Instrumentation: SSAATTBB, Keyboard, Electronics
Duration: 12:30
Performers: Artists’ Vocal Ensemble
Commissioned by Artists’ Vocal Ensemble and Russ Irwin
Premiered at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco on November 23, 2013

Program Notes

This piece was commissioned by AVE for a concert to take place on the date of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In his honor, we decided on a piece that was based on his presidential speeches, since works of the US government are not covered by copyright and can be used freely by anyone. This also fits well with my longstanding interest in reappropriation and found materials, which made the concept doubly appealing to me.

The entire text of the piece is taken from JFK’s “Televised Address to the Nation on Civil Rights” from June 11, 1963. A sampler controlled by a keyboardist plays back excerpts of Kennedy giving the address, creating a kind of “artificial JFK” that can speak on command and be played like an instrument. The chorus also sings excerpts from the speech, sometimes the same words as the sampler and sometimes different. Often, the two forces work in call and response, though they also create counterpoint with one another.

Each section features excerpts of text on a given theme, though they are not always taken from adjoining parts of the speech. Words that are used frequently in the address are also singled out, namely: free, equal, streets, right, violence, and chance. As a whole, the piece is a tribute to the humanistic themes of Kennedy’s address, presented in a musical form that accentuates their spirit and highlights their ongoing resonance, even 50 years later.