Only Air

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for high voice and chamber ensemble (2014)

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Elise Brancheau, soprano; Sara Berger, flute; Jared Field, clarinet; Clare Semes, violin; Jihwon Na, violoncello; Joanna Huang, piano; Jessica Tsang, percussion

Duration

18 min.

Premiere

4 May 2014
The Secret Opera
The Secret Song
The Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua

Elise Brancheau, soprano
Sara Berger, flute
Jared Field, clarinet
Clare Semes, violin
Jihwon Na, violoncello
Joanna Huang, piano
Jessica Tsang, percussion

Commissioner

The Secret Opera

Dedication

for the inaugural season of The Secret Opera, 2014 in memory of the gay teenagers who have taken their own lives because of anti-gay bullying

Instrumentation

high voice, flt, cl, vln, vcl, pno, perc (glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, bass drum)

Range

A♭3–B5

Program Notes

Justin Aaberg, 15
Justin Aaberg had just finished his freshman year at Anoka High School when he hanged himself on July 9, 2010. He was one of seven teenagers who took their own lives that year at that high school alone, at least two more of which were also gay. He was also a cellist and composer.

Seth Walsh, 13
Seth Walsh was a gentle child who once apologized to a bed of flowers for having picked one. He preferred to relocate bugs instead of killing them. And despite his mannerisms and style of dress, he struggled with his sexuality, even though his mother and grandparents tried their best to make him more at ease with himself. After one of countless times of being harassed by his fellow students, he came home from school, told his mother Wendy that he was going to play with their dogs in the back yard, and hanged himself from a tree. He lingered for 10 days in a coma before passing on Sept. 27, 2010 in Tehachapi, CA.

Asher Brown, 13
Asher Brown was an eighth grader at Hamilton Middle School outside Houston, TX when he shot himself with his stepfather’s pistol on Sept. 23, 2010. He had been bullied at school – called names and physically assaulted. The day before he killed himself, he had been pushed down a flight of stairs; before he could get up on the landing below, another classmate kicked him and his books down the rest of the stairs. Despite his parents’ claims that they had asked the school to intervene, the administration denies ever having received any complaints.

Zach Harrington, 19
On Sept. 28, 2010, Zach Harrington attended a public hearing in his hometown of Norman, OK. The hearing was on a proposal to declare October as LGBT History Month in the town. Although the proposal passed, many community members at the hearing were vocally and vitrolically against it, and Zach’s family blames some of the blatant hatred shown toward the LGBT community at this hearing for Zach’s suicide one week later, as well as his treatment while he had been in school there. Zach was also a cellist.

Tyler Clementi, 18
Tyler Clementi’s suicide was the most prominent of the LGBT teen deaths during the rash of suicides in 2010. Tyler had been a freshman at Rutgers University, played violin with the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra, and had been concertmaster of the Bergen Youth Orchestra. After his roommate secretly broadcast live video of Tyler with another man, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010.

I didn’t know any of these boys. Their stories came to me through the news and through LGBT blogs. Our connection is entirely through shared experience – it wasn’t that long ago that I was bullied for being gay, even though I wasn’t out yet (and honestly wasn’t even fully aware of my sexuality). Their stories could easily have been my own but for some….strange luck? unknown strength? sheer perversity? Suicide certainly crossed my mind more than once, but never seemed the answer – it conceded defeat.

So to see these boys so beaten down by their peers and by society at large that they couldn’t continue to live broke my heart. I remember coming home during October 2010 and reading of yet another child who had killed himself, and shaking as I sat at my desk. Out of desolation. Out of rage.

My response was to create something in the face of so much death.

After Dan Savage and his husband created the It Gets Better Project, and there was such a huge outpouring of support through videos on the site created by individuals, corporations, universities, and professional sports teams, I realized that one area – filled with LGBT members and LGBT supporters – was almost completely unrepresented on the site and in public shows of support: the classical music community. As of April 2013, not one professional orchestra has made a significant gesture in support of LGBT youth. So I’m incredibly thankful to Dr. Block and the ISU Orchestra for commissioning this work. I view Only Air as the orchestral equivalent of an It Gets Better video. It certainly has for me.

Only Air is in one movement: a single-text art song punctuated by five instrumental interludes, each dedicated to one of each of the boys listed above. Each interlude also makes use of a solo instrument, or highlights a particular family of instruments (solo trumpet, percussion, solo clarinet, solo cello, and solo violin). While the interludes are loose musical meditations on each of the boys in turn, Seth Walsh’s has an added element to it: because of his reverence for nature, I’ve given different sections specific extramusical meaning – representations of the earth, the sky, and life on the planet.

The text I chose for the piece is Kathryn Levy’s “Only Air” from her book Losing the Moon. I met Kathryn while we were in residence together at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA in 2009. “Only Air” has three distinct “voices” in the text: it opens with a young man who will commit suicide, then shifts to a person close to the young man who both explains the circumstances of his suicide and begs him not to do it, and interwoven throughout is a sort of Greek Chorus that comments on the story and asks questions.


Performance History

DatePerformer(s)VenueCity/State
May 4, 2014Elise Brancheau, soprano
The Secret Opera
The Secret Song
The Basilica of St. Patrick's Old CathedralNew York, NY
November 1, 2014Neil Sharp, tenor
Rainbow Chamber Players
Bay Area Rainbow Symphony
Rainbow Chamber Players: Only Air
St. Matthew’s Lutheran ChurchSan Francisco, CA
November 15, 2016Debra Rentz, soprano
Ohio University New Music Ensemble
Glidden Hall, Ohio UniversityAthens, OH
June 1, 2019Juventas New Music Ensemble
Pride: Hand in Hand
​First Church BostonBoston, MA

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