Air india (redacted) exorcises terrorist act through art

At SFU Woodward’s, sound, words, and imagery combine in a multimedia work that draws on real memories and even jet noises

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      The journey begins, like another fateful voyage, with the sound of a jet airliner lumbering from terminal to runway. But while the passengers on Air India Flight 182 were listening to real Pratt & Whitney turbines—engines that would continue to thrum until a bomb shattered them just off the coast of Ireland—those attending the world premiere of air india (redacted) will hear the sonic chicanery of a chamber orchestra about to take flight.

      “The opening of the piece is a sequence of 23 different chords, which are derived from the sounds of a jet taxiing that I recorded and then used computer analysis to transfer into orchestral sounds,” explains composer Jürgen Simpson, reached at a downtown Vancouver hotel. “You actually hear the sound of the airplane, through the orchestra.”

      That’s a good example of the kind of imagination the Dublin-born Simpson has brought to his operatic collaboration with the Turning Point Ensemble. But it’s also emblematic of what the project is all about: making art out of unlikely materials, at least in part as an exorcism of the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.

      In all, 329 people—268 of them Canadian citizens—died in the Air India incident. The perpetrators are thought to have been Sikh militants, but only the Vancouver Island resident who built the bomb was ever convicted in court. And while the public’s memory of the 1985 event has been dulled by larger and more recent atrocities, those with a personal connection to the disaster are still struggling to make sense of their loss.

      That, perhaps, is where art can help. Art, and time.

      For Vancouver poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar, whose Children of Air India: Un/authorized Exhibits and Interjections serves as the basis for air india (redacted)’s libretto, both were necessary for her to process the deaths of her beloved aunt and uncle, passengers in the ill-fated Boeing 747.

      “Ultimately, sorrow finds its way into language, into images, into sounds,” Saklikar explains from her East Van home. “But I stored and carried those images and sounds for many, many years. I was 23 when the plane blew up, and I didn’t really talk about it much. My book covers that a lot. My book is a kind of meditation on silence, in many ways—the way we silence trauma in family, and in our lives. I feel that if you silence these things.…they can come up in other ways that are maybe even more problematic.”

      One small example, she suggests, might be the way that self-censorship once threatened her transition from a career in law to one in literature. It was only through dealing with her private history that she broke through a seemingly insurmountable creative block. “In order to just get writing, I started delving into this kind of like an archivist, going into all the many, many records,” she explains. “And that’s when I actually started dealing with it—over 25 years later.”

      Some 7,000 kilometres away, Simpson had reached his own impasse. An earlier attempt at a Flight 182 opera was going nowhere, but when Turning Point conductor Owen Underhill sent him a copy of Children of Air India, the fog lifted.

      “My response was ‘This is extraordinary, and if I could start over again, this would be the foundation upon which I would love to build,’ ” he recalls, citing Saklikar’s “docu-poetic” collage of heartfelt reflection, formal complexity, and found text from archival sources. “And then it transpired that there was the opportunity to reboot the project.”

      Just how air india (redacted)’s blend of Saklikar’s words, Simpson’s music, and John Galvin’s multimedia design elements will play out remains to be seen, but the poet says she’s impressed by the composer’s respectful use of her text, and by the virtuosic capabilities of the Turning Point musicians.

      One thing she’s not expecting to find, though, is closure. “Oh, no,” she says. “There’s never, never closure. It’s an open wound, but you go on.”

      The Turning Point Ensemble presents air india (redacted) at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s from Friday to next Wednesday (November 6 to 11).