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Instrumentation: Speaking chorus

Duration: ca. 5 minutes 30 seconds

Text: “Panic” by Mark Harbison

Year composed: 2019

Place composed: Kansas City, Missouri

Program Notes:
The poem “Panic,” by my brother Mark Harbison, is an evocative and visceral description of a panic attack. The way he was able to put into such vivid language a particular experience of his that was intensely personal, and yet rang true and resonated with my own experience, was immediately compelling to me. When I first read the poem, I knew right away I wanted to use it as the text for a concert music piece.

The experience of having a panic attack may seem like a strange topic for a piece of music. But music-making is primarily a communal practice, and sharing such a painful experience gives us a greater understanding of each other, and even a better understanding of ourselves. In the poem, at the crucial moment when all seems lost, the line “you’reminenow” is interrupted with “Then you see it.” The rest of the poem leads to the realization in the last line that “THIS TOO IS GRACE.” The realization doesn’t invalidate what’s come before, and doesn’t mean peace just yet. But it reflects a sense of clarity and purpose that even a panic attack is leading somewhere and is making us into who we are meant to be.

The poem suggested to me a piece consisting of speaking, whispering, breathing and sound effects, rather than pitch. I composed it for a “speaking chorus” divided into five equal sections, unlike a traditional chorus divided by pitch into higher and lower parts. After a short introduction, the piece follows the structure of the poem, with two primary sections describing the panic attack separated by a brief interlude of respite (“Then, you breathe. In. Out. In. Out.”). The second panic section ends with “you’reminenow” interrupted by “Then you see it,” leading into the final part of the poem and the realization of grace. The last line, “THIS TOO IS GRACE,” is the only line in the piece that is sung.