Composer Note:D.C. Monuments
began with a series of community dialogues. During these sessions, many ideas were put forward about an appropriate topic for a piece of music about Washington, D.C., yet it was actually riding in from the airport that made the decision obvious to me. One need only look around to see that Washington, D.C., surely is a city of monuments.
At first I found the idea of monuments daunting. There are so manywhich to include, and how to decide? More importantly, I found it difficult to feel connected in any profound way to many of these large, distant public monuments. What did they have to do with me, and what could I possibly say that would be meaningful about them?
One of the most important things I got from the community dialogues was the realization that a monument’s meaning exists as a transaction between the monument and a viewer. Each person made the monument come alive by what he or she brought to the experience, and the monument’s meaning was different and personal to each viewer. This was crucial, as it gave me permission to make my piece about my response to the monuments rather than the monuments themselves. The piece is not a documentary, it is a personal reflection.
Another key idea came from the dictionary. Looking up “monument” revealed that the word comes from a Latin verb meaning “to remind or to warn.” Going around the city and asking people not what hey thought about Washington’s monuments, but rather what we need to be reminded or warned about, generated highly provocative responses and provided an overarching context for the piece.
For example, the third section of the work, “Rest in Peace,” grew out of a dialogue in Anacostia with about 40 teenagers in a summer youth employment program run by the “Make a Difference Foundation.” I asked how many of the teenagers had friends who were shot and more than 95 percent of the group raised their hands. I then asked how they remembered their friends, and I learned about putting sneakers on telephone lines and “rest-in-peace” t-shirts. Then one of the participants, Donnell Washington, raised his hand and said he would like to remember his cousin by rapping. I asked if he could make something up on the spot, and he stood up and stunned the room with a brilliant improvisation. After considerable work Donnell turned this improvisation into a finished text for soloist and chorus (with the invaluable help of Washington-based singer Charles Williams). After studying go-go, rap, and hip-hop more closely than I could ever have imagined, I came to my own version of all this material, and the third movement, “Rest in Peace,” is the result.
Each movement came about in a completely different way. Many of Washington’s monuments are tributes to great individualsWashington, Jefferson, Lincoln. My initial impulse was to find quotations from these figures and make a text from their words. Yet in the end this seemed to miss the point. Though each figure was uniquely legendary, I wanted to get at the “greatness” behind all of them. What made the great great? After much searching I found Stephen Spender’s exquisite poem “The Truly Great.” Its moving eloquence was exactly what I wanted, and it was the first section of the work to be completed.
The opening movement, Beginning
, is again personal and not documentary. I originally wanted one section of the piece to be a reminder of the people who were in Washington firstthe Indians. I did an enormous amount of research, with the help of the Smithsonian Museum, on the Piscataway Indians of Washington, D.C., only to discover that within 70 years of John Smith’s first discovery of these Indians they were nearly wiped out. I desperately tried to find an authentic piece of text or music from these original Indians, but I was unsuccessful. All original traces of their musical culture had vanished. Instead, the Washington percussionist Tom Teasley helped me create a purely abstract percussion opening that uses evocative though in no way authentic instruments to create an atmosphere of a vanished past. The only references to the Indians are symbolica dying maraca rattle and a “groan” on a frame drum.
Combining with thisthe beginning of Beginning
is the idea that before all of this there was simply water. The first thought for this came to me when listening to the water at the FDR memorial. This melded with so much I had read about the Potomac being at the core of Washington’s history. When I chanced upon an “ocean drum” at Tom’s studio, the opening of the piece followed immediately.
The fourth movement, War
, grew out of a visit to Arlington Cemetery during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when “Taps” was being played. Hearing “Taps” in that settingthe supreme reminder of the cost of warwas so powerful that it became a key musical motif in the piece. Also, for some reason the extraordinary dignity and serenity of that occasion made me want to write something as violently opposite to that experience as possible. Consequently, this movement juxtaposes fragments of patriotic tunes with a harshly atonal high-intensity assault.
A pause for reflection on the names of the Vietnam Memorial Wall leads into the movement entitled Washington Monument
. Viewing the Washington Monument one October morning in 1998, I was struck by its metaphorical quality. To me it seemed a reminder that we are so often stuck in a sense at the bottom of the monument, mired in daily problems and short-term concerns. Yet as I watched the monument rise toward the top there seemed to be a still point where you could no longer tell what was the building and what was the sky. It was as if the monument’s message was an injunction to leave behind these daily concerns, our smaller selves, and try to find our highest selves up there “where the earth meets the sky.”
The piece rises very slowly from the base of the monument, gradually acquiring a melody while ascending higher and higher, block by block. There is a set of bells that was given as a gift by the Netherlands to Arlington, and I brought in the idea of these chimes as the climax of the movement.
The chimes usher in the Finale, with an unusual text written by the brilliant New York poet Marie Howe. After I held a number of community dialogues throughout the city, Marie and I discussed many of the ideas that emerged in these sessions, and she then created her moving text. After meeting with so many people in Washington, which was exhilarating and though-provoking in so many ways, I was struck by how many individual achievement goes on throughout the city almost completely unrecognized. Though people like Lincoln and Jefferson were given enormous public platforms for their achievements, people today are performing equally difficult, heroic tasks that, although in less public venues, affect others in profound ways. This heroism that goes on “quietly with no one watching” is at the heart of this finale and is a recurring image in Marie’s text.