Kamiak choir to sing in shooting victim’s honor

Song commissioned for Anna Bui to debut at end-of-year concert
By Nicholas Johnson | May 17, 2017
Photo by: Nicholas Johnson Composer Eric William Barnum, right, works with Kamiak High School’s advanced mixed choir Monday, May 15, at the school. Barnum composed a choral piece accompanied by piano in honor of shooting victim Anna Bui.

In the days after Anna Bui was gunned down by her ex-boyfriend at a house party in Mukilteo last summer, Kamiak High School Choir Director Nancy Duck-Jefferson sent an email to Bui’s favorite composer.

“You were her favorite composer,” Duck-Jefferson wrote to Eric William Barnum. “The Kamiak Choirs have loved performing your pieces and we would very much like for you to write a piece in honor of Anna.”

Without hesitation, the award-winning composer and conductor of choral, instrumental and vocal works agreed.

“He said yes immediately, which was great because he’s kind of a big name in the choral composition world,” Duck-Jefferson said of Barnum, who is also Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he leads the Chamber Choir and Le Chœur De Femmes.

“I thought he was the one who could make a piece of art that honored Anna in the best way possible.”

Bui, a 2015 Kamiak graduate who had spent all four years of high school singing in the school choir, was killed July 30, 2016, as were Jordan Ebner and Jake Long. Another victim, Will Kramer, was shot but not killed.

“I was in shock,” Duck-Jefferson said. “Anna was my student for four years, so I got to watch her grow up.”

In an effort to be resilient under the weight of so much grief, the community declared itself Mukilteo Strong, but the healing process has been ongoing. Duck-Jefferson said she commissioned a piece from Barnum in hopes it might help her students, and the community, process that grief.

“I knew I would be coming back to school this year in very different way,” she said. “A lot of my students knew her very well, so I wanted to help them deal with the grief.”

When she told Bui’s former choir classmates that Barnum would be composing a piece in Bui’s honor, several asked if they could lend their voices. Fellow 2015 graduate Katie Poddubnaya is one those alumni.

“The shooting really shook us,” said Katie Poddubnaya, who met Bui in choir as a freshman. “It’s been easy to feel angry and confused, but I think singing something together in her honor can help us feel peace and come to accept what happened.”

By March of this year, Barnum had completed his composition, titled “The Morning of Eternity,” and sent it to Duck-Jefferson so the choir could begin practicing it ahead of its end-of-year concert, which is set for 7 p.m. June 8 at the school’s Performing Arts Center.

“My task became thus: attempt to somehow encapsulate, in a musical context, the ideas of pain, utter emptiness, passion, anger, confusion, memory, concepts of eternity and in this case, because of the text, hope,” Barnum wrote in a March 28 blog post on ericwilliambarnum.wordpress.com.

“Needless to say, I struggled a lot to do that in a way that made sense to me, with the gravitas required.”

Thanks to a donation from a parent, Duck-Jefferson was able to fly Barnum out to Seattle so he could work with the choir at Kamiak before the concert, where the school’s advanced mixed choir will perform his piece.

“It’s a unique experience for the kids to be able to work with the composer himself,” said Duck-Jefferson, noting that she has never before commissioned a piece for her school choir.

“We’re sort of giving birth to this piece. It will enter the choral literature and many other groups around the world will end up performing it.”

Barnum spent Monday and Tuesday, May 15-16, working with the choir, including several alumni who plan to join the choir during the concert.

“This piece is like closure,” fellow 2015 graduate and choir member Matt Bettencourt said. “It’s such a fitting piece. It’s a way to connect with her and feel her presence again. For me, it helps with the healing process.”

Bettencourt and fellow 2015 graduate Jessica Niewohner said singing together in choir creates an unbreakable bond.

“We spent so much of our time singing together,” she said. “It’s such a powerful thing to sing as a choir. That’s something we all shared with Anna.”

Barnum tends to select a piece of text, then compose music around it. For this piece, he chose Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Rest.

“The text itself was a true rudder for me in the process,” Barnum wrote in his blog post. “Lines such as “Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her, Silence more musical than any song;” are just remarkable if you spend more than one minute just glossing over it.”

Duck-Jefferson said she is expecting a full house June 8 as the community comes to hear the special song performed in public for the first time, but she said she hopes the sadness it may evoke doesn’t overshadow the celebratory nature of the concert.

“I wouldn’t want this aura of sadness to take over the concert,” she said, noting that the piece will be one of about a dozen performed during the free concert.

Poddubnaya said she will always remember how the school choir served not only as a place to sing, but a place to grow – a place where she and many others watched Bui grow into the bright light she had become by graduation day.

“I think we can grow from the pain and heartbreak we’ve experienced,” she said, “and maybe even come to a place of forgiveness and mercy.”

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