‘Unknown’ : A diverse musical commemoration of unidentified slain soldiers

On this Veterans Day, in celebration of its centennial, Jeffrey Brown reports on a new look at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier through music. This report is part of our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning now to this Veterans Day, in celebration of its 100th anniversary, there is a new look at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier through music.

    Jeffrey Brown has our story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

    (MUSIC)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    An echo now 100 years old, the anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the monument at Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to those killed in warfare whose remains are unidentified, and a new project to commemorate it, "Unknown," a dramatic song cycle and now also a short film.

    (MUSIC)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's told through poetry, music, and cinematic scenes five in all spanning time, from World War II to the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns today.

  • Shawn Okpebholo, Composer:

    This work is special because it's a work that all Americans can relate to, because war is something that we're oddly unified by in America.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Shawn Okpebholo was commissioned by Virginia-based opera company UrbanArias to compose "Unknown." He's an award-winning composer and professor of music composition and theory at Wheaton College in Illinois.

    He says he was fascinated to learn how people of all races and backgrounds are represented at the tomb.

  • Shawn Okpebholo:

    This is a story that people may know about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but they really don't know. At least I didn't. As I kept learning more and more, that informed my piece.

    So, for example, the music is there's a Latin tango to represent maybe the Hispanic community. There's a soulful section to represent Black sacrifice. There is an 18th century neoclassical waltz to represent the traditional opera.

    And it's all unified under this cohesive piece of work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Okpebholo worked with poet Marcus Amaker.

  • Marcus Amaker, Poet:

    I really wanted to challenge myself, as a poet, to bring out the human side of war and put some sort of emotion behind these people who we don't know who they are.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Amaker is the poet laureate of Charleston, South Carolina, and author of nine books of poetry.

  • Marcus Amaker:

    I come from a military family. And it has definitely influenced a lot of my work. I thought that it would be a nice challenge for me as a poet to kind of dig into my past and write about this in a way that I think is very emotional, very human.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Unknown" follows three characters throughout, a modern-day soldier sung and played by mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, a grieving father, baritone Michael Mayes, and a wounded man on a battlefield Schyler Vargas.

  • Marcus Amaker:

    I think a lot of poets, when we write, usually, the poem is about the — it's about the poet. So, it was a big challenge, but it was fun to kind of dive into some characters who I imagined would be there, and make them come to life.

    And I think the music part of it just added so much more depth than what my words were able to do.

  • Shawn Okpebholo:

    Once I received his poetry, I had to sit with it. I had to place myself in the context of these characters. And then, once I felt totally connected with the poem, or with all the poetry, that's when I started composing the music. And that's that's how it took shape.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One common theme, home.

    (MUSIC)

  • Marcus Amaker:

    Home has so many different definitions. Home can be heaven. Home can be a grave. But, also, home can be really in the forefront of your mind if you are fighting for the country.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In this telling, though, it's the man at home and the woman preparing for war.

  • Shawn Okpebholo:

    We switch it up a little bit. I had a Black female be the soldier, and the male was the one at home waiting for the soldier.

    I do that because — to represent the notion that all different types of people fought for this country, and certain people are kind of forgotten.

  • Marcus Amaker:

    We were like, yes, how do we push this forward so people will look at it in a different way, but appreciate it for what it is now, not necessarily for what it was.

    But it is, in my mind, a modern view of something that a lot of people have heard of. And it gives you a new perspective on that too. And I'm proud that we were able to pull it off.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Unknown," released today online, will be available to stream through December 11.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And "Unknown" can be streamed at UrbanArias.org.

    And on this Veterans Day, we pay tribute to every veteran who has served this country and made such a sacrifice for all of us.

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