L’s GA: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Create your own production or response to Salvatore Martirano’s 1967 anti-war classic.

concept by Sal Martirano, film by Ron Nameth, gas-masked politico by Michael Holloway

The L’s GA project invites multiple possibilities for interaction with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martirano’s 1967 anti-war classic, L’s GA. What did Lincoln’s words mean in the 1960s when Sal wrote L’s GA; and what relevance do they have today? In the 1960s Lincoln’s words were obscured by the war, lack of civil rights and women’s, segregation. We were not hearing them because there was too much unfinished business towards a more perfect union. Death of John Lewis…

There are three ways to engage with the L’s GA project. On this web page and through the links provided here, you may learn more about the Gettysburg Address and Martirano’s L’s GA. These materials include historical documents, sound, images, video, etc. Second you may respond to the project, to the Address, to Sal’s composition through the blog on the right with words, sounds, images, video. Finally, using the L’s GA production materials, to which you may add your own, you may create your own performance/response to the Gettysburg Address and L’s GA. In the coming weeks additional information on L’s GA and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will be posted here, and in September we will issue a call for funded proposals to create your own response or updated version of L’s GA.

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Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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You Don’t Remember That, Do You?

William Brooks

It was 1967. You don’t remember that, do you? Probably you weren’t even around then. But I was. And it is one of my memories; what I remember; part of our American Biography; part of what made us all—even you, who might not have been born—what we are.

Young men were being drafted and dying in the jungle. Young black men were dying more often. Resistance was growing. I was white, and I was safe: I had a deferment. I could watch while SDS and Black Muslims contended with each other as well as with the government. It was very confusing.

There was a concert, and Sal Martirano presented L’s GA for the first time: a composition for gas-masked politico, with helium bomb, assisted by a nurse. Lincoln’s iconic words struggled to be heard through the mask. The voice struggled to be a voice, bombed as it was by helium. American words of inspiration were turned into fascist chanting, mindless calisthenics, totalitarian mockery. And all drowned out by sound and image: love duets at 110 dB; war games played on naked bodies; thunder, drums, and death.

FIFTY-THREE YEARS LATER

Masks are everywhere: masks for defense against illness, masks for defense against tear gas, masks to conceal identities. Everyone can be—everyone is compelled to be—a gas-masked politico.

Are you choosing your mask? Choosing to be safe, to be separate, to be secure? That mask enables you to breathe without fear, to venture outside, to care for yourself and others.

Or has the mask been forced upon you? To smother you, silence you, suppress your very being? That mask cares nothing for you or for others.

With some masks, words struggle to be heard: I can’t breathe. Be safe. Black lives matter. With other masks, words are amplified: Be free. Make America great. All lives matter. Nothing matters. 

Lives are taken, voices suppressed: by gas, by knees, by gunshots, by chokeholds. Inspiration is replaced: by fascist tweets, lies, distortions, fakery, greed, racism, abuse, indifference.

Fifty-three years later, so much has changed. Or has it?

THE CHALLENGE

Make L’s GA your GA. The text, sound, and image remain; all else is mutable.

Which masks are you forced to wear? Which do you choose? What keeps you from breathing? What drowns out your voice? Who is your nurse—or oppressor?

Send us your performance. What, fifty-three years from now, will be so important to you that you can write: You don’t remember that, do you? But I do . . .

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Performing Unmet Hopes: Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA

Thomas J. Kernan

Have we secured a new birth of freedom? Abraham Lincoln’s most recognizable piece of political oratory, the 1863 Gettysburg Address, opens with the president’s reminder that the still young nation was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln then swiftly turns from that historical claim to the reminder that the present experience was that of a nation divided in a civil war over whether this high ideal could come to pass. To conclude, he does not declare victory, in any sense—as it assuredly was yet elusive on many battlefields—but he does not even assert that the moral cause was secure. Rather, Lincoln charges his audience to join him in resolving that they would work to follow the efforts of those who had died, and thereby achieve what was truly required, a new birth of freedom.

Within the speech’s three paragraphs, Lincoln acknowledges that the enlightened cause of the new nation remained unfulfilled, yet possible through a rebirth. The national founding cause was not wrong, but it was not yet true either. Historian David W. Blight has argued that Lincoln and the period’s most recognized black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, embraced comparable language and ideas in their 1863 speeches.[1] In this brutal year of the war, when the possibility of battlefield victory and freedom for the enslaved appeared questionable at best, both men employed a similar rhetorical effort: the nation’s founding ideals were not wrong, but they had yet to be lived. The Civil War was only to be a success if it could serve as a rebirth, a moment when the high-minded thinking of four score and seven years ago met the lived experiences of “all men” who the “new nation” said were “created equal.”

