A 'Strong And Resounding' New Symphony, Recorded By Kansas Musicians, Transcends Dire Situations
A symphony commissioned for the University of Kansas music program in response to the Syrian refugee crisis turns out to be relevant in a pandemic, too.
The photograph was so powerful — a toddler, his body washed ashore after his family's boat capsized as they fled the Syrian civil war — that it's still resonating half a world away in Kansas.
The boy's name was Alan Kurdi. The photographer, Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency, who came upon Alan's body near the town of Bodrum, on the Turkish coast in 2015.
"As a dad and as a human being, that really shook me," says Paul Popiel.
He knew people throughout the world had the same response, because the image had quickly made its way around the internet. "The hashtag was 'humanity washed ashore,'" Popiel remembers. "It kind of encapsulated the refugee crisis."
Popiel was in a position to respond in a unique way. As director of bands at the University of Kansas, Popiel knew a composer — another "father and sensitive soul" — as well as a donor, James Zakoura of Reach Out Kansas, who commissioned an original piece of music.
That music is a four-movement, 40-minute symphony on a new album called “Freedom from Fear.”
It ended up taking on big themes. Not just the Syrian refugee crisis that led to the death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose 5-year-old brother and mother also drowned, but the idea of "displaced people" everywhere, throughout all time.
“The symphony incorporates civil rights, and the story of Moses," Popiel explains. "Also immigration through Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”
The University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble I, the KU Men’s Chorus and soloists recorded the work at the Lied Center in Lawrence just before they premiered it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in April 2018.
The composer is Kevin Walczyk, a professor of music at Western Oregon University, who uses a sort of musical coding system to tell complex stories through music.
After extensive historical research, Walczyk spells out names and phrases and then uses his cyphering system — he calls it “transformation of alphanumeric information into musical pitch information” — to create melody.
He spelled out Alan Kurdi's name, for example. He also incorporated folk songs from Kurdi's home town of Aleppo and combined them with layers of Western European music and jazz to create "sound colors." And the word "courage" is in every movement as "kind of the unifying motif," Walczyk says.
"It's a very large abstraction," Walczyk says, "but at least as a composer there's an intentionality behind it."
But there are also lyrics, which aren't abstract at all.
At one point, two singers — soprano Gretchen Pille (a KU grad) and boy soprano Ashton Rapp, who was 14 at the time of the recording — perform a lullaby between mother and son.
“She is singing to console him presumably in an afterlife," Popiel explains, "and he sings back to her, in essence, don't worry about me, mom. I'll be OK, too.”
Not wanting his music to be used as "a political statement," Walczyk says his goal was "to just talk about the unfortunate circumstances of dire situations. My goal was to try and take this piece, and transcend the ugliness of it and make something beautiful from it."
The logistics of performing the piece were daunting: nearly 70 players in the wind ensemble, another 20 in the jazz ensemble, an extra rhythm section, guitars, electric bass, string bass, harps and singers.
“They worked hard, they saw the importance of the music and the message and the knowledge that we were commercially recording and that we were premiering it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.," Popiel says of the student performers. "I think there were a lot of tear filled eyes performing this the last couple of times.”
No one, of course, could have predicted that by the time the record was released, a pandemic would have eclipsed the refugee crisis as the world's most pressing problem.
But the record's title, "Freedom from Fear," hints at its new relevance. The phrase refers to one of the essential human freedoms cited by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous "Four Freedoms" speech at the beginning of World War II, which later became part of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"That seems every bit and maybe more relevant today than it did two years ago," Popiel says, "not just in terms of immigration, but in terms of the world we live in and what happens tomorrow and how we navigate this together, between people, between nations, between continents, between ideologies. We're all afflicted by the same problem right now."
He notes that Walczyk's symphony ends with an especially brass-heavy passage.
"It's very strong and resounding," he says. "To me, that's Kevin's belief that we as a world will overcome this. We will be our best selves and we will take care of each other."