We Didn't See Them As Humans
3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd doubles bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players), piano, harp, and strings
the Butler University Symphony Orchestra, 2013
March 23, 2013, by the Butler University Symphony Orchestra, Michael Henson, conductor; Indianapolis, IN
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Image Copyright: Thomas James Hurst
In the course of our history, music has been created as a reaction to social and political stimuli; and the mediums with which these reactions are conveyed are determined by the composer’s individual perceptions. Over the past few decades, there has been a sharp increase in atrocities committed in our society: city bombings, increased daily murder rates, suicides (especially among young people), and school shootings. The list is never-ending. These atrocities stir unpredictable reactions within our minds, ranging from staunch patriotism after the September 11th, 2001 attacks, to hate-filled, political bickering over gun control. The cumulative effect of these actions and reactions has deeply affected me. This piece was generated by feelings of loss, anger, and frustration.
Throughout the piece, I quote the late Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo. Having admired Gesualdo’s work for a handful of years, I naturally happened across his books of madrigals. I was particularly captured by the emotional depth of both the text and music in “Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio” from the fourth book. His unpredictable harmonic motion struck me as a direct correlation to the unpredictable nature of violence and its reactions. Here, I have included a translation of the text:
I will keep quiet, yet in my silence my tears and sighs
shall tell of my pain.
And if I should die
Death shall cry out for me once again.
Thus in vain, oh cruel one,
yearn you for my pain and your harshness to be hidden since my
gives voice to silence and death.
The title of this piece came from a man involved in the atrocities of Rwanda—Elie Ngarambe. When asked in an interview why he and others and contributed to the genocide plaguing the sovereign state, he responded with a very simple (but politically charged) “We didn’t see them as humans.”
The piece opens with low primeval grumblings from the contrabassoon and low strings. Slowly, brief melodic and harmonic figures begin to peer out of the darkness. Woodwinds introduce a sinister three-note motif (F, G, F-sharp). Dark trombones and a trumpet introduce a warped form the Gesualdo. A shout from the full orchestra breaks the silence and ends suddenly—almost as if cut off mid-thought. A lone clarinet whispers the three-note motif again, leaving corrupted remnants in the flutes. From the murky texture, a single oboe plays a distorted phrase from the Gesualdo, trying desperately to hold on to its innocence. A quiet uprising in the percussion, harp, piano, and strings interrupts, but gains no foothold. Low strings offer a brief prayer before a bassoon offers another Gesualdo quote. Hazy sonorities follow, offering no consolation.
The next section is characterized by constant bickering between boiling strings and shrieking woodwinds—each savagely trying to make their point heard but accomplishing only more frustration. The brass continually interject, as if trying in vain to bring and end to the madness. The climax of this section is characterized by the two Gesualdo chords introduced earlier by trombones superimposed on each other and voiced in a medium-to-high area of each instruments range. After repeated statements of this chord, basses and timpani are left sustaining a low E while woodwinds and brass use the Gesualdo to lament their deeds. A final cry from the full orchestra exhibits two opposing tonal centers: E, (previously heard in the basses) representing the knowledge of one’s deeds and unwillingness to change his/her actions; and B- flat, representing a desire to change.
The orchestral cry fades in intensity leaving the B-flat as the victor. The devastating effects of the E center are still felt pervading the resultant tonality as an empty husk of an orchestra proceeds on a death march while reciting the Gesualdo text. The piece ends abruptly as if silenced in mid-thought.
- Michael Henson