Classical Music

Two Composers Grapple with Public and Private Memories of Kennedy Assassination

This week it seems that everyone is struggling with how best to commemorate the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

What if it was your job to create the right music for this weighty occasion? Which notes would you choose and how would you arrange them? How would you use sound to communicate the complex emotions this dark anniversary arouses?

American composers Conrad Tao and Steven Mackey were commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Nasher Sculpture Center respectively to do just that -- to summon sounds from silence and give musical voice to one of our country's most traumatic memories.

It's a daunting task no matter how talented the composer. So where would you start?

The answer for everyone, including these two American composers, depends on your age. If you have a personal recollection of November 22, 1963, you will no doubt start with your own story, where you were and how you felt.

For those of us under 50, defining a point of inspiration is a little more tricky. We would probably start where 19-year-old pianist and composer Conrad Tao did -- at The Sixth Floor Museum.

Tao seems impossibly young to tackle this commission, but he says from the start he embraced that aspect of the project. Lacking his own memories, he sought out other people's stories.

"In a sense it's a bit of a history book thing for people my age," he says. So he immersed himself in The Sixth Floor Museum's collection of oral histories, becoming mesmerized by the diversity of experiences he encountered.

"I feel like our textbook understanding of the assassination makes the event out to be an ending point. What was interesting to me was how a lot of these small, individual, localized memories use this event as a starting point for unique perspectives. I'm interested in the diversity of that experience instead of just what they share as a root. I'm interested in how these things splinter and become complex."

Tao ended up with a piece he describes as "a rumination on memory." The World Is Very Different Now, which has its premier this weekend with the DSO under the direction of Maestro Jaap van Zweden, begins and ends with sonorities that Tao says "suggest uncertainty and open-endedness."

In the middle of the piece, the young composer found himself writing lush melodies for the violins. "It's an identifiable sound of mourning," he explains. "There are so many examples of ways in which we've learned to associate the sound of string writing with this kind of emotional response."

It's not only about the way strings sound, but the way they communicate emotion. "That," Tao says, "may have started as some sort of instinctive response, but it's also become a conditioned one." And it's one that will certainly be palpable to audiences in the Meyerson this weekend experience Tao's music live, with him, for the first time.

"Strings have such a variety of tone and articulation," composer Steven Mackey says. "They can be very agile but they can also be very sustained. They don't have to breath. And you can move the contact point of the bow on the string to get darker sounds or a brighter sound. It's just so flexible."

Mackey, whose new string quartet One Red Rose will be performed this Saturday and Sunday in Dallas as part of the Nasher's Soundings series, also had ulterior motives for choosing strings: He wanted to write music for the Brentano Quartet. He knew these musicians would be capable of communicating the wide range of sounds this commission demanded.

Mackey says that it was intimidating to start this project. It's just such a massive moment in history to address musically. "I made a couple false starts at the beginning," he admits.

But Mackey found his footing with the project when his initial inspiration drew him back to his own very personal memories of 1963. A police report from the day listed a single red rose among the items found on the floor of the Kennedy's limo after the assassination. The image of that single flower drew him to reflect on Jacqueline Kennedy -- a survivor of a horrific event that was at once public and intensely personal.

This juxtaposition of private and public mourning resonated with Mackey, who was 7 years old and home sick from school when Kennedy was shot. He remembers his mother and a neighbor lady sobbing "as if it was their brother or something."

Mackey explains: "Just thinking about the contrast between the horrible personal tragedy that Jacqueline Kennedy endured with how dignified she was in dealing with the "performances" she had to give at public events like the state funeral. She maintained a very dignified exterior and in that sense was a principal performer in a rite that was intended to help the country find some kind of closure. And then you imagine what it was like for her just going home that night -- that hole that she must've felt."

"It's not unrelated," he says of the image in his mind of his mother sobbing in their living room.

Both Mackey and Tao will present their music this weekend to diverse audiences, many of whom will no doubt hear echoes of their own personal stories in the swells of the strings. If the performances are successful, the notes each artist has conjured will come together to speak for both collective and intensely personal memories. And, as Mackey pointed out, "that's something that music can really do."

You can hear Tao's composition this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Tickets are available on the symphony's website. Mackey's string quartet will be performed at City Performance Hall on Saturday and at The Sixth Floor Museum Sunday afternoon. Visit the Nasher's website for more information.

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack