Who was George Washington?
Born a British subject, he served his king as a soldier during the French and Indian War, but the prosperous Virginia farmer seemed an improbable candidate for military and political fame until Colonial revolutionaries urged him to lead a ragtag army in quest of freedom from England.
Unlike his fellow Founding Fathers, our first president was not a university graduate, a prolific writer or an acclaimed orator, but he read avidly. Two centuries later, he springs to life in The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, where scholars and historians can consult the collection of books about agriculture, government, warfare and slavery that contributed to his personal education.
To coincide with the Sept. 27 opening of the library, the world premiere of composer Roger Reynolds‘ multimedia project “george WASHINGTON” will be performed at the Kennedy Center this week by the National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by music director Christoph Eschenbach.
The recipient of a 1989 Pulitzer Prize in Music for “Whispers Out of Time,” Mr. Reynolds was teaching an arts activation course for the University of California Washington Center when the “serendipitous opportunity” arose to create a celebratory event for the library opening. He had always wanted to know far more about this country’s first president than standard textbook accounts reveal, so he plunged into the challenge with gusto.
“Even though most of our Founding Fathers left many writings, Washington gave only three public speeches,” he told The Washington Times. “To understand him, I studied his biographies, letters, diaries and his spoken words. I learned that he was candid, dedicated and often poetic and thoughtful. Many do not know that he was passionate about education and proposed a university, even though it did not come to pass. Every morning, he got up and rode across his plantation. I wanted to know what he was thinking and hearing as he rode, and so I began an intense collaboration with a video team that recorded the sights and sounds at Mount Vernon over the period of a year.”
The short video clips will be projected on three massive screens covering the sides and back of the Concert Hall stage. At the same time, surround-sound placed throughout the hall will bring to life the birds, wind, grist mill and other characteristic noises of the plantation. Three actors will narrate the text Mr. Reynolds compiled from words Washington spoke or wrote during his youth, middle age and later years.
His musical score of 24 minutes uses traditional instrumentation augmented by a broad range of wind instruments. “My goal was to present three parts of his life: the origins, his engagement and his reflections on a new nation,” he said. “Putting this work together turned out to be an intriguing and absorbing weave of ideas in an immersive environment, one stimulated by a number of senses. My objective is to take the audience into Washington’s world through his own words, the sights he sees daily and and the sounds he hears as he makes his rounds of the plantation, perhaps the call of a bird coming from the back of the hall. With the music continuity, it adds up to one experience.”
Mr. Reynolds began studying piano during childhood, yet after performing successfully in a solo recital in his hometown of Detroit, he put music aside and entered the University of Michigan as a physics major. His first job following graduation was as a systems development engineer in the aerospace industry with Marquardt Ramjet Corporation in Van Nuys, Calif. But he did not count on his passion for music to prevail and alter the direction of his life.
Forsaking physics, he completed a military obligation before returning to Michigan, this time as a serious student of piano performance. Shortly after arriving, fate intervened once again; the ultimate lure was a class in composition.
His decision to become a composer soon bore fruit with his musical setting of a Wallace Stevens poem. Composed in 1961, the multimedia “The Emperor of Ice Cream” incorporated his intense interests in space, literature and theater, laying the groundwork for future experimental works. During the next decade, support by Fulbright, Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships enabled Mr. Reynolds to develop artistic collaborations in Europe and Japan.
Since 1969, he has taught in the music department of the University of California San Diego, where he is the first UC faculty member in the arts to hold the title of university professor. His early attraction to computer music put him in the forefront of the revolution and enables him to intertwine his teaching and compositions with the latest technology.
“In the late 1970s, I became so absorbed in the subject that I spent two summers learning all I could at Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA),” he said. “Since then, it has become a key part of my work. In ‘george WASHINGTON,’ I have incorporated many different disciplines. I hope they draw the Kennedy Center audience into his world and allow them to empathize with him as a human being, not as a monument.”
The commission of “george WASHINGTON” is a partnership between Mount Vernon and the University of California Washington Center. To whet appetites, the Kennedy Center hosts “The Many Faces of George Washington,” a nine-panel exhibit featuring facsimiles of paintings and images owned by Washington and displayed at Mount Vernon. It will be on display in the Hall of Nations through Sunday. In keeping with the period, the Millennium Stage will present 18th century music by Colonial Music Institute’s David Hildebrand on Friday, and the Ginger Hildebrand Trio on Saturday.