This piece is four minutes long, and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I actually recommend that you listen to it before reading the rest of this post (rather than after), because when you finish, the following few paragraphs might help you to transition back into the rest of your day. Parents at an Execution was produced by the people at Sound Portraits; I first heard it in a group-listening situation, and the room was completely filled with silence when the piece completed. We needed time for it to sink in. If the discussion leader hadn’t said something, we may have just let it sink in all morning.
After all the sinking I’ve done with this piece, this is what I’ve come up with: this piece conveys a type of intimacy that can only be accessed with audio.
It presents three voices: a murder victim’s mother and father, and the convicted suspect’s mother. None of the characters interact with each other, but the editing of this piece very tightly intertwines the voices.
That’s the first part of what strikes me: each interview was conducted separately, but the voices make their own kind of dialogue with each other. The topic is so weighty that they wouldn’t have known what to say if they had been talking to each other, but they don’t need to talk directly to each other. The audio production process allows these people to have a necessary emotional space; in that space they can whisper their most intimate feelings and still be heard. The tone and content are far more intimate than would have been feasible if these parents had been close enough to hear one another at the time of the interviews.
What happens next is the thing that gives me goosebumps: the piece takes you to a place where all three characters can sit together. Where is it? The execution chamber. No, I’m not saying the producers recorded audio there (in fact, the anticipated execution didn’t actually occur - it may never occur - this is part of the nature of death row). What they do is select clips of each character saying whether they plan to attend the execution. And as soon as they talk about that place, you imagine that place. It’s impossible not to.
The victim’s father is there. Both the father and mother’s voices sound like the voices of white people, so you imagine them to be white people. The victim’s mother’s says she may or may not attend the execution - her voice guards any traces of emotion. The man being executed is there; you can imagine him looking at his mother, who pours emotion from her voice as she says “I gotta be a witness,” in a distinctly African American accent. The testimonies of these parents take on a new dimension when I imagine them all in one space together. Somehow when I envision them in a space, I feel like I can hear them more clearly.
Even though they don’t talk with each other, you hear them talking with each other.
Even though they didn’t sit together, you see them sitting with each other.
The result is like nothing else.
At the end of this piece, take your time to let things digest - you’ve been through a uniquely intimate experience.
Parents at an Execution
Produced in 2003 by Karen Callahan and Matthew Ozug at Sound Portraits.