5 Questions to Shawn Okpebholo (composer)

Shawn Okpebholo is a widely sought after award-winning composer who has been described by composer Augusta Read Thomas as “a beautiful artist who has enormous grace in his music, fantasy and color.” A Professor of Music at Wheaton College and a composer whose music has been performed nationally and internationally, he has established a reputation for storytelling which calls attention to Black lived experience. His Two Black Churches about The Charleston 9 murders at Emanuel AME Church is deeply poignant, as are his contemporary settings of Negro Spirituals.

A dramatic new song cycle, Unknown, commissioned by Urban Arias to mark the 100th anniversary of The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier, premiered in-person on October 5 at The Barns at Wolf Trap. The online/virtual premiere is free to stream with registration from November 11-December 11, 2021.

The Tomb of The Unknown Solider honors unknown veterans from America’s 20th century wars. What has been the most interesting or surprising discovery in your research about The Unknown Soldier?

The most surprising discovery is the number of unknowns there are, and what that means upon deeper reflection. Currently, there are 2,111 unknown soldiers, which means there are 2,111 individuals who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country by serving in the military, going to war, and dying without a loved one at home to receive their body: nameless. This unfortunate fate is service, sacrifice, and selflessness personified.

The most interesting discovery is the tomb guards — service members who have guarded the tomb 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1937 — and learning about their sacred and solemn role in protecting the monument and the pride that comes with this unique honor. This discovery also includes the numerologically symbolic march routine by the soldiers watching the tomb and the ceremonial changing of the guard, which is part of the musical influence of the fourth movement, a dignified march sustained by an irregular-metered (21/8) drum cadence. The number 21 is significant because the service member who guards the tomb marches 21 steps, rests for 21 seconds, and repeats this routine in all directions until the soldier’s shift is over — symbolic of the 21-gun salute.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In Two Black Churches, the text by poet Marcus Amaker states, “And we are still trying not to taste the salt …Of our surrounding blues…Or face the rising tide of Black pain.” Is there any connection from this text to Unknown?

There is no direct connection to those painful words that poet Marcus Amaker penned for one of my earlier song sets, Two Black Churches, except that he is the librettist for this composition, as well. Additionally, his mastery of words and use of simple yet profoundly evocative text is foundational in both works. As the composer, it is a gift to work with immensely inspiring words that are full of meaning — poems that are naturally musical. This artistry is consistent with Amaker’s poetry, which is why I love collaborating with him.

For instance, my eyes swelled with tears when I first read the line of Unknown, “Silence will soon pass through me, and I will remember that I was made to have an ending.” These words are from the perspective of a soldier who knows they’re about to succumb to war; yet, the notion that we are all made to have an earthly ending is deeply affecting. “Beneath this roof are memories of life without combat, a breath before bloodshed, a love untouched by fear” is another moving line, but from the perspective of one who is waiting for their beloved to return home from war. The music flowed.

There are many more moments within his poetry that made my composition process hauntingly rewarding, including the verse, “When it rains, we are wrapped in sorrow because we can’t escape the memory of fallen heroes.”

Marcus Amaker--Photo by Ruta Smith

Marcus Amaker–Photo by Ruta Smith

Plato and Aeschylus proclaimed, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” and “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  The intersection of these ideas offers a clairvoyance for our times. How does “truth telling” play a role in your music?

These are such evocative and powerful quotes, Bill. Truth-telling plays a significant role in my music, including this work. For example, the unknowns are various types of people: soldiers from many cultural backgrounds. I wanted my work to embody that reality musically. This is why, when engaging this piece, you will experience glimpses of tango and other Latin music idioms, hints of neo-soul that give voice to Black sacrifice, and a post-modern embrace of a traditional 19th-century European waltz within this tightly cohesive song cycle. War is complicated, messy, and unforgiving, but we, as Americans, are all affected by war no matter one’s ideology, personal experiences, or cultural background: it is an odd (and sad) unifying reality.

Another example of truth-telling in this work was my intentionality with what gender and voice type I decided to set for each movement. The first movement is from the perspective of a soldier off to war, and the second movement is from the perspective of a loved one back home. It would have been most natural to have a male sing the first movement and a woman sing the second. But the creative team and I decided to switch it up and portray the soldier fighting in war as a Black woman, affirming the truth that women, particularly Black women (who are often ignored), have also fought and died for this country, as powerfully expressed by the last line of the movement: “I am one of many warriors willing to fight for a country that promises freedom, a country that I’m proud to call home.”

War is complicated, messy, and unforgiving, but we, as Americans, are all affected by war no matter one’s ideology, personal experiences, or cultural background: it is an odd (and sad) unifying reality.

The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier calls forth questions which remain unanswered. Compositionally, your music has influences from Charles Ives, whose work The Unanswered Question deals with the unknown and the unanswered. Is there a through line between Ives’ work to your Unknown?

It’s so fascinating that you asked this question. The composer I get compared to the most is Charles Ives, which I certainly don’t mind, as I consider him one of the most imaginative composers of the 20th century. I don’t think I necessarily sound like Ives. But, my music often shares some of his characteristics, including very complex piano writing (though not particularly evident in Unknown) and quoting pre-existing musical material (present in this work). In the fourth movement, I subtly quote Taps, the bugle call that happens during military funerals at, coincidentally, 21:00 hours (again, numerologically significant as noted in my answer to the first question). I also briefly quote America the Beautiful as an homage to the third verse, which says, “Oh beautiful for heroes proved / In liberating strife / Who more than self, their country loved / And mercy more than life.”

While unintentional, if there are musical parallels to Ives’ The Unanswered Question, it is best felt in the extended solo saxophone melody at the start of the work, which I present three different ways throughout this cycle. Like the famous trumpet theme in The Unanswered Question, that haunting melody creates a mysterious sound space that is uncertain, unresolved, and unknown.

Taylor Raven at the October 5 premiere of Unknown at The Barns at Wolf Trap--Photo by Abe Landis Photography

Taylor Raven at the October 5 premiere of Unknown at The Barns at Wolf Trap–Photo by Abe Landis Photography

Today’s children are growing up in a fractured America that dishonors their potential to experience the ideals of the spiritual “Great Day.” How will your music help them to learn a different truth about the potential for a greater day for them and their generation?

Forgive my informality, but I’m a sucker for hope. As such, my music often reflects an optimism that is a part of my being. As expressed in my answer to the third question, truth-telling is at the core of my music, but this truth-telling, no matter how difficult, is often supported by a beauty that evokes a hope for a greater day.


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