of soft lilac/It will bring you home safe. whole/…smell …see the incense of lilacs/…remember all of this/the cutting, the water, the placing, incantations/over and over again/Remember love, my love, the lilacs in spring/Our winter fire waits for you patiently/to come home to us, to come home to me”.

The Requiem ends with the soloists singing “Chorus angelorum te suscipiat et cum Lazaro,/quondam pauper, aeternam habeas requiem [May the angels lead you into paradise, and with Lazarus, once poor, may you have eternal rest]” joined by the choruses who all ask for “Requiem/Dona eis requiem/Dona nobis requiem [Grant them peace/Grant us peace]”.

About This Page

The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Listener's Guide to *Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation*. It was posted here on November 10, 2013.


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