It’s the evening of February 25th, 2022. In the darkness, a grainy 30-second selfie video of five men on the streets of Kiev: “Good evening to all” says the gravelly voice of the man in front, holding the phone. “The leader of the bloc is here. The head of the President’s office is here. Prime Minister Schmyhal is here. Podoliak is here. The President is here. We are all here. The soldiers are here, the citizens are here, and we are here….We defend our independence. Glory to our defenders, glory to Ukraine.” No press conference. No soaring rhetoric. No lectern or flag or presidential seal. Just a 30-second video calmly stating the only fact that mattered in that moment: We Are Here. Still Here.
That video and its message became the inspiration for this composition. Like millions around the world, I was deeply moved by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s calm resolve and courage, rallying his people – and the world – in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression. As I worked on the piece, I thought about this idea of “Still Here” and everything it represents. It is the rallying cry of any marginalized group that refuses, against all odds, to be destroyed or forgotten. I thought of my own Jewish ancestry and the generations upon generations who endured discrimination, expulsions, pogroms, and genocide, but who nonetheless continued to assert: We Are Still Here. Our people, our religion, our culture: Still Here. I thought of the dehumanizing institution of slavery in my own country and the extraordinary resilience of African-Americans who, through generations of violence and oppression, continued to assert through culture, religion, music: We Are Here. Still Here. I thought of how, even today in the United States, there is an ongoing attempt to effectively legislate LGBTQ people out of existence. It will not and cannot succeed. Because our LGBTQ siblings are here. They have always been here. They will always be here. Still Here. And on a more personal note, every act of artistic creation is in some sense a statement of “Still Here.” It asserts for all time that this person, this being, this soul existed. Even long after I am gone, some small shred of my soul will persist in the music I leave behind. Still Here.
Still Here is scored for B-flat clarinet and piano, and is in four movements. Movement 1 is inspired most directly by the Zelensky video. It begins with solo clarinet on its lowest note (E) slowly spinning out a mournful, stately, insistent melody. Piano enters, quiet and spare at first, and both voices gradually grow in confidence and intensity. It builds to a searing high note in the clarinet, before plummeting once more to the low E and ending quietly, questioning. It is sombre, yet also defiant, like Zelensky in the video. Still Here.
Movement 2 interrupts with a racing scherzo. Towards the middle, a klezmer tune nearly breaks out, and then the movement 1 theme returns, but now bopping along over a funky bass line. At first, I struggled to accept the more dance-y, playful, even humorous music that seemed to want to be part of this piece. But then I read an article about the thriving stand-up comedy scene in Ukraine, and thought about the rich comedic tradition in my own Jewish heritage. I realized that part of the idea of “Still Here” is proclaiming that we will not merely survive, but we will live fully. We will experience joy and love and laughter, despite our sorrows and oppression.
Movement 3 is a respite, a simple love song, tinged with nostalgia.
A brief clarinet cadenza then leads directly into movement 4, a rollicking klezmer tune marked “defiantly joyful.” After building to a climax, the movement 2 theme returns, leading into a dramatic return of the movement 1 melody, now played with even greater intensity. The piece ends with the clarinet back on the same low E that began the whole piece, now played five consecutive times at top volume, while the piano bangs out the main theme one last time. With that defiantly fortissimo low E, the clarinet proclaims again what it has been proclaiming from the beginning of the piece, what Zelensky proclaimed in that video, and what generations of marginalized and oppressed peoples have proclaimed throughout history: We Are Still Here.
This work was generously commissioned by a consortium of 52 clarinetists. I am deeply grateful to every single one of them for believing in the vision of this piece and coming along on the journey. The members of the consortium are:
Alan Kay, Annie Phillips, Benjamin Mitchell, Brittany Barry, Bruce Belton, Christin Hablewitz, Christopher Nichols, Christy Banks, Debbie Rawson, Diane Barger, Dickson Grimes, Digital Clarinet Academy, Eva Tartaglia, Gary Gorczyca, Gracie Barrett, Jack Liang, Jackie Glazier, Jason Marquez, Jeremy Ruth, Jeremy Wohletz, Jo-Ann Sternberg, Joel Russell, Jonathan Aubrey, Josh Woods, Joshua Gardner, Julie Stuckenschneider, Katie Kimmel, Katie Ravenwood, Kim Fullerton, Laura Ramsey Russell, Leslie Moreau, Lynne Snyder, Macey Campobello, Marcy Bacon, Margalit Patry-Martin, Margaret Thornhill, Marguerite Levin, Mariam Adam, Nathan Soric, Peter Hansen, Ralph Skiano, Robert Spring, Shengwen Wu, Stefanie Gardner, Stephanie Grubbs, Stephen White, Tara Glaspey, Tim Sutfin, Timothy Bonenfant, Victor Drescher, Vince Dominguez / Claire Annette, and Wolcott Humphrey.