Shatter the Heavens

For the most part, I grew up in a world without school shootings.

Sure, we had Code Red drills every year, but they were more spectacle than anything – a day where every kid got out of an hour of class and was rewarded with a lollipop for doing a good job. I was a senior in high school when Sandy Hook happened, and I compartmentalized it. I wasn’t in elementary school, therefore that wasn’t going to happen to me. I wasn’t going to teach, so that wasn’t going to happen to me. And when Ed Carroll and Luke Storm asked me to write for the CalArts Brass Ensemble, I wasn’t initially sure what I’d create. In fact, I danced around a few ideas as I tried to find one that would stick.

And then the Parkland shooting happened. Seventeen dead in a matter of six and a half minutes.

This one was different. Those kids didn’t let the media or their local politicians control their story, they framed it themselves. As I’m writing this, it’s been almost two months since the shooting, and these students are still locked in a battle with certain media outlets who would deride them as “crisis actors” instead of engaging in productive discussions about what, if any, policy changes could prevent future occurrences. They behave admirably, and they’re shockingly composed on camera, but the thought I’m increasingly left with is how difficult it must be to venture deep into the grieving process while they’re constantly interrupted with questions about their humanity. How acutely they must feel their dead classmates and teachers with every step they take.

Maybe, if we could shatter the heavens, we could bring them back down. But for now, we venture on.

Performance notes:

Shatter the Heavens is designed to both illuminate the stark contrast between the reverence and anger that come with grief and explore the chaos the U.S. media cycle can inflict on a high school. Nothing in the piece should be static – marked dynamics are indicative of the approximate level of sound production, and the performer is free to include swells of their own creation. The conductor is also free to aid in the manipulation of blend and balance by encouraging a performer to produce more (or less) sound. Traditionally notated sections should be played as such, with the blend and balance one might expect of a conventional low brass ensemble.

Trombone 3 and Tuba 2 will need one standard mouthpiece and one mouthpiece with a bassoon reed inside, inserted with a reusable adhesive. When playing the bassoon reed, performers will read from a three-line, movable percussion clef designed to allow the freedom to choose notes well within their comfortable range. These three lines are delineated below as “high,” “mid,” and “low,” but performers can opt to change parameters such as the number of audible overtones instead of or in addition to changing pitch. No electronics are required to achieve the granular sound heard on the recording; the bassoon reed creates this texture.

[reference score for more detailed performance notes]

A successful performance of Shatter the Heavens will be angry and upset and somber and a little bit lost.

Make it so.

Run time: approx. 5’10”.
Perusal score (PDF)

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Listen to the world premiere of Shatter the Heavens, performed by Weston Olencki, John Pisaro, Matt Barbier, Luke Storm, and Darren Dvoracek:

Or, if you like seeing what you’re hearing, watch the same performance (jump to 09:55):