On the Natural History of Destruction

ENS.2008.7 | 13′
Texts by W.G. Sebald & Walter Benjamin
Baritone & 2 Violas


I. Today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea…

II. There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus

III. Speer describes Hitler at a dinner

On the Natural History of Destruction has its origins in an emotional night following a devastating fight with someone I was very close to. Desolate, in the early hours of the morning I pulled from a shelf W.G. Sebald’s essays on air war and literature, whose disquieting bleakness and quotidian brutality seemed to match my own feelings at the time, and somehow began to set them to music. The entire piece was written in the hours between midnight and sunrise by hand on manuscript paper, though I barely remember doing it.

In this work an emotionless male voice declaims upon a limited range of pitches made unstable by quarter-tones while two violas numbly repeat phrases broken by the rhythms of the voice. The first movement sets the opening passage by Sebald ruminating on the ways in which people choose to forget pain and destruction, the second dramatizes the famous essay by Walter Benjamin on the angel of history, Angelus Novus (as quoted by Sebald), and the last movement sees Speer recalling Hitler’s terrible vision of the obliteration of London by his bombers.

This work should be performed in darkness, performers spotlit, violists either flanking the singer at the beginning and at the start of each movement gradually moving away, abandoning him, or starting at the edges of the stage and gradually crowding him until they form a claustrophobic group at the center of the stage.