Jonestown Project: Painting with History

In late 1978 I took a charter flight from Tucson, Arizona to New York City. The stewardess came down the aisle, offering magazines. I can’t remember whether it was Time or Newsweek that I got, but the cover story was on the Jonestown tragedy. I had no idea as I read and re-read that article how profound an impact this story would have on my later life.

At the time, I was finishing up my college studies in geology at the University of Arizona and embarking on an unlikely career as a music critic, electronic composer, videographer and performance artist. In my musical composition, I was deeply interested in the sound of speaking voices. Music is, after all, profoundly influenced by language, by the rhythms, rise and fall of the vocal inflections of human speech. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was beginning to correlate traditional song and dance music from around the globe with regional linguistic patterns, and discovering that traditional song held a record of trade, wars and interaction throughout history.

My early compositions often featured bits of speech. I used tape loops to repeat certain passages I found rhythmically or melodically interesting. Preachers, politicians and newsmen became fodder for these early studies.

When Jim Reston, Jr.’s Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown was broadcast on public radio, I taped the program, listening intently as the tape spooled. It was a jaw-dropping, life-changing event. Never had I heard such drama or been so viscerally hit in the gut by a radio documentary. The story was gripping. Jim’s laugh seemed like evil incarnate, and the implications of what happened at Jonestown were stunningly profound.

I found myself sometimes listening to the broadcast over and over, then having to put it away for a while because it was too overwhelming. I needed to desensitize myself to it before I could actually start working with the material. It took several years before I could even start chopping it up for early tape loop studies, and even longer before I could share it with anyone but my closest friends. But over the next several decades, the material from this and other Jonestown tapes kept calling me back. Even in the earliest stages, I felt that this was an opera waiting to be created. But I had a lot to learn and much to experiment with before I felt I could meaningfully start on that course.

Opera in the late 20th century, particularly in American opera, has frequently referenced modern events. Examples of that include John Adams’ Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer (on the Achille Lauro hijacking), and Doctor Atomic (on the development of the atomic bomb), as well as Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (the latter based on Mahatma Gandhi’s development in South Africa of his non-violent philosophy), Jon Moran’s The Manson Family, and Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Tanya (on the Patty Hearst kidnapping). More recent historical events, from the life of Michael Jackson to Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency of the United States, beg for operatic treatment.

In every sense, the Jonestown tragedy is a tale of operatic proportion. From my standpoint as an electronic composer, being able to use digital technology to use snippets from the Jonestown tapes as rhythmic and melodic hooks, as well as story elements, takes opera to a new level. It is like painting with history.

Although still bogged down with trying to find funding for the project, I find that some elements are already taking shape. Trying to fund an opera with hundreds of participants is out of the question, so I’m trying to create a new musical theater experience that involves the use of video and live action to tell the story. The basic structure is a flashback of Jim Jones’ life, triggered by the gunshot that killed him, and ending with the sound of that gunshot again. I make no effort to speculate whether he shot himself or was shot by someone else.

Technology obviously figures largely in this opera. The voices of Jim and his followers will be “played” using digital sampling keyboards and other MIDI (musician instrument digital interface) triggered instruments. Using samplers it is possible to “map” a particular sound source to each key of the keyboard, and even to trigger different samples with a single key, based on the force with which one strikes that key. Current digital technology also allows one to shift sound samples in pitch, with or without time stretching them. Through this technology, whole sections of the tapes on a particular subject can be laid out and played with the keyboard, or just the beginnings of a particular phrase can be made to stutter by rhythmically striking the keys.

At one point a MIDI saxophone will be played, only instead of saxophone sounds, the keys of the instrument will trigger Jim Jones’ maniacal laugh.

Another technology puts a ghost choir at my fingertips. To create it, a real choir was sampled at every pitch and in every voice category, singing all of the vowels and the consonants. A separate piece of software allows one to phonetically shape words to accompany the choral chord progressions, thus making the keyboard-triggered choir “sing.”

Digital samplers similarly put virtually every instrument ever made at the disposal of the composer. And what sounds fall through the cracks can be created using synthesizers, instrument modeling software and effects plug-ins. It’s a far cry, in terms of ease and quality of sound, from the simple tape loops I started with.

Some will say that the piece relies too much of technology. But technology has always shaped the art of composers. Would Beethoven have been able to produce the drama he created without the invention of the fortepiano? Would Bach be Bach without the harpsichord and the organ? For that matter, would harmony and counterpoint be possible for Renaissance and baroque composers without the technology of notation?

Every opera has its own language, a combination of the tonalities and progressions employed, as well as the instrumentation and voices selected. Some of this is based on regional and temporal style, as illustrated by Italian opera of the late 19th century. In this genre there is a sense of progression as the language builds over time. There could be no Puccini without Rossini, Bellini or Monteverdi, and for that matter, no opera without the traditional folk songs and dances of the region.

In the 20th century, the advent of recordings and broadcast media forever changed music. One was no longer confined to the music of one’s particular ethnicity or region, let alone a common sense of style. Everything from rock and roots music to atonality and minimalism finds its way onto the modern operatic stage in one form or another. And in a very real sense, popular music (rock, funk, soul, hip-hop, etc.) is the folk music of our time.

My ideas for orchestration have evolved over the years as I have researched the project. In the 1990s, as I was writing a string quartet for the Kronos Quartet on the subject of Jonestown (“Soul Seduction: A Jonestown Scrapbook”), I found myself gravitating sonically toward a bitonal modal scheme similar to the curious-sounding Hungarian music that informed Bela Bartok’s music. Basically it involves two overlapping sets of musical modes, portions of which may have common tonal elements, but which when played simultaneously can produce quite discordant harmonies.

