Streets Become Liars

2015 | 19'  

Commissioned by Crash Ensemble
for 10 players and electronics

1(=picc).0.1(=bcl).0 - - perc - pno - egtr - 


Streets Become Liars is about two men in Kentucky who, from January 1967 until September 1968, had a brief but intense friendship.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard was an optician by trade who spent much of his spare time with his Rolleiflex medium-format camera. He created intricately posed scenes in the derelict buildings around Lexington Kentucky. He used his family as subjects but more often than not covered their faces in a variety of cheap halloween masks that became the signature of his work.

You don’t know the difference between the mask and what’s underneath it. You recognize it as being a mask but it’s on top of something else. Whatever else that’s underneath could be your mother or your father or me or anybody else in the world and you wouldn’t know the difference for sure. You might think you knew, but you wouldn’t know for sure who was under there. 

- Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Interview with Nathalie Andrews, 25 February, 1970

Thomas Merton was an American Trappist Monk, and prolific author of more than 70 books. He was a complicated man whose Catholicism and monasticism were constantly battling against his deep interest in eastern religions and philosophies, jazz music, and his love for Margie Smith, a nurse who cared for him after a surgical procedure in 1966.

While Meatyard was interested in literally masking his subjects, Merton was interested in the mask as a metaphor for one’s internal spiritual life:

We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real and which lives by a shadowy autonomy for the brief moment of earthly existence, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists. 

- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

This piece draws on audio recordings as its primary material: a small excerpt of an interview with Meatyard where he discusses his use of masks, and a recording which Merton made of himself singing the Cistercian Mass for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

The title is a quote from Merton’s posthumously published novel, My Argument with the Gestapo in which the semi-autobiographical narrator describes his disillusionment with wartime London:

Until, suddenly, sometime, not for everybody, and never for the innocent, the masks fall off the houses, and the streets become liars and the squares becomes thieves and the buildings become murderers.

- Thomas Merton, My Argument with the Gestapo

Streets Become Liars was commissioned with funds from the Canada Council for the Arts