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A New Orchestral Work Investigates Mass Shootings

Jake Frerer composed splinter.EXPAND
Jake Frerer composed splinter.
Julie Skarratt

In May, composer and Juilliard student Jack Frerer flew from New York to Colorado to accept an award from the Arapahoe Philharmonic. On his way into town, he passed the STEM School Highlands Ranch, where police cars were parked outside. Later that day, Frerer learned that they were responding to a school shooting that resulted in eight injuries and the death of one student.

When he finally met the members of the Philharmonic, Frerer was struck by how somber they were. “I’m from Australia,” Frerer says. “I live in New York. I’ve never been around these types of attacks before. I’ve never seen this kind of grieving process, let alone a grieving process for what happened for what seems like the twentieth time. Just to see people go through this mourning process — people were just numb.”

During the week he spent in Colorado, he weighed the idea of composing music about the attack, Colorado and gun violence, but quickly dismissed it, deciding it wasn’t his place to comment.

“I’ve never been around these types of attacks,” he says. “My experience was one of shock, and not understanding.”

Back home in New York, Frerer thought more about writing a piece about the shooting. Ultimately, he decided to research writers from Colorado who had grown up around school shootings. Perhaps with their text at the center of a piece, he could use his music to reflect on such events.

While searching for Colorado writers online, Frerer came across a poem about the twentieth anniversary of Columbine written by Denver Youth Poet Laureate Ayla Xuan Chi Sullivan.

“The first metaphor [used] in the poem is about violin strings — animal gut violin strings — resonating with each other,” Frerer says. “When you play a pitch on one violin string, the resonance of that string will transfer over to the other string, and they’ll kind of resonate together. It was just so beautiful. I thought for a moment about just using that as the text.”

But when Frerer looked up Sullivan online, he discovered that the poet had recently moved to New York to pursue an MFA in playwriting at Columbia University.

When he reached out, Sullivan, who had also been wanting to write something for music, was eager to connect. The two met over coffee in the East Village. During a seven-hour brainstorming session in September, they decided to collaborate on an orchestral work they would call splinter.

The completed work was to be premiered by the Arapahoe Philharmonic on Friday, March 27, during a concert called "Apotheosis of the Dance," with baritone Luke Sutliff, a Lakewood native and Juilliard graduate, singing the libretto. The evening's program was also set to include performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque.

The March 27 concert has been canceled because of new rules surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19). For information about future dates, visit arapahoe-phil.org.

During the premiere, Arapahoe Philharmonic principal trumpeter Anthony Zator was to play the Instrument of Hope, a trumpet made from bullet casings by Shine MSD, Inc., a nonprofit started by student survivors of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It would have been the first time the instrument was played in Colorado.

In writing splinter, Sullivan and Frerer wanted to avoid being preachy. “When we wrote this piece together, we didn’t really have a clear vision in terms of, ‘Oh, we want this to be this, or we want this piece to say this,’ Sullivan explains. “We were very curious about answering the question, ‘How do you talk about gun violence without politicizing it? How do you invite people to the conversation no matter their opinions on it?’”

Sullivan drew on personal experience, starting with a lockdown experienced in sixth grade.

“I was truly afraid that I was never going to see my family again,” the poet recalls. “I was afraid that I was never going to live the life I wanted to live. I was selfish in it, because it was the first time I’d experienced it. And then when it happened again in high school — Century 16 [the Aurora theater shooting] — it was very hard for me, because I eventually knew people that were in the theater. Again, it was new and strange. So I was selfish and angry and very vindictive toward the shooter, which I think is normal.”

But when a shooting took place at Arapahoe High School in 2013, there was a district-wide lockdown. Instead of feeling just angry at the shooter, Sullivan thought, “That’s a child.”

“There was a moment where something clicked in me because I had experienced it multiple times at that point,"
remembers Sullivan, who for a long time had wanted to write about someone who grows up in the shadow of Columbine and then starts to experience different types of trauma as a young person and student.

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“I felt that was the most effective way to speak about it without creating images that could evoke something triggering or traumatic,” the poet says. “I wanted it to be a human experience and a moment of storytelling. Really doing what I think Coloradans do best: just speaking neighbor to neighbor and saying, ‘How do you feel? I hear how you feel. This is how I feel.’”

The libretto focuses on intergenerational dialogue. “I think if we invite one another to speak to each other and to listen, then we can start thinking about a new ideology or a new sort of path of political action toward this very immense issue,” Sullivan says. “And I think it’s the empathy piece that is going to ignite us.”

Frerer says he wrote the score to splinter to ensure that the instruments and singers are in dialogue — in community. In turns, the music reflects Colorado’s landscapes with sweeping gestures and leaves room for the singer to sing quietly.

“That quieter music then changes your perception of the larger music, which is kind of the metaphor of the piece,” he explains. “You start off with this beautiful view of Colorado, and then you get sucked into the perspective of the singer, who’s singing about their experience of a lockdown. And then you’re placed back into the landscape of Colorado, but now with that altered perspective, having heard the singer.”

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