Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
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Timpanist on a mission
Making sense of trauma's terror
Dissecting the string quartet

Timpanist on a mission

Peabody Conservatory faculty member Jonathan Haas has made a career, and pretty much a crusade, of bringing timpani to the front of the concert stage as a solo instrument. Once called by Ovation magazine "the Paganini of the timpani," Haas has performed a march for kettledrums dating from 1683, an 18th-century timpani concerto, and a forgotten composition for jazz timpani by Duke Ellington. He's recorded "Sweet Georgia Brown" and has a rock band called Clozshave in which he plays, yes, timpani.

On November 19 at the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York, Haas will perform a new concerto for double timpani composed for him by Philip Glass. The composition calls for two timpanists, 14 kettledrums, plus a 78-piece orchestra. Haas's characterization of it requires only one word: "Powerful."

More than a decade ago, Haas decided he wanted his own concerto. He had already performed a piece written by Glass for timpani and double bass, and the composer had enjoyed the performance. When Haas approached him about writing a concerto, Glass agreed. Then Haas had to find the money for the commission. He applied to an organization called Meet the Composer, which funds new work by contemporary composers. The application process required Haas to line up a consortium of six orchestras that would perform the work and also kick in some funds of their own. Haas ran up $2,800 in telephone bills dialing orchestras as far away as Anchorage, Alaska. He generated a 50-pound stack of application material, and was all set to send in the proposal when he picked up the New York Times and learned that the Metropolitan Opera had just commissioned Glass to write The Voyager. Meet the Composer, whose mission is to give badly needed money to underfunded composers, was not going to earmark precious funds for someone who had just landed a whopping commission from the Met. So Haas bided his time, never losing his desire for the concerto. "It was something I needed to do," he says. "It was this weird mission."

Timpanist Jonathan Haas (left) believes Philip Glass's new concerto to be the first ever written for double timpani

Cut to 1998. Haas was playing a concert with the contemporary EOS Ensemble in New York, and he learned that in the audience was Philip Glass. At intermission, Haas, in formal concert dress, found the composer standing on the sidewalk outside the concert hall and once again brought up the idea of a timpani concerto. "All right," Glass said. "You're on." Haas, enlisting the help of a grant writer this time, applied to Meet the Composer again, and the organization came through with a check.

The concerto requires two timpanists, and at the New York premiere, the second player will be Svetoslav Stoyanov, a 19-year-old Bulgarian student of Haas's at Peabody. Haas and Stoyanov also will play the piece in Baltimore with the Peabody Sympony next February 8.

Hass believes the composition to be the first concerto ever written# for double timpani. The timpanists play melody, build four-part chords, and contribute both harmony and rhythm to the orchestra. "I would love to play this all over the place," he says. "And that's what I'm going to do." --Dale Keiger

Making sense of trauma's terror

Defining psychological trauma, in a medical sense, and agreeing on what to do about it has been an enduring problem since 1860, when a British physician named John Erichsen first identified a trauma syndrome in victims following railway accidents. Hopkins humanities professor Ruth Leys examines the intellectual history of this problem of definition in a new book, Trauma: A Genealogy (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

In her book, Leys asserts that the concept of trauma has always been unstable, oscillating between two competing models, two different concepts of the psychological injury. Whichever model becomes ascendant has much to do with dictating the nature of treatment, as well as establishing legal precedent (in prosecuting war crimes, for example), and determining the outcome of court cases and liability settlements.

