In honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band premieres an original piece of music composed by Assistant Director Maj. Ryan J. Nowlin. In a special video production, the composition’s first performance was captured under the glowing stained glass of the Washington National Cathedral, while being played by the Marine Chamber Orchestra accompanied by a Joint Armed Forces Chorus.
Watch "These Lights, Which Shine"
The project began when Marine Band Director Col. Jason K. Fettig approached Nowlin to write a piece for the occasion.
“It was an incredible opportunity, but also such a challenge,” Nowlin said. “What was an appropriate way to approach this anniversary and provide what the country needs in this moment?”
Seeking the right words for the chorus, Nowlin pored over texts for inspiration – everything including writings from that day, poetry written about loss, and even transcripts of the many tragic phone calls that were made.
One work, provided to him by personal friend Judith Clurman, immediately stood out – Hannah Senesh’s Yiddish poem Yeish Kochavin, meaning “There are Stars” or “Among the Stars.”
“Her writings have this beauty which really spoke to me,” Nowlin said.
The words draw upon the imagery of light from stars in the night sky as a metaphor for how the memories of those we have lost live on well after they are gone.
As translated by Bruce L. Ruben, the poem reads:
There are stars whose light reaches the earth
only after they themselves are no more.
There are people whose radiant memory shines in the world
even after they themselves have left it.
These lights - which shine in the darkest night -
These, these illumine the path for us all.
In a way, these words embody the author’s own narrative.
During World War II, Senesh was a special operations executive for the British Army who was arrested at the Hungarian border after parachuting into Yugoslavia. She was tortured and executed in 1944 at the age of 23.
Despite the abrupt end to her life, Senesh’s light continues to radiate through her words.
“She’s written three stanzas that take the reader on this journey from the stars whose light reaches the Earth after they’re gone to the people whose memory shines even after they’re gone,” Nowlin said. “As I sat and thought about her transition from stars to lights, I found myself rising in emotion.”
“The lights made me think about people who illumine the path for us. Those lost on 9/11 are the lights. They remain with us in other ways, showing us the way forward without being physically present.”
Nowlin admits that creating a piece of music as a worthy companion to the text seemed intimidating. His musical ideas had to carry as much weight as the few, but carefully chosen words.
“The poem, in my opinion, is so powerful that you don’t want to say it more than once,” Nowlin said. “But I immediately saw the lights and heard the sound.”
Not wanting the listener to miss a word, he did choose to underscore the poem’s phrases through repetition. He let the music and the motives drive how often each line was repeated, allowing time for the listener to understand the sentiment of each stanza before moving on to the next.
“Musically, I wanted the piece to reflect that same storyline – that same journey I took as a reader. So, I started with that same sense of emptiness and loss that has endured for the past 20 years, and I reflected that in instrumental mournful solos: the alto flute and the English horn that are speaking together, but never really together.”
That woodwind pair uses the verbal cadence of “there are stars” in a minor mode to set the motivic groundwork for the voices which enter reciting the solemn first stanza of the poem.
In the second stanza, when Senesh transitions to “there are people whose radiant memory shines in the world,” Nowlin then shifts to the parallel major to make the sound more comforting as the mood lifts. He then extends the musical phrase on the word “shine” in the relative major key, projecting a brighter, hopeful feeling.
“Just the word ‘shine’ lights up the whole poem,” Nowlin said. “It just brings light.”
For a fleeting moment, the listener is immediately brought back to the minor key in that same section for “even after they themselves have left it.” Senesh doesn’t try to move past the loss and absence - she keeps it as a reminder.
To complete the poem, Nowlin chose to introduce the last line in a major key and then repeat it emulating minor. “These illumine the path for us all. These illumine the path.”
The end of the poem rests in the middle of the composition, allowing space in the second half to ruminate on the imagery of lights which shine in the darkest night.
The chorus then repeats “these lights,” continually shifting between moods, much like the emotions experienced when reflecting on September 11th.
“If you listen closely in the background over this entire build-up section, you’ll hear some handheld percussion instruments; finger cymbals and triangles,” Nowlin said. “These are just subtle bits of light that are very sparse at first, but are the lights that begin to appear in the sky and build emotion while nearing the climax."
The crescendo reaches its peak on “these lights - which shine in the darkest night,” where the sopranos are taken to their highest pitch for the first time in the piece.
As though it were a thousand stars shimmering, the word “shine” then repeats resplendently before releasing into a gentle, yet hopeful ending.
“I hope people find comfort, and that people have spent time to be honest with themselves and engage with the emotions of that day and today,” Nowlin said. “I wanted to convey thoughts of compassion, of love, and of togetherness. That we’re never lost and we’re never alone.”