How do you set a President to music?
I confronted this challenge when the National Symphony Orchestra commissioned a new work on the occasion of John F Kennedy’s centennial, which occurred on May 24. Working inside a ‘living memorial’ has been a strange and beautiful experience over the past two years, but nothing has approached the uniqueness of commemorating a man whose very spirit inhabits the building. The result is Passage, a work for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronic sounds. Here’s how it came to life.
Commemorative works, let’s be honest, can ring a bit stilted. Even one of the most beloved, Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, plods along too much for me. Whether because of subject matter or the use of narration, the orchestra feels like a backup band, not the main event. I wanted to write a piece that would both commemorate JFK and live beyond the occasion of its premiere, and – just as important – stretch me artistically. And the orchestra is always the main event.
So I quickly abandoned the idea of narrating JFK’s speeches and decided to use the speeches themselves: the actual recordings of his voice, which carry so much more personality than the words alone (as stirring as they may be). Pouring over his many utterances, from the topic of civil rights to national defense, I found myself most drawn to his moonshot speech at Rice University.
This is one of the most audaciously ambitious moments in all of history – and, unbelievably, it succeeded. When JFK said “we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” he catalyzed the entire country to achieve something that seemed literally beyond the reach of mankind. Listening to that speech over fifty years later, amidst our seemingly intractable world problems – from climate change to socio-economic divisions – I felt JFK’s aspirational vision was needed more than ever. This President defined the American optimism and aspiration that, sadly, seems a distant memory. We need more of JFK today.
To complement his moonshot speech, I wanted another voice in the piece, a more poetic perspective on American exploration. Enter Walt Whitman.
From my English major days, I remembered a mystical poem called Passage to India. What begins as an ode to the steamship explodes into a sprawling homage to American exploration and the limitless frontier. Whitman marvels at our ability to travel by ship to India, then by locomotive to California – then looks into the heavens and says “O sun and moon – passage to you!”
The piece crystallized: a setting of Whitman trailed by ghostly echoes of JFK’s voice, two perspectives on the expanding frontier from two American visionaries – President and poet. Technology has been a topic I’ve returned to in new ways, and the idea of juxtaposing two different kinds of American voices intrigued me.
I reached out to Sasha Cooke, whose voice I’ve fallen in love with during the composition of my opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The warmth of her voice, her expansive range, and her special understanding of American music made her perfect for Passage. She joined the project, and I got to work.
My biggest challenge: handling the recorded fragments of JFK’s clipped, Bostonian accent – both in terms of acoustic clarity, and in terms of integration into the orchestra. Human speech makes the listener hear differently, and I had to confront both technological and psychological barriers.
JFK speeches available online are not exactly high fidelity. They inhabit a very small spectrum and often are accompanied by crowd noise. Luckily, the Kennedy Center has special access to this kind of thing, and the resourceful Charles Lawson of Public Radio provided me with much higher-bandwidth recordings.
Armed with these, I played through each clip in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall with in-house sound engineer D.C. Valentine. Using a spectrograph and our ears, we identified which frequencies needed to be filtered out. We had to adjust so much, the resulting parametric EQs looked like mountain ranges. Then back in my California studio, I also slowed down, sometimes considerably, the clips themselves to make them more understandable.
Remarkably, all this surgical sound design results in something that sounds natural and untouched. But this is what you have to do when playing 1960’s speeches into a highly resonant space.
Next, on the orchestration front, I had to carefully orchestrate around each clip, making sure the orchestra was very spare whenever JFK appeared. Mid-range woodwinds, for example, compete directly with the human voice, so I kept them out the way. While the piece is primarily focused on the Whitman setting, each ghostly appearance of JFK’s voice needs to be understood.
I also had to very carefully weave the orchestra from foreground to background whenever JFK spoke, because the human ear instantly zeroes-in on speech when it’s present. This piece has plenty of busy music – steamship music, chugging locomotive music, even the music of a rocket launch at the end – but whenever JFK or news clips occur, the orchestra momentarily freezes.
On the Sasha front, I gave myself a special assignment: write some passages in her chiaroscuro range with almost nothing in the orchestra. When Sasha inhabits her middle and low end, there is so much color and warmth that over-orchestrating would be a big mistake. Having lived with her voice for two years while writing Jobs, I knew exactly where I wanted to feature her unique sound. There are also plenty of places where she sings at full force, with the orchestra churning underneath. Passage is dedicated to Sasha, a brilliant collaborator and exceptional voice.
Walking through the Kennedy Center over the past six months while immersed in this project has been surreal. I might see a JFK quote chiseled on the wall and think That one has a lot of 700 Hz and some crazy crowd noise. I also think about his vision and, as well, the vision of Walt Whitman – and all Americans who looked to the ever-expanding frontier and said, “O further sail!”