I remember getting woken abruptly by my parents at my Crookston home one night in February 1997. Our landline had rung later than normal and it was for me. Not a good sign.
I don’t remember who was on the other side of that call but I remember vividly the breathless feeling I felt when I heard that my 17 year old friend Brock Olson had died in a car accident that day. I hadn’t even turned 18 myself yet, and it was the sort of ‘punch in the gut’ thing that is hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it …being broadsided by death while still young. I hung up the phone and all there was an emptiness of thought. Shock had struck like lightning. Those first few minutes were actually the easiest minutes of the next few weeks and months in many ways.
You see, Brock was a friend to many, many people. He was popular. He was kind. He was good at sports. He was talented. He was funny, and laughed a lot. He was loved. He was loved by me.
I remember walking into school the next morning, after getting no sleep at all, to see the grief and mourning play out on countless faces. Everyone had either found out or was finding out. Ninth-graders that probably only caught glimpses of him in the halls were gathering and crying out. Most people his age that knew him well weren’t there at all. I remember having to attend a meeting of the administration and some teachers with a friend as student representatives, and to also see their twisted faces of grief and uncertainty was very difficult.
Death is soul-shaking.
As fate would have it, also in 1997, a girl was born named Anna to Hung Bui and Rachel Nguyen in Everett, Washington. She grew up in the area into a beautiful, talented young lady who, like Brock, was loved by many. She ended up attending Kamiak High School and graduated in 2015. She developed a passion for singing there as a member of Nancy Duck-Jefferson’s wonderful choir program. She was voted ‘Most Talented’ by her class and became a role model to younger students coming up in grades behind her.
She was loved.
On July 30, 2016, people that knew Anna experienced the devastating trauma that shakes the soul. People that knew two boys named Jordan Ebner and Jake Long felt this trauma also. These three died at the hands of a broken boy named Allen Ivanov, who walked into a Chennault Beach neighborhood house and shot them and also nearly killed a boy named Will Kramer as well. Shock struck like lightning that night to a degree that is difficult to grasp or for anyone to really come to grips with.
The most poignant quote I came across about the aftermath of the incident was this by David Alcorta, “There are no words that can bring healing to this family right now.” Truth be told, I can only begin to understand the full nature of that comment. I have merely a taste of the situation, …only a small taste. When I was 17, how could I possibly know fully what Marshall and Vicki Olson (or Brock’s sister Michelle) had to go through in reconciling their tragedy. How could I possibly understand what Hung and Rachel (or Anna’s siblings) recently went through psychologically and spiritually to reconcile their tragedy? I can’t.
I received an email from Nancy last August stating, in part: “…Her name is Anna Bui. You were her favorite composer. The Kamiak Choirs have loved performing your pieces and we would very much like for you to write a piece in honor of Anna.” Very humbling to me (and deeply saddening). I immediately knew what these folks may be feeling. They were shattered. I knew that I had to say yes, yet I also knew that what I was about to attempt was to be very difficult, if I was to attempt such a thing in truth.
I found out through articles that Anna “had so much energy and a light about her that could just brighten up a room. If she was in the building, you could hear her laughter.” “She cared so much about her friends and was so full of love. She had a huge heart.” “She was the kindest and happiest soul.” “She always had a smile on her face and a joke at the ready.” Anna sounds like she was a wonderful human being doesn’t she? How does one capture the nature of remembering one like her correctly with a choir piece?
The text became (as usual), the most important part in how we do that. Together, we ended up selecting Christina Rossetti’s powerful and transcendent poem, “Rest.”
O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.
I don’t, traditionally, like setting texts that are often used by other contemporary composers or ones from the past, and this poem was nearly immortally set to music by one of my favorites: Ralph Vaughan Williams. So a major initial challenge for me was to eliminate the sounds of that wonderful piece from my mind and also to establish that I would not compare anything I ended up writing to it (which is difficult, because his setting is remarkable). The good news was that, in my view, his setting wasn’t quite ‘right’ for this situation, so I wasn’t overly seduced by it. You may hear it performed by Tenebrae and Nigel Short here if you would like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2LV6qsdP_o
My task became thus: attempt to somehow encapsulate, in a musical context, the ideas of pain, utter emptiness, passion, anger, confusion, memory, concepts of eternity and in this case (because of the text) … hope. Needless to say, I struggled a lot to do that in a way that made sense to me, with the gravitas required. But we had decided to have it be scored for mixed choir and piano, and the piano became (as in many of my scores) the scene-setting agent that balances the choir as an equal partner. It also often becomes the director of drama and narrative. I’ve always believed the piano is truly wonderful at capturing essences of emptiness and time, and I tried to use it that way in this piece. I ended up doing so in 3 different ways, which are laid out immediately in the first 16 measures. They insert themselves into the drama at different times throughout the rest of the piece, the second one (m6-11) painfully so, at times.
I also wanted to play around with general concepts of tonality in regards to being a little uncertain as to where ‘home’ is. And when we get to our ‘home’ or tonic, will it be major or minor? So we get bounced around a bit in our progressions with some surprises, which I thought was necessary in describing the path of grief, which has a confusing sense of not being grounded any more, as if knocked off balance. …and things we thought were ‘home’ no longer feel quite the same. The shifting I employed throughout also speaks to our individual notions of Eternity. After we breathe our last, the morning of eternity for some, such as myself, is filled with Light, while for others it is questioned or filled with emptiness, even dread.
As in nearly all my pieces, this contains much melody, almost folk melody. Lyricism, pacing, and narrative drama seem to be recognizable aspects of most of my choral works and it is found here also. The ultimate goal is to work texture, ambience, melody, and cinema together to make the text three-dimensional to the listener. Can we build something the audience, singers, and conductor ‘experience’ or ‘walk through’ the poem in some fashion rather than listen to some words dressed in beautiful garments of sound?
It became a very powerful tool for me to constantly remind myself that this was a real person. Anna was real — she breathed, she laughed, she loved, and she sang. Jordan and Jake were real people. Allen is a real (and broken) human being. (We all are broken, are we not?) Sometimes when composing, there is an ambiguity to the process, or ideology to speak to, not necessarily a beautiful, talented, and loved human being one is attempting to memorialize. Her realness kept me insistent in continuing toward weight, gravity, and my original purpose and intent to drive into the pain, rather than speaking sideways about it.
The text itself was a true rudder for me in the process. Lines such as “Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her, Silence more musical than any song;” are just remarkable if you spend more than one minute just glossing over it. The more we think about these juxtapositions and paradoxes the more I think we glimpse truths about reality beyond our mortal coil. There is a certain and distinct strangeness to it all, and it calls clearly and continually to me.
Nancy and her students at Kamiak in Washington are now walking down a complex road to remember, to heal, to grow in grace, hope, and love with this text. As earth continues to lie more and more heavily upon Anna’s eyes, how can I express that I wish them joy? How can I express that I wish them deep meaning and understanding of this we call life? …that I long for Anna’s family to somehow feel joy and peace and hope? …to walk through grief fiercely grateful for the gift of knowing her even for a moment of time, for a year, for a decade, or for just a breath… — such is the relevance and importance of every human life. For we all are, in the end (and beginning), created in the image of a King.
And so I remember Anna.
Until the morning of Eternity, Her rest will not begin nor end, but be… And when she wakes, she will not think it long.