Using this bitonal musical scheme was an attempt at aurally representing the idea that Jim Jones was anything but what he appeared to be. Certainly he was not my idea of a preacher involved in God’s work. With the undercurrents of brutality and sexual exploitation, this sometimes shrill and often unsettling style of music-making seemed to fit the story. At the same time, I wanted to keep it funky. This was, after all, a contemporary musical story involving a great many African American followers. The quartet ended up being a darkly funky piece.

Around 2000 my focus shifted to seeing Jonestown in the context of the contemporary culture from which it sprang. While pawing through The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, I discovered that a few months prior to the Jonestown tragedy, the number one hit in America was the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”

At first that discovery seemed ironically funny. But it radically changed my thoughts about how the opera ought to go. As America danced and pointed at the ceiling in its “get-down” finery, hundreds were dying in the Guyanese jungle at the hands of a madman. The disco era, popular music of the 1970s, and the soul/gospel stylings of the Jonestown Express are now weaving their way into the evolving musical language of this opera, along with a variety of contemporary classical and purely electronic elements.

From a theatrical standpoint, many influences are coming together in this opera from my 30 years as a music critic. These include staging elements from many traditional operatic and theatrical productions, as well as avant-garde stage work involving a variety of video and multimedia techniques.

Another curious twist comes from the regional traditions of Southern Arizona’s Mexican American populations, especially the “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead tradition. Here the dead are seen as existing in a continuum with the living. They don’t go away. They are in us all. It is not a haunting. It’s a mingling of worlds, echoing the enduring cultural notion of the cyclical nature of time and life, a concept that dates back to the Mayan civilization. On the Day of the Dead in early November – coincidentally just a few weeks ahead of the Jonestown anniversary – families set up altars in their homes with pictures of the departed, along with foods and beverages the departed enjoyed in life, as well as mementos of other things they enjoyed on earth.

Miniature Day of the Dead figurines show skeletons playing instruments, cooking, playing cards, enjoying a drink, playing with their skeletal pets and generally going about everyday life. Outsiders to the culture see these figurines as macabre. Insiders see them as natural and healing.

I can’t tell you how this will manifest itself in the opera at this point. But there is a lot to understand and to forgive in the Jonestown story. It wasn’t just Father Jones who caused 900-plus people to either take their own life or have it taken from them. Not everyone went willingly, but many did. Many surrendered their own free will too easily, not only on the day of their deaths, but long before. Some tried to be a voice of reason in the final hour. But in the end, only a handful got away alive.

The fact that the structure of the opera begins and ends with the same event – the shooting of Jones – echoes the cyclical nature of time and human history at the heart of Day of the Dead celebrations. And as the sign behind Jim Jones’s “throne” in Jonestown read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Working with this material over the years has been an incredible journey, emotionally and intellectually. It has propelled me to investigate musical styles and experimental soundscapes I likely never would have delved into on my own. It has matured my voice as a composer, and helped me develop my musical storytelling.

It has put me on an unlikely course as well to meet others whose lives have intersected with the Jonestown experience. One is Wiley Ross, who back then was a young recording engineer in the Bay Area. He was among the first in the States to hear the Jonestown tapes. His job was to clean them up for broadcast shortly after their discovery. Ross and I became friends many years ago.

A year or so back we talked in the basement studio of the University of Arizona School of Music, where he currently works as a recording engineer. I asked him what he recalled most about those tapes. At first he said he didn’t want to even think about it. The tapes had given him nightmares. But eventually he recalled the gradual decrescendo, as the moaning and groaning of those being poisoned eventually faded out. That observation will, no doubt, influence me as I shape the overall contours of the drama.

Other folks I’ve met have had their own brush with Jonestown. The uncle of my massage therapist was a lawyer for the families of those who died. The secretary at the newspaper where I worked for 21 years had a relative who died there. I suspect I will meet many more whose lives were directly or indirectly impacted by Jonestown as I progress in working on this opera which, at the moment, is being delayed by funding cuts in the economic downturn. I also note the irony that an opera which sounds an alarm about charismatic leaders who take advantage of disenfranchised people in our society is being delayed at a time when more and more people find their lives in a state of upheaval, and could easily fall prey to a similar messianic figure.

But I’ve waited this long. The longer it takes, the better the technology becomes to tell the story, and the deeper my knowledge grows of this best documented example of cult behavior in modern times. Naturally if someone comes along who can help move this project beyond the current economic hurdles, I’d be eternally grateful. But somehow I will find a way to tell this compelling story.

Later this year, I plan to debut an offshoot work from the project – a suite of dance works titled “Jonestown Totentanz” – at Tucson’s Plush nightclub. The term “totentanz” means “dance of death.” In part the dances are an attempt to develop material for the opera in much the same way that John Adams created his “Chairman Dances” before “Nixon in China” debuted. In part too it’s an effort to keep the project alive and in the minds of Tucsonans, and to discuss the lessons of Jonestown.

You can find examples of my work on Jonestown materials and other projects, as well as studies for the opera, at my website.

In closing, I’d like to thank the Jonestown Institute, for its ongoing efforts to transcribe and make available the tapes from Jonestown. The meticulous transcription of the tapes featured on this page of the Jonestown Institute’s website have been the clearest window on the truth of Jonestown I have yet uncovered. As someone who has taped and carefully transcribed interviews for years in my career as a journalist, I can appreciate the care with which these source materials have been scrutinized. Without the enormous help of the Jonestown Institute, my operatic project would be a much thinner experience.

(Daniel Buckley can be reached at