“The first step was to spend at least a month studying about John Brown because I only knew about the Harper’s raid,” Dr. Jesse Ayers, professor of music, said. “I didn’t know the history so I read a number of books about John Brown, tried to get a feeling for the kind of guy he was.”
It was this kind of attention to detail that produced Ayers’ award winning piece, “The Passion of John Brown.”
Commissioned by the Akron Symphony Orchestra, “John Brown” debuted in October 2009, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October of 1859.
In addition to his controversial, violent abolitionist activities, Brown spent a portion of his youth in Hudson, Ohio. He and his family would later return to Ohio and settle in the Akron area.
“I was contacted by Christopher Wilkins, the conductor of the Akron Symphony Orchestra,” Ayers said. “He said, ‘I searched the repertoire. There are not any existing pieces about John Brown.’”
Ayers had a fast-approaching deadline to meet. He recalled it being sometime in April or May when he got the call. The piece was due by August.
He set to work writing narration based on Ken Burn’s first-person account technique. He composed nearly double the length of music requested.
“I looked for quotes from his children. I had a quote from the wife of the one pro-slavery people he and his men murdered [the Pottawatomie Massacre],” Ayers said.
[pullquote]Akron Symphony wanted 10 minutes. It wound up being 19 minutes. I had a lot of interesting stuff I had to just cut out,” Ayers said.[/pullquote]
Ayers described his technique as similar to film scoring. He wrote narration first and then composed complimentary music.
For example, Ayers used a portion of the melodic theme of Brown’s favorite hymn, “The Year of Jubilee Has Come,” to mark moments when Brown decides to “take action.”
“I have those bugles there to represent the Jubilee trumpets blowing in his mind,” Ayers said. “I wanted to incorporate that idea of the year of Jubilee when the slaves are set free. And so the Jubilee trumpets are blowing behind the audience.”
Ayers meant “behind the audience” quite literally. His penchant for “surround sound” techniques leaves a unique stamp on his work.
Critics and audiences greeted Ayers’ piece warmly. Ayers submitted his composition for consideration for The American Prize for Orchestral Composition and found out late this summer that he had won.
The American Prize is a relatively new competition that recognizes composers, conductors and performers.
Ayers is more than a local composer. According to his website, Ayers’ pieces have been performed in Russia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa and in many other countries. Additionally, Ayers teaches music theory.
“This is starting my 15th year. I came here in ‘97. I love teaching at Malone. It’s a good place to work.”
Ayers’ proudest moment as an educator came when a former private student of his won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2010 for composition.
His proudest moment as a conductor?
“The evening ‘John Brown’ premiered was a big evening for me,” Ayers said. “Usually my proud moments are when I’ve been at a concert and heard one of my works done…when it’s done well.”