Merrill D. Peterson, in his seminal study of Lincoln memory, orients this rebirth as part of a thread of Christian thinking in which Lincoln developed a yet unknown American civic religion.[2] To this end, Lincoln would make a similar gesture in the penultimate passage of his 1865 second inaugural address, the recognizable bit of poetry, “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” While many Americans have long considered Robert E. Lee’s signing of a Confederate surrender, just soon after Lincoln’s second inauguration, to be the arrival of the national rebirth, Lincoln was struck down by an assassin’s bullet before he could continue his assessment of the nation’s status.[3]

Did we make it? Was every drop of blood repaid? Was God’s judgement favorable? Even if so, did the “new birth of freedom” take the form of a healthy and robust baby who was to be nurtured into a nation-state with which her parents would be proud? Or, as Lincoln had warned, were the ultimate sacrifices of slave and soldier in vain? In the hands of twentieth-century, Illinois-based composer Salvatore Martirano and the poet/performer Michael Holloway, who joined him to premiere L’s GA in 1968, the answer was “Have a new birth – blah, blah, blah, birth – blah, blah, blah – birth, blah, blah, blah – of freedom – wap, smack, smich, woop.”

Martirano’s composition was preceded by several other treatments of the Gettysburg Address. As early as 1865, the Cuban composer Narciso Teller Y Arcos referenced Lincoln’s speech in preparing an international funerary ode that was first printed in Paris. In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Weinberg set a Yiddish translation of the speech to rebut challenges raised about the patriotism of Jewish-American immigrants. But the most recognized and performed setting of a portion of the address remains Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942), which culminates not with “blah, blah, blah” but with orchestra and narrator together reaching a triumphant climax.

Martirano’s multimedia masterstroke features the choreographed role described in the score as “a gas-masked politico,” three movie projectors to convey filmic images prepared by Ronald Nameth, two-channel tape accompaniment, and Lincoln’s words adapted by the poet Holloway in a manner that they are both present but obscured throughout. The composition’s title, L’s GA, conveys that Lincoln’s charge on the Pennsylvania battlefield remains seemingly always with us, yet miles away. This title is, of course, an abbreviation of “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” but Martirano never overtly asserts the full title of the speech within his composition—not in the text nor even in an imaginative program note that he prepared for a 1969 performance at the University of Connecticut. In twenty-first-century academic parlance, one might describe Martirano’s title as deliberate erasure, but it is not. Martirano did not merely remove or eclipse some of Lincoln’s speech; he offered an update on the speech, a response to the late president. If Lincoln had provided a task that the citizens were to accomplish, then Martirano was checking in on our progress and reporting back that any “new birth of freedom” had yet to bring into existence a vibrant new being.

Martirano composed L’s GA during the Vietnam War and the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In that moment not only was Lincoln’s goal unmet, but these external and internal wars once again obscured any hope of having the text, majestic as it remained, ring true. The film content, frequently loud passages of tape accompaniment, and the actor’s measured gestures in the performance space all underscore the disorientation of wartime. But most striking for most who witness L’s GA is the way in which it subverts expectations of similar performed art objects: the singer, actor, or poet who portrays the “politico” delivers Lincoln’s words while wearing a gas mask. The audience does not see the individual’s face; all expressivity is obliterated. Not only are the address’ ideals are lost in the fog of war provided by the film and tape accompaniment but the mask, the uniform, and the madly fascistic gestures prevent any possibility that the performer is offering Lincoln’s wise words as a statement of something fully realized.

Martirano goes still further to dehumanize these words from the actor by, at one point, asking him to consume helium—a step that performers can achieve with real-time sound manipulation in contemporary performances—so that his voice ascends to a significantly higher pitch and is even more inhuman, giving new meaning to the “high point” of the speech. What follows is empty, absurdly hollow, profoundly clichéd beauty: time-lapse film of flowers blooming, accompanied by an egregiously over-the-top excerpt from an opera by Saint-Saëns.

In crafting a musical setting of the Gettysburg Address, Martirano did as all composers attempt: he brought it into his time and place. For Martirano, in 1968, that hope was, well “blah, blah, blah.” Fifty years later, is the world different or the same? Do we still have politicos? Do we have gas masks? And if so, have they proliferated—not only multiplied but mutated? In 1865 Lincoln’s words offered both humility and hope; where do we find either today?

The time is now. If L’s GA, if the Gettysburg Address, is to speak to us—conveying our hope, anger, or despair—new performances, new readings are needed. The NON:op project seeks to inspire and collect such performances and readings. Please join with us.


[1] David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 414–15.

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 360–61.

[3] Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons (New York: Viking, 2017), 330–31.


Thomas J. Kernan is an associate professor of music history and head of the honors bachelor of musical arts program at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. He regularly publishes research on the musical memorialization of Abraham Lincoln, from the president’s death in 1865 to the present, a topic for which his doctoral dissertation, “Sounding the Mystic Chords of Memory,” earned the 2016 Hay-Nicolay Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Institute and Abraham Lincoln Association.

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In the coming weeks additional information on L’s GA and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will be posted here, including links to the production materials, the Gettysburg Address, historical photos and documents, and a blog. In September we will issue a call for funded proposals to create your own response or updated version of L’s GA.