Composer David Woodard hopes to serenade Timothy McVeigh at his execution.

Prequiem Dream 

Composer David Woodard hopes to serenade Timothy McVeigh at his execution.

On Wednesday, May 16, Timothy McVeigh will be executed at Terre Haute Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for his role in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City six years ago. Only a few of the 168 victims' families will be able to fit in the witnesses' room for McVeigh's execution, and a federal judge still has not decided whether he will allow them to view it by closed-circuit television. But Lawrence/Los Angeles composer David Woodard (no relation to any involved) wants to make sure he and 29 fellow musicians can be there to perform a song of comfort. Not for the grieving families of the victims, and not for the grieving family of the dying, either (none of McVeigh's relatives will be in attendance), but for McVeigh himself.

With little more than a month left until McVeigh's execution, Woodard is running out of time to convince unmoved officials that the prison grounds provide an appropriate venue for the premiere of his latest project, "Ave Atque Vale." On March 16, Terre Haute Public Affairs Officer James Cross announced that no chamber orchestra of any size would be permitted to perform at the site, despite Woodard's score instructions, which indicate that McVeigh's presence immediately prior to the execution is "a component to the general requiem's initial performance." On his Web site(, Woodard provides contact information for the people he feels are unjustly censoring his expression, urging readers to preserve "the integrity of American music" by preventing his piece from becoming "America's first banned orchestral score since 1941, when Stravinsky's nondiatonic arrangement of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was ordered physically removed from music stands by policemen." Such propaganda has had little effect -- at press time, Gregory Hershberger, the Kansas City, Kansas-based regional director of the Bureau of Prisons, maintained that Woodard would not be able to perform on site -- but in this recent e-mail interview, the beleaguered composer explains his unyielding stance:

Pitch: You did something similar in Los Angeles for the victims of a February 1 funicular railway accident. What made you decide to compose that piece?

Woodard: I observed from my office the horrific spectacle involving the Angels Flight funicular. A failing gear caused the trolley to crash, killing Holocaust survivor Leon Praport and critically injuring his wife, Lola. Because I am in the habit of composing requiems, I attempted to pay Lola Praport a visit in the hospital the following day and discuss with her possible details of a custom requiem. While briskly striding into the hospital, I recall feeling like Crispin Glover's ambulance-chasing hearse driver in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and was appalled to find that city-appointed guards protected Lola's privacy. I returned to the office and began studying the accident and composing the piece I would eventually title "An Elegy for Two Angels," thinking Lola was on her way out. Ideally, I would perform the elegy for Lola while she was still in a condition to appreciate the music -- as a "prequiem," my coinage for a requiem performed for the nearly dead. Weeks later, shortly before I completed the elegy, Mayor Richard Riordan granted Lola the unusual permission to fly home despite laws restricting interstate transit of patients listed in critical or serious condition. Six weeks after the accident, at the scene of the horrific death, I premiered "An Elegy for Two Angels" with members of the Los Angeles Marching Band. The Angels Flight block of Hill Street was partially closed, and Lola's attorney, Gary Dordick, who ceremonially received the score on her behalf and flew to New Jersey the following morning to personally deliver the gift, represented her. Adam Parfrey emceed the event, introducing various civic, religious and cultural leaders (e.g., Rabbi Cooper of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Leonard Jackson of First AME Church, Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, council member Rita Walters, all-retardate rock group Hi Hopes and others), who gave brief encomiums and eulogies. By a bizarre coincidence, my favorite movie star, Crispin Glover, was present and said that he loved the music. He needs someone to score the movie he's now directing, which stars Margit Carstensen, of Fassbinder fame, so perhaps he'll come to his senses.

Pitch: Why did you decide to pay a similar tribute on this occasion (McVeigh's execution)?

Woodard: One link between "An Elegy for Two Angels" and "Ave Atque Vale" is the prevalence of the number 33 in these deaths. In the case of Angels Flight, the funicular's incline was 33 degrees. Also, the building at the top of the world's shortest railway was at one time Elks Lodge 99. In Timothy McVeigh's case, 33 is everywhere. The post office box for inmate correspondence at Terre Haute is 33. The size of Terre Haute penitentiary is 33 acres. McVeigh's final attempt to appeal last year was procedure 33. Moreover, like Christ, McVeigh will be 33 and nearly universally despised at the time of his execution.

Pitch: How do the two pieces differ, both in their intent and composition?

Woodard: "Elegy" is a melancholic brass fanfare. Though fairly diatonic, it is intended to yield a suspended-in-animation feeling in the listener. It is slow, chordal and makes heavy use of accidentals until the end, which is extremely climactic, as though someone just arrived at a lovely place. "Ave Atque Vale," on the other hand, begins pointilistically and atonally. Amused by Penderecki's notation habits, I have invented some new symbols here, such as the increasingly hypertensive-looking chicken-scratch bassoon and contrabassoon lines in the first two-and-a-half-minute measure. However, after three and a half minutes, the strings and winds join harmonically with the baritone, which intones the only lyrics in "Ave Atque Vale." This is a line I heard from the lips of James Grauerholz. After attempting to eulogize the passing of William Burroughs and choking up, he closed his contribution to Burroughs' funeral with "Ave Atque Vale" -- onward, valiant soldier. "Ave Atque Vale" ends with a massive, long-held tone cluster played by all strings and winds, accompanied by a triangle (played by the baritone). This represents the entire universe being placed at the disposal of the dying subject. After the tone cluster has concluded, the triangle continues, mezzo piano, for three minutes and 33 seconds, attenuating in speed.

