U.S. Soldier Composes Aural Landscapes of Iraq Sgt. William Thompson IV, a soldier currently deployed in Iraq, is a third-generation jazz musician from New Orleans. But during his time in Iraq, he's turned to a different musical form: Using his laptop, he records the sounds of war and incorporates them into compositions that he posts online.
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U.S. Soldier Composes Aural Landscapes of Iraq

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U.S. Soldier Composes Aural Landscapes of Iraq

U.S. Soldier Composes Aural Landscapes of Iraq

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Army Sergeant William Thompson is a Reservist from Louisiana, serving in Iraq. He was called up just before graduating from the University of New Orleans. Now after 18 months in Iraq, Thompson is coming home to no home after Hurricane Katrina. His wife is with relatives in Mississippi. Like many in his unit, Thompson faces daunting financial and psychological challenges when he returns next week, but Thompson has a tool to cope: his music. The third-generation musician has composed his thoughts on his laptop. He sent them back via the Internet. Howard Mandel has his story.

HOWARD MANDEL reporting:

Creating electronic music is not something William Thompson had long dreamed of doing. His grandfather was a Dixieland band leader in 1930s and '40s; his mother a singer. He taught himself to play piano as a child growing up to the sounds of New Orleans rhythm and blues.

Sergeant WILLIAM THOMPSON IV (US Army): Professor Longhair and Fats Domino and Huey Smith and all that good stuff. But as I've gotten older, I've just gotten into more modern music to the point that now it's almost like I'm more into, like, free music than I am anything at this point.

MANDEL: Before being deployed, Thompson was studying mainstream jazz under pianist Ellis Marsalis, and gigging in New Orleans clubs with the trio.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Thompson had enrolled in a National Guard Reserve Unit, mostly for its educational benefits. He never expected to be sent to Iraq.

Sgt. THOMPSON: Then I got deployed, and I just kind of bought a PowerBook G4, you know, like, at a whim. You know, it's, like, prior to that, I really had no interest in computers at all, you know. That kind of stuff really turned me off, to be honest with you, but it's been a very interesting thing since I've started.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Thompson creates his music each night in a makeshift studio in the trailer in Iraq he has shared with another soldier for more than a year.

Sgt. THOMPSON: My purpose is to portray one soldier's one-year tour in Iraq through music. It's really a journal, an online musical journal.

(Soundbite of music)

Sgt. THOMPSON: I mean, without it, I don't know how I'd survive in Iraq. It's really my thing that keeps me feeling like I'm, like, me. And military intelligence is a big contrast from, you know, jazz pianist, you know, in New Orleans, Louisiana. It's a big difference.

MANDEL: That difference was evident upon Thompson's arrival in Iraq.

Sgt. THOMPSON: On the way in, it's a crazy flight because you're in C-130, which is a big cargo plane. And the plane just, like, drops, because they're trying to avoid, you know, whatever anti-aircraft weapons there are out there, you know. So that was scary. You know, we found out that somebody had shot a missile at us while we were flying, and that was kind of a shock. And then once you get there, you know, I was surprised at how nice some of the things were there, like the living conditions. But then also, you've got, like, things exploding all over the place, and, you know, it's kind of freaky.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Kind of freaky is the way many people might describe Thompson's music. He uses static as a rhythm instrument and incorporates eerie ambiances, like the whirring of an air conditioner, overheard conversation or random bits of shortwave radio that he records on his iPod. He says he adapted quickly to this new technology, but Thompson is less about the medium than about he moods he tries to capture, which he says come spontaneously.

Sgt. THOMPSON: You can't help it. If you live in, like, a very peaceful environment, you're very happy, then that's what it's going to sound like, you know? But like if you're in a war, people are dying, and so that definitely comes out in your music because it's just part of--it just emanates from you.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: William Thompson's music draws strong reactions from jazz violinist Billy Bang, who's tried to express his own experience of war through music. Bang served in Vietnam in the 1960s, but it took him more than 40 years to come to terms with being in combat.

Mr. BILLY BANG (Jazz Violinist): He's taken advantage of the fact that he's there as an artist, which is what I did not do when I was in Vietnam. I was only as a soldier, a combat soldier, but I really appreciate what he's doing. A lot of times, it's before something happened, or even after something happens, these moments where there's a lot of introvertedness, where you're just thinking about what's going to happen or what already happened. And then I heard words in the background. And I'm not sure if I heard the word `Iraq,' and it sounded like I did, and I thought that was effective, very effective.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: William Thompson says he's never intended to write political music. He simply posts his compositions online at his Web site wativ.com, so that people in the States can get a musician's sense of life in a war zone.

Sgt. THOMPSON: You really get a feeling for what these people are going through. Their lives are falling apart for whatever reason. They're emotionally destroyed, you know, Iraqis mainly. But it goes the same way, soldiers the same, you know. Like, I've seen my friends come back from patrol, and they've been burnt and had shrapnel in their bodies, and their faces are covered with blisters and stuff from some explosion that happened on the side of the road.

And as a result, the music I'm writing is so intense, I think, that it's really emotional. And that's why some people say it's dark or scary is because every day--I don't even have to think about it. It's not something I have to contrive. It's just, like, my existence is just, like, really intense and focused and scary and--but somehow peaceful at the same time. It's a really weird place to be in. I don't know how to explain it.

MANDEL: Thompson's deployment was extended beyond its initial term through the military's stop-loss policy, yet he's remained intent on making the most of his time overseas. Besides composing he's posted letters from the front online and has been jamming with an Iraqi clarinetist. He's prepared a CD for release and is eager to return to civilian life, though in an e-mail last week, he said he didn't know where he's going to land. He's heard rumors that his unit's tour may be extended again to help with the clean-up of his home town. But William Thompson's certain of one thing: His music has changed.

Sgt. THOMPSON: I think when I get back, I'll probably play some kind of mixture between what I was doing before I left and what I'm doing now, you know. I want to use the computer, and I think the computer is going to be an instrument that I'll deal with for the rest of my life now as a result of this deployment. But I'm not really wanting to play music that makes people, you know, happy and dance and get drunk, you know.

MANDEL: For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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