Deceptive Cadence
8:29 am
Thu October 10, 2013

A Veteran Traces America's Biography In Music, From Coney Island To Vietnam

Originally published on Tue October 8, 2013 4:29 pm

One summer night in 1969, Kimo Williams went to a rock concert in Hawaii, which led to one of the two most important decisions of his life.

"I started out on guitar. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix," Williams says.

The day after he saw Hendrix play the Waikiki Bowl, Williams made the other decision: He joined the Army. He spent the following year in Vietnam as a combat engineer. Surprisingly, that's where his musical career took off, with a band of GIs touring South Vietnam.

"They'd put us in the middle of a firebase just before they got attacked, for us to give them some music," Williams says. "We were up in Da Nang. We would set our guitars down in mud. I knew I was making a difference in the lives of these soldiers; I knew music was the direction I'd be going in."

And it wasn't just for others that Williams became a composer. Music was the only language he could use to explain how he felt about the war. When he got home from Vietnam, he found a country that didn't want to hear about where he'd been. Williams says he's glad that's not happening to vets today.

"It's entirely different than an Iraq, Afghanistan vet — because we had to shut up," he says. "Now they are allowing these veterans to talk about their service. The Vietnam vet coming back ... was a problem that you just didn't talk about."

Williams used GI Bill money to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and he started composing. He saw the Oliver Stone movie Platoon in 1986, with his wife and collaborator Carol Williams, and decided there were ways to talk about the war in public. In 1990, his Symphony for the Sons of Nam premiered in Savannah, Ga.

The symphony was performed all over the country. Williams started writing more music inspired by his time at war. But conductors and composers told him not to get stuck doing just one thing.

" 'It's time to move on, Kimo. You did your Vietnam piece; it's time to move on and do something else,' " Williams says, recounting the words of his peers. "And I said, 'Yeah, you know, you're right.' And I sat down and thought about it. And then it hit me — that I can't get away from it. Vietnam is a part of who I am."

Williams says his identity as a combat veteran still comes through even when he sets out to write about something else. That was the case recently when the New York City-based string quartet Ethel commissioned a piece from Williams based on thousands of photographs from an archive called Documerica.

Documerica was formed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s to document American life and landscapes, especially with an eye on the environment. Williams says he was drawn to the waterways, which he used as an autobiographical theme, stretching from the beach at Coney Island in Brooklyn to fishing in the Mississippi River to surfing in Hawaii. But the final scene was Vietnam: a military hospital on the beautiful beach of Cam Ranh Bay.

Ethel will premiere Williams' Documerica-inspired work, A Veteran's Lament, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight, along with other pieces inspired by the photos. Ralph Farris, who plays viola in the quartet, says he knew he wanted Williams for a project about the fabric of America.

"He came to us as a real revelation as the perfect guy for this project," Farris says. "There's an American flavor to his work, clearly underscored by the fact that he is a veteran."

Decades after Vietnam, Williams says he can talk about Vietnam now, and there is open discussion of issues like PTSD. But there are things he still can't explain with language.

"I want to leave something with you that helps you understand, [in a way] deeper than words, what that experience meant to me," he says. "And so I was able to do that through music."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

War veterans often struggle to explain their experience to civilians. That was especially true when Vietnam veterans came home. They were not, after all, welcomed as heroes the way today's vets are.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has the story of one Vietnam veteran who couldn't talk about the war, so he composed symphonies about it instead.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: One summer night in 1969, Kimo Williams went to a rock concert in Hawaii. That led to one of the two most important decisions of his life.

KIMO WILLIAMS: I started on guitar. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix.

LAWRENCE: The next day, after he saw Hendrix play the Waikiki Bowl, Williams made the other decision. He joined the Army. He spent the following year in Vietnam.

WILLIAMS: I was a combat engineer, January 1970 to November 1970.

LAWRENCE: His musical career started there with a band of GIs touring South Vietnam.

WILLIAMS: They would put us in the middle of a firebase just before they got attacked, for us to give them some music. So we were up in Da Nang and we would set our guitars down in mud. And I knew that I was making a difference in the lives of these soldiers.

LAWRENCE: Williams got out and used GI bill money to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and he started composing. In 1990, his "Symphony for the Sons of Nam" premiered in Savannah, Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SYMPHONY FOR THE SONS OF NAM")

LAWRENCE: A march gives way to silence and then blasts the sound like mortars landing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SYMPHONY FOR THE SONS OF NAM")

LAWRENCE: Then a quiet horn survives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SYMPHONY FOR THE SONS OF NAM")

LAWRENCE: The symphony was performed all over the country. Williams started writing more music inspired by his time at war. But conductors and composers told him, no, do something else.

WILLIAMS: It's time to move on, Kimo. Now, you did your Vietnam piece. Now you need to move on and do something else. And I said, yeah, you know, you're right. Then I sat down and I thought about it. And then it hit me that I can't get away from it; that Vietnam is a part of who I am.

LAWRENCE: Combat veterans say war defines their identity. And it's hard to explain the experience to someone who hasn't been there, even more so for Vietnam vets.

WILLIAMS: It's entirely different than Iraqi, Afghanistan vet because we had to shut up. Now they are allowing these veterans to talk about their service. The Vietnam vet was a problem that you just didn't talk about.

LAWRENCE: Williams says those pent-up feelings came out in music. And his experience, his identity as a vet, still comes through even when he sets out to write about something else. Most recently the Ethel String Quartet, in New York City, commissioned a piece from Williams based on a government photography archive from the 1970s called "Documerica." The images of lakes and rivers and coasts inspired Williams, but also reminded him of Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A VETERAN'S LAMENT")

WILLIAMS: This is coming back from Vietnam... coming back, I'm flying back, then I land back home.

LAWRENCE: Williams played the score off his computer.

WILLIAMS: And this is a motif that starts with the first violin melody.

LAWRENCE: The result is a piece called "A Veteran's Lament."

WILLIAMS: ...very hard to do; I can't wait to hear these guys do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A VETERAN'S LAMENT")

LAWRENCE: The Ethel String Quartet has been practicing "A Veteran's Lament." Williams will get to hear the quartet premiere his piece tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ralph Farris, on viola, says he knew he wanted Williams for a piece about the fabric of America.

RALPH FARRIS: You know, actually, he came as a real revelation, as the perfect guy for this project. I just - there's an American flavor to his work, clearly underscored by the fact that he is a veteran.

LAWRENCE: Decades after Vietnam, the country is different. You can talk about war now. But Williams prefers a different language.

WILLIAMS: You know, I want to leave something with you that helps you to understand deeper than words what that experience meant to me. And so I was able to do that through music.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A VETERAN'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.