We're All Here
I had made chamber music in this Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Meeting House as an undergraduate in 1980. October 2002, in receipt of a commission for a new large-scale work from Present Music and the Brookfield Central Chorus (the group in which I sang as a teenager) for mixed chorus and chamber ensemble, I had chosen in collaboration with Philip Olsen (the conductor) and his students three poems. The last was Charles Sprague's poem The Family Meeting, which serves as frontispiece to the 1843 James Fennimore Cooper novel Wyandotte; or, The Hutted Hill-a tale of colonial border life, planned and written in the spirit of his better-known novel The Deerslayer.
I looked around the chapel. Wright wrote that he designed it to suggest "the wings of a bird in flight." Actually, to me the upward sweep of the roof toward the stone rostrum resembled more the hull of a ship approaching a glass prow. Massive picture windows looked out at the trees covered in orange, red, and yellow leaves. The seating was designed so that parishioners faced each other as well as the minister, enhancing a sense of community. Like the Big Cedar House, it was heated by hot water circulating through pipes imbedded in the concrete floor-at the time a construction innovation.
Phil began the third movement. Fifty or so teenagers sang:
We are all here!
I do not sentimentalize music making: my responsibility as a professional is to listen to my music critically. But I felt weird and I wanted to understand why. I closed my eyes and tried to enter the moment. Once I let go, I began feeling dislocated in time. It was as though I had just taken a bite of a sonic petite Madeleine.
All who hold each other dear,
Each chair is filled-we're all at home
My cheeks were wet. Eyes closed, I took off my glasses and wiped them on my shirt. When I opened them, I saw an Impressionistic painting of the chorus in which I sang as a boy.
Bless, then, the meeting and the spot;
Of course, they sounded like us. Of course, they looked like a drawing of a photograph of us. The feeling of disorientation intensified.
For once be every care forgot;
I felt slightly giddy. I put on my glasses and searched their faces. Some were harder, some were softer, some were new, and some were composites. Of course, they looked and sounded familiar: I had composed something for the teenage children of my high school classmates.
Let gentle Peace assert her power,
And kind Affection rule the hour;
I felt Britt to my left and Mother to my right. Familiar ghosts began filling the pews-sort of a spectral episode of This is Your Life. I thought of Louis Sullivan singing "So much so," in Shining Brow, of poor doomed Morales singing "again and again," in Bandanna.
We're all-all here.
The sanctuary rang with their healthy young voices. "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength," I recalled the 8th Psalm and shivered involuntarily. With each repetition of the words "We're all here," I felt like a feverish child whose hair is being stroked by his mother.
"Enough," I heard myself say, aloud. "Enough, now."
We're All Here, the last movement of a three-movement memorial to victims of the AIDS epidemic, was intended to serve as an agent of consolation and healing. I didn't think that I would be one of its recipients. Sentimental the music may be, mediocre the poetry may be; but, if after I die there were to be held a modest memorial service, I would like it to end with this movement.
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