Leys refers to the two models as "mimetic" and "anti-mimetic." In the "mimetic," the victim of a traumatic event cannot remember the event in the conventional sense. The terror--experience of wartime rape in Bosnia, for example--is so extreme that the victim's mind splits, or dissociates. The horrifying event never enters normal memory, and thus can never be recognized by the victim as something awful that occurred in the past. What happens, instead, is that the event haunts the victim, resurfacing with horrible, vivid exactness as nightmares, flashbacks, or other experiences that make the trauma seem present and recurrent. "What's 'mimetic' about it," says Leys, "is that the trauma is believed to involve a kind of hypnotic imitation or identification." The victim responds to something as if following the suggestion of a hypnotist, with no memory of the experience that is prompting the response. And the victim may identify with the victimizer, as in the case of Stockholm syndrome, when torture victims, for example, begin to identify with their torturers. This concept of trauma underlies the current definition of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Therapists in the late 19th century, and especially during World War I, treated trauma with hypnosis, in an attempt to uncover the traumatic event and help the patient integrate it into a reconcilable past. This involved suggestion by the therapist, on the theory that the therapist could evoke a reproduction of the original terrifying event.

But was a memory recovered under hypnosis real? Or suggested by, or confabulated with, the hypnotist? If the patient was incapable of conventionally remembering the trauma, who could say? Had the "remembered" event taken place at all? To resolve this dilemma, theorists moved toward an "anti-mimetic" model as they tried to conceptualize trauma as an objective, external event that has befallen an unsuggestible, coherent subject who is not shattered into a trance state as in the mimetic model. This theory, which admits no subjective element of an individual's suggestibility, just a horrifying external occurrence that has altered his or her mind, lends itself, says Leys, to more scientistic interpretations of what takes place, including current neurobiological theories that posit literal physical changes in the brain of the victim.

What Leys traces in Trauma: A Genealogy is how these two theories have uneasily co-existed from the beginning, because one can't do without the other for long. The anti-mimetic model appears more objective, more scientifically grounded. But if trauma is thus defined as simply a neurobiological response to an external stressor, without elements of suggestibility, why isn't everyone traumatized by the same stressor? As Leys asks, "What if one person goes through an event that another person might regard as terribly traumatic, but in some fundamental way he remains unscathed?" The answer, she says, reintroduces subjective elements--perhaps one individual is more suggestible than another because the traumatic event seemed to repeat something in the first individual's past--that are central to the mimetic model. Arguing for one model forces you toward the other.

The consequences are more than just a long-running debate among theorists. In her book, Leys cites a 1998 war crimes tribunal which, for the first time, took up the issue of prosecuting rape as a war crime. The rape was of a Bosnian Muslim woman. The prosecution required her testimony as to the traumatizing events she suffered at the hands of Serbian soldiers. The defendants' lawyers argued that, in accordance with the definition of PTSD, the woman's testimony could not be admitted as reliable testimony because of her suggestibility. Her memories, said the lawyers, could not be considered reliable. The tribunal took a pragmatic course, admitted the testimony and found the accused soldiers guilty.

Dissecting the string quartet

The Shriver Hall Concert Series has, since 1965, presented a season of chamber music concerts on the Homewood campus. This year the series is following the model of its host university by presenting a seminar.

"Rediscovering the String Quartet" will take place throughout the day of November 18 at Shriver Hall. It will feature renowned pianist and Peabody Conservatory faculty member Leon Fleisher, the Bard Music Festival Quartet, and the New Horizons Ensemble. The program includes a panel discussion on the history of the string quartet, moderated by Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. Then comes a workshop led by Fleisher, in which the New Horizons Ensemble will perform a Mozart quartet and Beethoven's Quartet in C# minor, Opus 131. The musicians will frequently stop to explain how all the parts of the quartet fit together and what the composer was up to. Says William Nerenberg, managing director of the Shriver series, "It'll be like high school biology, when you got your first frog to dissect. You'll be able to see all the vital organs." The day will end with performances by New Horizons and the Bard quartet of works by Beethoven, Brahms, and contemporary composer Phanos Dymiotis.

A highlight of the program will be a two-handed performance by Fleisher. The virtuoso has rarely played with both hands since a disabling injury more than 30 years ago forced him to abandon most of the piano's repertory. But in recent years, he has regained sufficient use of his right hand to take on certain works. At Shriver, he will perform Brahms's Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Opus 60. --DK