Bruce Yurko: In Memoriam: Kristina

Sometimes, life just does not make sense.

There are moments we encounter that cause us to give pause and reflect, occasionally with severe emotion, and examine the aftermath for any shred of cohesion. The idea that what is or has happened is part of the fabric of a larger tapestry that makes up the universe in which we live and operate.  It is in these moments where we often fall prey to coincidence, I would suspect, begging and pleading to be at peace with our unrest.  Even at the cost of coming to believe a complete lie.

And yet somehow he copes.
We often encounter this dilemma at a point of great and tragic loss. At a moment, when the catharsis of just having a thread to cling to might be the difference between composure and collapse.

So, with that lens, we examine Bruce Yurko's (b. 1951) "In Memoriam: Kristina".  It was written following the death of a young French horn player in 1995 named Kristina Damm who perished following a walk on a beach in Virginia with her father.  A storm had just passed, the sky had cleared and a bolt of lightning came out of the blue and hit them both.

Her father was unharmed, but Kristina succumbed to her injuries the following day, two days before she was to return to her high school for marching band camp.  The story goes that Mr. Yurko was Kristina's horn tutor, a title he bore proudly as she would often demonstrate a great faculty and eagerness in approaching her studies on the instrument.

Yurko's piece begins with a very ethereal, haunting mallet motif that is repeated intermittently throughout the piece as it develops.  At an early point an off-stage horn player is heard playing a solo, and (if memory serves me, I don't have the program notes in front of me as of writing) a vacant chair is placed in the horn section. This evolves into a choir-like woodwind echo of the horn solo, punctuated by the mallet theme as it spreads out to a full band texture into a climactic statement of the primary theme.

As it resolves from this first statement, the clarinets and mallets escort us into a final statement from the off-stage horn, that introduces a secondary theme that sounds reflective and hopeful, performed as a brass chorale.  This segues into a mechanical, clockwork of what I can only presume is the composers interpretation of someone mentally wrangling with finding purpose in the purposeless.  It's chilling and uncomfortable as a very melodic, consonant melody interacts with an underlying tone of dissonance enhanced by a sustained piano.  This theme of confusion eventually builds into a full-out roar only to sink back into a clarinet and oboe texture that slowly returns us to the brass chorale, as played by the flute section.  Eventually this returns to the brass and eventually the horns as a prominent statement of that melody turns back to the terrifying percussion of the introduction, echoing into the distance as the solo horn plays once more.  Finally, a brass chorale answers the horn player to bring us to a close.

I was happy to realize that Mr. Yurko studied composition with Karel Husa (who we will be examining next week), because there is much of his use of percussion and underlying dissonance that makes me think of Husa's own work, "Music for Prague".  There's just this general feeling that we are walking along a thin line between sanity and crazy, and trying to make sense of the middle while the world around us slowly goes to hell.

Nothing about this story makes sense.  Kristina should still be alive today, playing horn or being successful at whatever she does. It's a freak accident that had no reason for happening, and begs the question: what kind of loving God would take away a child from her parents without any provocation or sense of reason? It's a contradictory line of thinking and therefore without reason.

I never had the pleasure to make her acquaintance, but through Yurko's writing I somehow mourn her loss. I can feel what kind of person she was, at least what kind of person she was to Yurko.

In the end, we can try and search for a reason for this, or for any number of terrible, awful things that occur in and about our daily lives on this rock, and we will come up empty.  And we can grapple with the uncertainty of our decisions and actions and the resulting consequences, both good and bad, and find no rhyme nor reason to the resulting outcomes.  

Sometimes, life just does not make sense.

And without any sort of accompanying glance to a tapestry of great conspiracy.

Kristina's band went on to have a very successful season, no doubt driven to work by the memory of their friend.  Their band director, Paul Tomlin, was quoted as saying, "It's nice that we won this, but quite honestly the trophies are dust collectors. But it's what comes out of [the students'] hearts that was important for Kristina's memory."

In that sense, we don't really die when we cease to breathe, or when our brain function flat-lines.  Our existence becomes solely fused with those that remember us.  Our thoughts and mannerisms live on continually in their minds and affect their being until they die.  And as we each interact with each other, these traits are transitioned and blended into a matrix of behavior and thoughts that becomes a sort of algorithm that runs on the intelligence of the entire race.

I can't speak on what Yurko was trying to say in this piece, nor can I begin to understand what Kristina's parents experience must be like, but I can say I've shared in the sorrow of knowing a version of Kristina, part of her algorithm, and knowing that it can only live on in those that hear it and remember it.  

Music is a beautiful artform, that it can only be observed through experiencing it, performing or listening.  

It becomes part of our own algorithms.

See you next Friday.