Jun 22, 2012

Nothing Funny About That

I am currently working on a piece for the Brentano String Quartet which was jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Yellow Barn and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for a premiere in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assasination of President John F. Kennedy. I very happily accepted the commission for several reasons. First of all I love the Brentano Quartet and while they have recorded a disc of my music for string quartet and have been inspiring collaborators for the past 15 years I have only written one short piece for them as one of a dozen composers in their Bach Art of the Fugue project. I am really looking forward to unleashing their musicianship and attention to detail on something that I write specifically for them.

I was also personally interested in commemorating the Kennedy assasination. I was 7 years old, home from school in bed with the flu in Marysville California watching TV when the first news broadcast broke in. I knew that my parents were staunch supporters of Kennedy and they had taken pains to explain to me how pleased they were with his handling of the Cuban Missle Crisis, so I knew that the fact that he was shot was not only bad news for the country but would be upsetting to my parents. I called my mother in from the kitchen, she probably thought I wanted some manner of pampering in my sickness, but before she reached me I heard our next door neighbor burst into the house shouting the news to my mother. They both began to sob.

Much has been said about the loss of innocence suffered on that day. Without claiming any causality, the decades following November 1963 – watergate, a couple dubious wars, inflamatory political rhetoric – made any subsequent notion of camelot in the White House preposterous. It seemed to be the brutal end to the last lustrous presidency in my lifetime. Without a doubt this remained the biggest news story in my life until 9/11/2001. For most of my life the question "Where were you when Kennedy was shot" was a cultural touchstone.

As I was starting the piece I wanted to refresh my memory and deepen my understanding of the events so I watched some news footage and read a couple of books. (One book I would recommend is "Four Days in November" by Vincent Bugliosi which gives a detailed minute by minute account of what everyone directly or tangentially invloved was doing November 22-25 1963.)

When I first thought of writing a piece to mark this anniversary I was focused on my recollections of my parents grief, the loss of a great leader and the tear in the fabric of American government. Revisiting these events as an adult brought a whole new perspective. For one thing, I got really pissed off at Lee Harvey Oswald.

More importantly, I gained deep empathy, admiration and compassion for Jackie. She showed great courage when she jumped out of her seat onto the back of a moving limo without regard for her own safety in order to retrieve part of her husbands skull. In the midst of the chaos and horror she was a still point of serenity expressing her love and selflessly offering comfort to her husband. How difficult it must have been in the aftermath to go forward as a widowed mother of two small children. My sympathy for her personal tragedy is magnified by the knowledge that she was on the fence as to whether to even go to Dallas since she was still mourning the death of her two-day old son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy on August 9, three and a half months earlier.

Focusing on Jackie's perspective has turned out to be an important source of inspiration. In fact my presumptive title for the piece is One Red Rose which connects to her presence. The title comes from a footnote in the Bugliosi book; Jackie had been give a bouquet of roses when she landed in Dallas. Immediately after the President and governor Connally were taken into the emergency room at Parkland Hospital a secret service agent examined the limosine for bullets or other possible clues but found only a solitary blood soaked red rose on the floor of the car.

My compassion for Jackie gave me a perspective on the events that was a better fit with my musical sensibilities than, focusing on Oswald's murder of the President. After watching the Zapruder video of the actual assasination I recoiled in horror and my work came to a complete stop. I suppose I didn't want to glorify the brutality of the murder. It took me a week or so to remind myself that my job was to commemorate this important historical event not to necessarily replicate its ugliness.

I did however think that my salute to President and Mrs. Kennedy would be more potent when set against some sense of the swirling chaos that deflected all of our destinies. I wanted to explore the extreme perceptions of time that were experienced that day. There was the pressure on Dallas law enforcement, the FBI and Secret Service to make every moment count in gathering evidence, identifying Oswald as a suspect and then chasing him down in a theater in the wake of the mayhem of his getaway following his murder of police officer Tippet. At the other end of the spectrum, this cacophony was set against moments of utter stillness as people stopped in their tracks to listen to the news, take a momens of private grief and of course the transcendent state of consciousness that Jackie must have inhabited.

This piece has been very challenging because my music often takes humorous and/or ironic turns and there is absolutely nothing funny about those days in late November 1963. I aspire to a wide range of expression and relish the occassions when a heretofore dark hued material is slightly mutated into something with light and quirky wit. My approach to writing music that is tied to an extra musical event or idea is to invent germinal material that has some clear connection to the event but then to develop the material according to my musical instincts, without an overt adherence to a narrative. (The situation is different in explicitly theatrical works of course where musicalizing a narrative is my job as a collaborator.) As cases in point, the other two pieces I've written to commemorate a death (for my father and mother respectively) had a place for my natural inclination toward humor because part of my intent was to memorialize their buoyant personalities.

There have been several times in the course of working on this piece where abstract manipulation of material – reharmonizing, juxtaposing this with that, superimposing that and the other – led to a music that I really liked and would have celebrated in another context but that had a tone that just seemed inapporpriatly playful for this piece.

The one bright element of that day that I needed to acknowledge was how the Kennedy's were cheered by the sunshine and the large enthusiastic crowds that lined the motorcade route that morning in Dallas. It was cause for optimism for the re-election campaign that Texas, a battleground state for the President's upcoming reelection bid, seemed so effusive in its appreciation for his visit. In comments earlier that morning, JFK humbly and humorously (and perhaps accurately) credited Jackie's charisma for the warm welcome.  Several times that morning, as they waved to the cheering crowds Jackie reportedly made comments to the effect of "See Jack, they love you in Texas." That is how it would have been remembered but for one arrogant nut job.