We, The Unknown original choral work
"Pay tribute not only to the Unknown of WWI but all who have served"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
We, The Unknown (WETU) is a brand-new musical commission conceived by Rob Hill, a retired Army Lt. Col and third-generation soldier whose paternal grandfather, John G. Hill, Sr., served in World War I. The work is slated to premiere in Kansas City, MO on June 9th & 10th. The idea for the musical work came to Rob after hearing a brief history of how America’s Unknown Soldier was selected. Almost immediately, he wondered, “what if the person selected was gay or African-American or someone else we might not otherwise expect?” Initially, he considered almost every other format possible to tell the story—novel, film, play—but when he moved to Kansas City, home to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and joined the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC), he decided that a choral work for men’s voices was the best medium to pay tribute not only to the Unknown Soldier but all who have served, many in silence. This project is an official Commemorative Partner to the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission. No one works alone, so we discussed the WETU project with Rob Hill, with Ms. Pat Daneman, Rob's co-librettist, and with Timothy C. Takach, the project's musical composer
Tell us about your chorus project, "We, The Unknown". What is the project overall, why WWI, where & when will it play?
When completed, We, The Unknown will be an original choral work 30 to 40 minutes in length for men’s voices and soloists, including one woman who is representative of Gold Star Mothers. It will be performed by Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorus, in collaboration with the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, as part of a larger concert titled Indivisible: Songs of Resistance and Remembrance.
The concert will be presented at the Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City, June 9 and 10, 2018, to commemorate the centennial of the U.S.’s involvement in WWI, as well as celebrate the principle that ALL are created equal. For more information about the project and the concert, visit http://wetheunknown.org.
This is history melded with performance art -- How did the creative process for this project happen? How was it researched? How long has this been developing?
In many ways, We, The Unknown is a story waiting to be told. It was conceived by Rob Hill, a retired Army Lt. Col and third-generation soldier, whose paternal grandfather, Brig. Gen John G. Hill, Sr. served in World War I. The idea came to him after hearing a brief history of how America’s Unknown Soldier was selected.
Almost immediately, he wondered: what if the person selected was gay or African-American or someone we might otherwise not expect? Initially, he considered almost every other format possible to tell the story—novel, film, play—but when he moved to Kansas City, home to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and joined Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC), he decided that a choral work for men’s voices was the best medium to pay tribute not only to the Unknown of WWI but all who have served, many in silence. Rather than use existing music, HMC’s artistic director, Dustin Cates, recommended a new commission and suggested composer Timothy C. Takach for the job.
Takach, who co-created the theatrical production All is Calm: the Christmas Truce of 1914, with Peter Rothstein and sang with Cantus, one of the U.S.’s premier men’s vocal ensembles, is quickly becoming among the most sought-after choral composers in the nation.
Hill drafted the libretto based on a number of sources, particularly historical narratives about the role of Sgt. Edward F. Younger in choosing the Unknown Soldier. Younger’s task was to select one coffin among four and the libretto gives voice to the four lives represented by the coffins. The libretto is a mix of original lyrics and poetry and narrative of the WWI era, to include Alan Seeger’s I Have a Rendezvous with Death and John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Once he completed the draft, Hill felt a poet’s touch was needed. After some research, he reached out to Pat Daneman, past director of Hallmark Card’s writing studio, whose refinement of the lyrics gives each character their unique, very human voice.
What has it been like to work with the World War I Museum and Memorial? What role have they played in the process?
The WWIMM has been an invaluable partner in the process. Dr. Matthew Naylor, CEO of the WWIMM, was an early supporter of HMC’s project. Archivist Jonathan Casey read over the libretto to ensure historical accuracy and Lora Vogt, Curator of Education, has been the Museum’s go-to person for coordinating collaborative events, such as panel discussions and guest speakers envisioned for the spring of 2018. One collaboration facilitated by Ms. Vogt is a partnership with the Kansas City Symphony to co-host a Big Camp Sing during the 2018 Memorial Day weekend. This event will seek to replicate the training camp singing programs established by the Commission on Training Camp Activities to raise morale and increase unit cohesion in the lead-up to WWI.
Who are the members of Heartland Chorus of Kansas City? What has been their response to the material?
HMC is a non-profit community chorus of approximately 130 members founded in 1986. It is Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus based on its historical roots and ongoing focus, but it is neither exclusively male nor exclusively gay. Its mission is to provide excellence in performance while advancing men’s choral music, building community, and reaching out to diverse audiences. Its vision is: Our Voices Enlighten, Inspire, Heal and Empower. The chorus produces three concerts a year. As We, The Unknown is still in early stages of development and won’t be performed until June 2018, members have not yet had a chance to engage the material, although they have expressed enthusiasm for the “Indivisible” theme of the concert in which the composition will appear.
Timothy C. Takach – Composer:
Bringing this piece to life will be an enjoyable musical challenge for me. I'm working with five soloists, the chorus and a chamber orchestra. Each character in the libretto will have their own musical identity, and I've gone through the texts and decided what instrumentation will accompany which voice. Because we're telling four different soldier's stories, I'm also planning the pacing of the piece, such as who sings or plays when and how the texture will shift to keep the listener engaged. Certainly there will be moments of sadness in these stories, but there will also be moments of pride, of doubt, of fear, and of love. I've written five movements so far, which is about 12 minutes of music, and I'm excited to dig deeper and bring this story to life.
Pat Daneman – Co Librettist:
I am a poet and fiction writer, drawn to both lyric and narrative, so I was thrilled when Rob asked me to co-write a libretto with him. Rob had already done the research and fact-checking and created the characters and the structure. The subject matter also resonated for me. I had spent a few weeks in England last summer where I visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. They had an exhibit commemorating their WWI centennial and honoring the gardeners, all from the nearby village, who had gone to fight--of the twelve who left only three came home.
At the time Rob contacted me, I had begun work on a long poem about this visit to Cornwall. The poem is still unfinished, but because of Rob's preliminary work and the reading I had been doing, my contribution as co-librettist came relatively easily. I focused on fleshing out the characters--adding details to their backstories to make them as real as possible. I also played with the language to make the sound as pleasing as possible. This was my first experience with a choral work, and it was a joy.