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Kansas City's Heartland Men's Chorus Reimagines Identities Of Unknown Soldiers

Anne Kniggendorf
Members of the Heartland Men's Chorus rehearse "Indivisible: Songs of Resistance and Remembrance" on a recent Saturday morning.

Rob Hill was pretty sure he had the makings of the fabled great American novel. But the retired Army lieutenant colonel isn’t much of a writer, so his idea for a story about who was buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers didn’t pan out.

He did have a creative outlet, though, one that led Hill to think he could tell the post-World War I story through song. A member of the Heartland Men’s Chorus, Hill took his idea to Artistic Director Dustin Cates.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created by an act of Congress in 1921. The body laid to rest in the tomb was one of four that had been exhumed from American cemeteries in France; the task of choosing one set of remains fell to a wounded and decorated U.S. Army Sergeant named Edward F. Younger.

Who did that body belong to? It was meant to represent every veteran and could have been anyone.

“My thought was, 'What if that young man was gay or someone that we might not at first consider?' These days that question maybe has less of the novelty," Hill notes, "but if we go back to the time this took place — even up to the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era — it is a question that some people might think, ‘Oh my goodness, what if?’”

Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Retired lieutenant colonel Rob Hill wanted to tell the story of America's Unknown Soldier in a new way.

It took a great deal of collaboration to do the story justice.

When Cates agreed that the story would be a good one for the chorus to celebrate through song, he and Hill imagined four bodies: an African-American man, a gay man, a man who’s afraid to fight, and a man who’s identified through letters he wrote to his mother.

“It is an evocative story that’s sort of cinematic, and we began to toss around ideas of who that soldier could be — all historically possible,” Cates says.

“Initially, we were going to set this to existing music,” Hill says. “But Dustin said, ‘No, if we’re going to do this, let’s go big. Let’s find someone and have the music composed specifically for this piece.’”

So the chorus commissioned Minneapolis composer Tim Takach to write the music. Cates had heard of Takach’s choral work called “All is Calm,” about the Christmas truce of 1914, so he knew Takach understood the era and perhaps some of the nuances of telling a military tale through music.

Hill wrote the first draft of the libretto. But, he says, “I don’t think I had done a good enough job at differentiating the four characters.”

Credit Anne Kniggendorf
Heartland Men's Chorus artistic director Dustin Cates conducts a recent Saturday morning rehearsal of "Indivisible: Songs of Resistance and Remembrance."

He found Pat Daneman, a poet and retired director of the Hallmark writing studio, to rework it. Within a week, she’d taken it to a “whole different level,” Hill says.

The libretto determined what kinds of music would accompany each of the four stories.

“My job as a composer is to say, ‘What musical elements can I create that can support this, buoy this emotion up to the surface without confusing (the audience). It gives the audience one more access point to figure this piece out.”

The resulting musical event, titled “Indivisible: Songs of Resistance and Remembrance,” premieres the oratorio “We, the Unknown” in the first half (the second half of the show is made up of what the Chorus describes as “songs of resistance and remembrance”).

Hill says one moment in particular stands out for him, a part “where collaboration became sort of beautiful.”

It's in a song called “A Mother’s Son.”

“Pat and I had crafted this libretto, but Tim integrated some lyrics from a British woman poet that talk about young gay men — gay in the sense of happy — but it just fit nicely.”

“A Mother’s Son” tells the story of Unknown Soldier Number Four through his mother’s memories: how he hated lima beans and how he found his first love.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Composer Tim Takach (left) and John Edmonds, who sings the role of Unknown Soldier Number One, discuss a section of the score during a rehearsal.

The chorus backs her up as she sings of his letters from the front. This section of the orchestration was not only well-served by the collaborative creation, but also in its final presentation as an all-hands ensemble piece.

“It seems there is enough room in the world for everyone,” sings Unknown Soldier Number Four, the son, and he wonders, “Why do we fight?”

The mother notes the transition her son has made from boy to man yet responds to the chorus: “I had no idea where he might be, my boy.”

Though the music and concepts are challenging, Cates says “We, the Unknown” has really grown on him.

“It’s also representative of the mission and the vision and the reason that Heartland Men’s Chorus exists,” he says. “By addressing this theme of the military and war and identifying the unknown soldier, we’re inviting folks in who otherwise might not have seen us before.”

That includes people who come to hear the men of the United States Army Soldiers’ Chorus, who will join the Heartland Men’s Chorus for a portion of the concert.

Heartland Men’s Chorus and the men of the United States Army Soldiers’ Chorus present “Indivisible: Songs of Resistance and Remembrance,” 8 p.m. Saturday, June 9 and 4 p.m. Sunday, June 10 at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64105.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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