Pitch: In the piece's original title, "Farewell to a Saint," who is the "Saint" if, as you said in the press release, it should be obvious that it's not McVeigh?

Woodard directed the Pitch to his Web site, on which he reveals that the piece was originally intended to serve as a prequiem for Dr. Jack Kevorkian on the occasion that he should perish as the result of his proposed hunger strike. As Woodard was putting the finishing touches on "Saint," "Kevorkian's secretary, Ruth Holmes, kindly phoned to inform me of Jack's decision to remain alive," Woodard says on the site. Woodard shelved the score until he came across a wire service account of McVeigh's wish for a speedy execution. "I immediately recognized the nearly finished score as incidental music destined by an unlikely congress of muses, including the pre-ghost of Jack Kevorkian, to accompany the death of Tim McVeigh, as his inexplicable circumstances resoundingly invoke the symbols, shapes and numbers found on these pages," Woodard writes.

Pitch: Did you find it strange that McVeigh's attorney was one of your lone supporters connected to this case?

Woodard: That seems perfectly appropriate. Robert Nigh Jr. has obviously developed a personal affinity for McVeigh, is genuinely sad about the execution and wishes to do what he can to make it a satisfying experience for all parties concerned -- particularly his unfortunate client. Though he supports McVeigh's execution, Courtney Love's father, Holy Grail scholar Hank Harrison, is the requiem's lone financial backer.

Pitch: Do you think what McVeigh did on April 19, 1995, was in any way patriotic?

Woodard: The media underestimates and insults the intelligence of the public by denying or turning attention from McVeigh's brilliant, sturdy sense of humor. His "collateral damage" line, for example, is pure Mark Twain, not an example of blundering inhumanity. McVeigh is an intuitively skilled, savvy media figure, drolly echoing the rhetoric of Bush circa Gulf War and Reno following Waco. Twain's mockery of evil wartime euphemisms in, for example, "The War Prayer" comes to mind. When you consider the inhuman duress under which McVeigh now operates, you face the tragic murder of an amazing, albeit misguided, talent with an irrepressible sense of love, beauty and honor. Not seeking to champion McVeigh's cause or encourage his pardon, I am merely awed by who he is and his circumstances.

Pitch: Who are the "brave survivors being brought comfort and enduring closure" by the performance of this piece at this time and place?

Woodard: I would hope that "Ave Atque Vale" brings McVeigh comfort, as he is the one going away to the Unknown forever, but of course the brave survivors to whom I refer are friends and family members of the Murrah Building casualties, whose presence at the execution is expected to exceed a thousand.

Pitch: Why does the score indicate that McVeigh must be present to hear the piece? If this is to exhibit the Socratic ideal of "death with dignity," why is it being attempted to be performed on site at the prison, but not intended for McVeigh?

Woodard: The word "saint" in the original title referred to Jack Kevorkian, not McVeigh. I changed the title after repeatedly fielding complaints and warnings that I was sympathizing with a bad man. Nearly everyone to whom I mention this project tries to dissuade me, if not overtly, then by pretending the project doesn't exist. The new Latin title befits McVeigh, in that the T-shirt he donned on the morning of the bombing bore the words sic semper tyrannis (thus ever to tyrants), words screamed by John Wilkes Booth immediately after assassinating Abraham Lincoln.

Pitch: Would the victims' memorial in Oklahoma City provide a more appropriate setting?

Woodard: Too depressing.

Pitch: In light of the victims' families' negative reaction to the authors of an upcoming book on McVeigh, what do you think will be their reaction to you if you are allowed to perform this piece inside the prison, or anywhere?

Woodard: American Terrorist appeared in book stores Tuesday [April 3]. I have already received reactionary e-mail from an Oklahoma City writer. "So you are clearly a supporter of McVeigh and what he has done?" was her pleasant closing question, as though just making sure before reporting a suspicious religious composer to the FBI. I imagine there are a lot of very disoriented people in Oklahoma City, and I certainly do not wish to aggravate them. Perhaps they will derive something worthwhile from "Ave Atque Vale" -- ideally an ineffable bliss causing them to transcend their paranoias that they are being disrespected by being forced into united listenership with McVeigh.

Pitch: How do you think they should see you and what you are attempting to do?

Woodard: I am really not concerned with that, as I feel it is beyond my control.

Pitch: McVeigh himself wants the execution to be televised and seems to have a desire to make a public spectacle of his execution, perhaps to make a martyr of himself in the eyes of some. Do you feel what you are doing adds to or detracts from his intentions?

Woodard: I agree that McVeigh seems to want a spectacle, perhaps as a means of clearly and resonantly intoning a statement. However, the media slant on his televised execution idea unfairly seeks to demean and caricature McVeigh, likening his thirst for notoriety with his love of cartoons and Slurpees. What McVeigh did was not nice, but I believe his sacrificial act was meant to convey a message of outrage -- something he felt compelled, perhaps by divine fiat, to spell out for humanity. In his military way, he was honoring the memory of forgotten "collateral damage." As a composer of requiems, I can relate to the importance of honoring the memory of dead people. Hence, as "Ave Atque Vale" seeks to heal the wounds of all survivors concerned and honor the memory of all casualties concerned, McVeigh and the victims of Waco and Ruby Ridge included, what I am doing adds to and subtracts from McVeigh's intentions.


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