The Grave of Old John Brown

for Da Camera Young Artist Program

The Grave of Old John Brown was commissioned for a performance in conjunction with the Menil Drawing Institute’s exhibit The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns. Jasper Johns is of course famous
for his paintings and drawings of the American flag, and with this in mind I decided to write a piece incorporating a bit of musical Americana, the civil war song John Brown’s Body. For Johns, the American flag was
a "thing the mind already knows”, meaning our familiarity with its composition allowed it to be an accessible backdrop for his expressive, painterly brushwork. My goal was to use the folk tune in the same way, as a familiar
musical object that could support my compositional ideas.
John Brown’s Body commemorates the radical abolitionist John Brown, who was executed for his involvement in the Harpers Ferry Raid. I am familiar with the song from a recording made by Pete Seeger; the tune is the same as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The piece is in four movements. The first movement is a short prelude that vaguely hints at the tune, outlining its descending steps and upward arpeggios. The second movement presents the tune in full force, contextualized in an asymmetrical march that recalls the song’s original military context. The third movement treats the tune as a locked isorhythm, vamping above a free and highly-inflected bass solo. The fourth movement is an ecstatic celebration on the final five notes of the tune, which feature the words “His soul goes marching on”.

Ensemble: 
Duration: 
13 minutes
Date: 
December, 2018