Elliot Goldenthal's "Fire Water Paper" was commissioned for a performance last year to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975. But when the composer sat down to write his Vietnam oratorio three years ago, his inspiration came not from his memory of the war's end but from a newspaper account of an event that had horrified him when he had read it as a 13-year-old in 1967.
A young Vietnamese girl, Nhat Chi Mai, who was only a few years older than Goldenthal himself, had immolated herself as she held a picture of the Virgin Mary in one hand and one of the Buddhist goddess of mercy in the other.
"She wrote that she wanted to use her body as a torch to illuminate the darkness, to bring peace to Vietnam," Goldenthal says. "That she was a female and that she did this was something that I have never been able to put out of my mind."
In "Fire Water Paper," which will be performed at 5 p.m. today at the Kennedy Center by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Seiji Ozawa, Nhat Chi Mai's words and act of sacrifice are the linchpin around which the 65-minute work turns.
"She opened the door to feminine icons of mercy," says the composer, 41. "She's what made me remember that Vietnam is both a Buddhist and a Roman Catholic country and that I could draw on both traditions, using Buddhist aphorisms and Vietnamese poetry, as well as medieval and early liturgical poetry, like the 'Stabat Mater.'
"And she's the reason," Goldenthal continues, "that we don't hear a male voice until nearly 20 minutes into the piece."
That male voice -- a baritone soloist -- sings a text by a Vietnam veteran, the African-American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, about watching a young girl burn to death after a napalm attack. "Fire Water Paper," which was recorded last year and has just been released on Sony Classical, is pretty strong stuff.
And it has caused a good deal of controversy. On the West Coast, where it was performed last year by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and conductor Carl St. Clair, who commissioned it and recorded it, it received devastating reviews. Earlier this week, when it was performed by Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in Boston and New York, it received strong notices.
But like it or hate it, the word critics use to describe the music of "Fire Water Music" is cinematic. That scarcely surprises, since Goldenthal composes music for movies and makes a very good living at it.
You've probably heard his music much more often than that of much more "famous" classical composers, such as Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, John Adams and Philip Glass. That's because there's a pretty good chance you've seen "Heat," "Batman Forever," "Interview with the Vampire," "Alien 3," "Demolition Man" or one of the other commercially successful films for which Goldenthal wrote the music.
"The film industry is the Esterhazy of our time," Goldenthal says, referring to the noble Hungarian family who supported Haydn for much of his life and also helped pay Beethoven's bills.
This is not, Goldenthal hastens to add, a whole-hearted endorsement of Hollywood.
"You can survive as a composer if you are not sucked into the financial rewards that lead to a house in Malibu and to a treadmill of composing for action movies," says the composer, who was born and grew up in Brooklyn's Coney Island and who lives in Manhattan with his longtime companion, stage director and designer Julie Taymor.
"I make it a habit to get off a plane in Los Angeles as little as possible," he says.
Paradoxically, it was Goldenthal's early success as an academic composer that led him away from the concert hall and toward theater and films.
During his years as a student at the Manhattan School of Music in the 1970s, Goldenthal wrote chamber music because, he says, "that's what a serious young composer could expect to get performed."
"I got very excited when my Second Brass Quintet was favorably reviewed by the New York Times and when the attention it received led to its publication by [the prestigious firm of] G. Schirmer."
"Then," Goldenthal adds, "it never got played again."
Fortunately for Goldenthal, he had mentors like John Corigliano, his teacher at the Manhattan School, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, all of whom had written diverse kinds of music (including movies) and who encouraged him to do the same. He soon found himself working for choreographers and writing incidental music for New York's Public Theater. Some of the music he wrote for Taymor's productions found its way into the ears of director Gus Van Sant, who hired Goldenthal to write the music for "Drugstore Cowboy."
"There was a tremendous, refreshing feeling from leaving the hallowed walls of academia for making music that could be shared with other people," Goldenthal says.
He has continued to write traditional "serious" music. "Fire Water Paper" is not his only large-scale composition. He is at work on an opera, "Grendel," in which Ozawa is reportedly interested.
"I'm a pacer -- I have to move from room to room or I get bored," Goldenthal says. "If I just got stuck writing bassoon concertos or just movies, I couldn't live."
'Fire Water Paper'
What: Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Seiji Ozawa perform Elliot Goldenthal's "Fire Water Paper" and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, with soloist Akiko Suwanai
Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall
When: Today at 5 p.m.
Tickets: $27-$54.50 Call: (202) 467-4600
Pub Date: 4/13/96