Washington Center

UC Professor's Kennedy Center Debut

Roger Reynolds at the Luther Place Church, Washington D.C. recent concert


By Allison Larson

California News Service

He has composed symphonies for string orchestras, won a Pulitzer Prize for a musical composition inspired by a poem, and taught a generation of musicians how to incorporate technology into their creative vision.

University of California San Diego Professor Roger Reynolds' latest project is to get inside the head of George Washington.

Reynolds’s piece “george WASHINGTON” will debut at the Kennedy Center Oct 3-5 under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra.

More than 1,000 biographies have been written about the nation’s first president, as well as scores of movies, plays and musical compositions. This may be the first that includes no history or politics.

Instead, Reynolds uses a variety of artistic mediums – symphony music, spatial electronic sounds, video images from Mount Vernon, actors reading Washington’s words – to convey a feel for what was going on inside Washington’s mind.

Reynolds is no stranger to Washington. He is the director of the arts internship program at UC’s Washington Center, and has spent several terms in residence teaching students from the nine participating UC campuses. He is the first UC Arts faculty member to be granted the prestigious title of “University Professor.’’

In an interview at Washington Center – just a few miles from where Washington called home – Reynolds explained how he could contribute to the understanding of “The Father of his Country.’’

“I think we tend to see Washington in a stick figure way, as a grand, big powerful, silent man. Whereas other founders are known so much for their words, for the things they said and wrote,” Reynolds said.

“When you look at his letters and diaries, you see he had a poetic turn of phrase. I was simply stunned and I want other people to have the same experience.’’

During the piece’s Kennedy Center debut, the orchestra will be seated before three large screens – each divided into panels to replicate the cupola Washington designed atop Mount Vernon – displaying varied scenes from Washington’s estate.

The opening measures are based on an Irish folk tune which Rogers discovered at the Library of Congress in the collection of harpsichord sheet music played by Washington’s step-granddaughter Nellie.

Other sounds from Mount Vernon, including chirping birds and a gristmill, a grain grinding facility on the estate, will play throughout the concert hall in an attempt to make the audience feel as though they are hearing what Washington himself would have heard.

A trio of narrators – one as a teenage Washington, another as a middle-aged activist, and another as a retiring president – will recite passages from Washington’s diaries and letters.

Reynolds has been composing for a half century, though his first college degree was in Engineering Physics from the University of Michigan. He went to work in the missile industry as a systems development engineer, and soon realized he was spending more time in church practicing piano than at his office. 

He returned to Ann Arbor and earned another two degrees in music composition.

Reynolds joined the UC San Diego faculty in 1969, and eventually established what is now known as the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts. His work weaves traditional Western orchestral form with progressive analog and digital electronic sound.

In 1989 Reynolds won a Pulitzer Prize for his piece “Whispers Out Of Time,’’ inspired by John Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.’’  

Reynolds spent more than a year researching Washington, spending time at Mount Vernon and reading his voluminous papers.

He vowed early on that he wouldn’t go forward unless he could find enough material in the president’s diaries and letters to sustain the composition. To his delight, he discovered there was far more material than he could use.

Why the unconventional – and spell-check irritant – “george WASHINGTON?’’

“It’s simply a slight typographical inflection,’’ Reynolds explained. “It separates the ‘individual’ from the ‘MONUMENT.’”

The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California’s Washington Center. To contact, e-mail cns@ucdc.edu