30 June 2014
An AIDS Activist's Memoir in Music
Lyle Chan's String Quartet: An AIDS Activist's Memoir in Music was sketched in the early 1990s when Chan was one of Australia's leading AIDS activists. Some 20 years later, the work has finally been completed and will receive its first performance in three cities in July: Brisbane (5 July), Sydney (18 July) and Melbourne (24 July).
All art is autobiographical on some level. It can only be created out of an artist's values, and all values are formed from experiences.
I'm a composer who spent six years as an AIDS activist. I saw AIDS transformed from a frightening, nearly always fatal illness to what it is today, a manageable condition. It happened within a mere two decades of identifying the virus HIV. In the whole history of medicine, there had never been progress made at such speed with a disease so dazzling in its complexity.
My story as an AIDS activist in Sydney began when I was still living in Madison, Wisconsin. My first boyfriend, Geoffrey, whom I met when I was 21 in 1988, was HIV-positive. Mine was the first generation of gay men who never knew a time before AIDS. You had a choice: join the growing grassroots movement against AIDS, or be a bystander, but even as a bystander, you still had AIDS in your face.
Yet, I don't think I ever made a conscious choice to be an activist. I was swept up in a movement, one that saw lots of people surrender their normal lives because there was a war, and the artists who put art aside to be activists were just some of the people. For how long, we just didn't know.
We couriered AIDS treatments from the US that were unavailable here, we lobbied and protested against the federal government to approve experimental treatments more quickly, and we collaborated with drug companies to design clinical trials of promising new treatments.
During those years, I'd given up music to be an activist. But a composer is always a composer. I sketched a lot of music. The music was my diaries, a way of writing down feelings. I think of music as the sound that feelings make.
Some twenty years after these events, I began turning the sketches into performable pieces of music. Some sketches, like the one written after the long night my friend and fellow activist Bruce died, were almost performable. Others were fragments as small as a single line or a few bars of four lines, yet the emotion of the music was clear as day when I returned to compose them into performable music.
My 90-minute memoir quartet is the result. It contains reflections of historic events, portraits of activist friends now dead, and unusual effects like the use of police whistles to recall street demonstrations by ACT UP, the direct action protest group with which I did most of my activist work. It's just music that I wrote when I was reflecting on the day's events or even music to comfort myself. Sometimes it's agitated, sometimes tender, but always, I realise now, anchored in the beauty of the world that made it worth saving. Now I release this memoir back into the world to honour a people and a community from a long time ago that fought against the odds, and won.
Chan - AMC profile
Event details: 5 July at 7:30pm (Sandgate Town Hall, Brisbane, Queensland); 18 July at 8pm (Eugene Goossens Hall, Sydney, NSW) and 24 July at 6pm (Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, Victoria)
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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