The ensemble of solo piano, chorus, and orchestra provides a formidable challenge to any composer given its sheer size, sonic power, and infinite textural and color possibilities. While planning for this work, I sought thematic material that would allow the piano to embody a character or person who could speak clearly and directly to the listener. During this conception phase, I read stories of soldiers returning from wartime experiences and found myself drawn into the complexity of their emotional responses and the ongoing impact of their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I knew that the lasting impact of war was an important story to share and that these musical forces could do so in a powerful way. As I searched for the right text to use for the chorus, a poet friend of mine suggested the work of Brian Turner—an award-winning poet and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brian’s raw, immediate, and unbridled words cut to the heart of the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of war and reveal the burdens that its prey must carry for the rest of their lives. I knew they were perfect for these stories.
Through my research in studying articles, reading personal accounts, and speaking with veterans, I found two fundamental needs of returning soldiers: First, a sense of closure to the war experience, and second, continual understanding and support from a community of friends and family. In his book What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes recounts his experience serving as a soldier in Vietnam and how it changed his cognitive and emotional wellbeing: “When I did eventually face death—the dead of those I killed and those killed around me—I had no framework or guidance to help me work out combat’s terror, exhilaration, horror, guilt, and pain into some larger framework that would have helped me find some meaning in them later.”1 He discusses the importance of a ceremonial “handing over of the gun” to mark an end to the wartime experience as a way of easing the transition back into life at home. Inspired by the words of Marlantes and those veterans with whom I spoke, the goal of Dreams of the Fallen is to serve as a ceremony addressing the life-changing experiences of war, and to reveal these stories through music so as, I hope, to foster compassion and inspire a communal support
system for veterans and their families.
Though a single, continuous movement, the work is structured in three sections based on Brian Turner’s poems as well as the elements of a rite of passage: separation, liminality/transition, and reincorporation. The work opens with the line: “and I keep telling myself that if I walk far enough, or long enough, someday I’ll come out the other side,” which, also appearing at the end, contextualizes the pre- and post-war experience. “Here, Bullet,” a violent beckoning to the weapons of war, launches the listener into the world of battle and first section of the work. Chaotic and dissonant music flies through the ensemble as the rhythmic motives in the piano wreak havoc on the soldier’s psyche. Several dream sequences, featuring the solo piano, serve as musical bridges between sections allowing the soldier to explore his or her emotional responses to the text. The second section, “Phantom Noise,” introduces scarring memories through “ringing” motives with heavy, downward motion and echo effects. “Sadiq,” the third section of the work, calls for the acknowledgement and acceptance of emotion through the line “no matter what crackling pain and anger you carry in your fists, it should break your heart to kill.” Intensifying in rhythm and dissonance, that line finally breaks free and we return to the same text found at the opening but now in a new context of understanding. The final coda features the strings in improvised lines allowing each individual to sing his or her own melodies that when sounding together, embody a warm embrace.
I am grateful to the veterans who have shared their stories with me and hope that this work captures a glimpse of their lifechanging experiences. No matter our personal opinions of war, may Dreams of the Fallen deepen our awareness of its impact and challenge us to listen, feel, grieve, and seek to understand those who have given of themselves for our country.
1. Marlantes, Karl. What It Is Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 16. Print.