Writing Propaganda and my work with the Jonestown Audiotapes

I am a composer living and working in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. My latest piece, called Propaganda, was premiered in May 2006 by Motion Ensemble in Sackville, New Brunswick. The 25-minute piece is written for flute, clarinet, violin, bass, percussion, soprano and six-channel audio.

The piece was written from January to April of this year, but my key research began two years ago. The original concept for the piece was to create something chilling and dramatic, that leaves the listener with a deep understanding of what “propaganda” is, how it works, why it works, where it comes from and where it leads. To truly achieve this, I realised the piece itself would not just be about propaganda, but should actually be or become propaganda.

My research began with Google. I soon had what would be my three main sources of material :

• A book by R.J. Lifton called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism – A Study of “Brainwashing” in China;

workingpsychology.com, “An introduction to Social Influence, Persuasion, Compliance & Propaganda” by Kelton Rhoads; and

• This website.

Lifton’s book and Rhoads’ website gave me all the theoretical and analytical material I would need. I was able to sketch out a structure for the piece in which I could cast a big enough dramatic net to show propaganda at work in the areas of religion, politics and advertising. I was looking for a sort of universal interpretation, not a protest piece, but something that got deeper into the workings of human nature.

That’s when I discovered the audiotapes link on this website. I had already listened to the famous NPR documentary Father Cares and was struck by the contents. I wanted similar audio material for the surround-sound component of my piece, and the Jonestown tapes looked like a very good possibility.

I scanned the FBI tapes summaries and transcripts and started taking notes. I was making choices “in the dark,” but had to start somewhere. I chose tapes whose descriptions included the possibility of music, choirs, other singing, sermons and rallies, and crowd reaction. I was especially interested in looking for crowd material.

I ended up with three separate orders of tapes, 48 in all. I digitised the cassettes into my computer and started listening. I broke down and categorised the material in several ways: First, I separated usable from unusable. This eliminated tapes that were of very bad audio quality. Then I broke them down into music, sermons, singing, and crowd reaction. I listened to some of the tapes many times, beginning to pull together excerpts and sections that began to shape the piece I was constructing. The process was quite “organic” and gradual. I was slowly finding the audio content and the order in which this content would appear, and writing the words and music that would intertwine and accompany this material.

It was a very gruelling and complex process, one that I was essentially making up as I went along. I’d never done a multimedia piece like this and I’d never attempted such a dramatic structure. Plus of course, there was the content: what I had started out imagining as a piece about the dangerous consequences of “mass persuasion” took on a whole new character when I more and more realised that the “plotline” of the piece was becoming the historical plotline of Jonestown itself.

The topic and the contents are extremely challenging and not at all conducive to black-and-white interpretations. That is I think the strength of the piece: it is not about “crazy people,” it is not about an “evil cult,” it is about our own need to follow a greater cause, to seek refuge, to gain strength and resolve from a strong leader and an energised group. And the veracity of this aspect of the piece is to a large extent demonstrated by the audio material. Jim Jones is a most powerful, persuasive, brilliant, skilled orator. What he says about social justice, peace, charity, activism, communality, I couldn’t help but agree with. The world definitely needs more highly motivated visionaries who can rally the energies and aspirations of their followers, who care about our fellow citizens, who care about the weak, the elderly, the sick, the poor and homeless. Jones sounded like a Christian crusader; the words were all there. But there was a lot more too. With the safety and benefit of hindsight, of being there but not being there that is provided by the audio recordings, I was able to construct a concise drama that follows the path of paranoia to its tragic conclusion.

I begin the piece with an audio section made from both synthesised sounds and manipulated found sounds. The opening sections sung by the soprano are about the fundamental tribal distinction of us vs. them, and the use of fear-mongering and paranoia that are so instrumental in building the consensus of hatred. At this point the piece has no Jim Jones content whatsoever. I introduce Jim Jones (by way of a simple two-part collage of excerpts from high-powered Jones sermons) about halfway into the piece. He sweeps us up. He is the Leader we have been waiting for and we are his Flock, we are his crowd. And through the use of surround sound, we are placed in his crowd, we are surrounded, we are led. The power of his message and the inflection, skill and energy of his delivery leave no doubt: we have to follow.

The other Jones excerpt I use is at the end of the piece. It is a slightly truncated version of the famous “war-whoop” speech. Once again I add several layers of extreme crowd noise, some of it extracted and edited from the Jonestown tapes themselves. By the use of simple filtering and manipulating of the crowd sounds, the interspersing of the Jones speech, and the adding of a “hymn of rejoicing and redemption” superimposed by the live players and singer, the piece has a very disturbing end. We feel in some ways like we’ve been there, perhaps not exactly in Jonestown itself, but we’ve experienced the immense persuasive powers of a charismatic leader like Jim Jones, and we’ve had a glimpse at why indeed a large group of people (also as exemplified by the singer) would follow him.

And hopefully the piece gives its listeners something to think about. Such as: how much are we being led every day? The techniques that Jim Jones uses in his rallies, aren’t they being used all the time, by our political leaders, by mass media advertising and news reporting? What difference is there between propaganda and education? Why are humans the only species that will follow an “unstable” leader?

(Paul Steffler can be reached at steffler@nb.sympatico.ca.)