Last year, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN partnered with 21CM to create the “New Voices” essay contest, inviting college students of any age to submit essays on the theme of the 21st century musician. We are proud to award the third-place prize to Leah Dunbar of Kenyon College. Remembering a powerful, non-traditional musical performance, Dunbar shares the story of playing Frank Ticheli’s “An American Elegy” 26 times in front of the Ohio Statehouse as a “musical protest” against every school shooting that had taken place since Columbine. Through this music, Dunbar was able to find hope, reflecting that while “still not enough … it’s a start.”
Music as a Response to Gun Violence
In the wake of the 1999 Columbine tragedy, Frank Ticheli composed his wind ensemble piece “An American Elegy” to honor and memorialize the victims of the shooting. Intended to be “above all, an expression of hope,” “An American Elegy” was written not to dwell in darkness, but to remain ever-hopeful of a brighter future.
Yet 20 years later, those all-too-familiar feelings of shock and collective mourning were again experienced as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida became the location of the 25th school shooting since Columbine. For the 25th time, communities mourned while calls for change went virtually unheard, and for the 25th time, “An American Elegy” became deeply relevant. Ticheli alluded to this tragic pattern in a Facebook post written in the days following Parkland. As I read it, I couldn’t help but feel the same sense of hopelessness for the repetition of tragedies that seemed unstoppable.
On April 14th, 2018, exactly two months after Parkland, a group of 50 Ohio musicians from numerous colleges and communities convened at the Ohio Statehouse to perform “An American Elegy:” not just once, but a consecutive 26 times.* Our five-hour “musical protest” honored the individual shootings through spoken dedications while reflecting on the constant repetition of shootings.
Underneath the vast, echoing dome of the statehouse rotunda, the music was nearly constant. Swaths of sound blended entrances in a pool of reverb while crescendos grew exponentially, created as the echoes of the recent past blended with a perpetual present and filled the dome almost to bursting. The music was everywhere: edging its way around corners, down stairwells, and through the keyhole of the locked senate room. It was audible to all the statehouse visitors and beckoned them to investigate the source. Some only listened in passing while others joined us for a number of repetitions, reading the handout I offered them to explain our cause. One woman danced gently. When I spoke with her, she shared that she danced in memory of her own child.
Our audience changed constantly throughout the day as the ensemble remained steadfast. Combining our intimacy with the piece and the pure audibility of it meant that even when we took an individual break, we were still deeply tied to the repetitions. Because of this, there was this unique feeling of not only being a performer or audience member but some amalgamation of both.
This liminal space became especially tangible during our final performance. After playing the piece for the 26 shootings, we played a 27th time: a placeholder for a shooting we hoped would never occur, but feared was inevitable without change. Five hours from when we first started, we played for a final time through the music that seamlessly intertwined sorrow and hope as it built to the climactic quotation of Columbine’s Alma Mater. Twenty years later, this piece was still about Columbine, but also about Sandy Hook … Marjory Stoneman Douglas … Essex … West Nickel Mines …
We memorialized 26 events by playing for five hours. Had we played for the 155 mass shootings in America in 2018 alone,** we would have played for 28 hours. And if we had played for each of the 13,286 firearm deaths in the United States that occurred in just one year, we would have had to play around the clock for over three months straight.
We were trying to capture the heavy significance of events only for them to slip through our desperate grasp like grains of sand. What we were doing wasn’t enough, and would never be enough.
But as “Elegy” reached a reflective and honest serenity, I listened as the final notes were breathed into existence and spiraled up into the impossibly large dome until they slipped out of sight, a point of unidentifiable transition between notes and silence. In that seemingly infinite moment, the connection between all of us (performers and visitors) felt like it still had a bit of mourning, but something else too. Something that beckoned of love, of wonder and of something larger than any of us. It’s still not enough, it whispered, but it’s a start.
A small spark of light shone through the stained glass at the top of the dome. Among the echoes of music it remained there glittering—above all, an expression of hope.
Leah Dunbar is a music major at Kenyon College, focusing on percussion performance and education.
*Editor’s note: On March 20, 2018, Great Mills High School became the location of the 26th school shooting since Columbine.
**Editor’s note: This statistic was true as of August 2018.