“Jonestown” for low brass trio and electronics was written in memory of the members of Peoples Temple who died in Guyana on November 18th, 1978. The composition tells the story of Jim Jones in non chronological form. By juxtaposing many points in time sonically, I hope to give a more complete artistic depiction of the tragedy.
The work is written for tenor trombone, bass trombone and tuba with a duration of approximately 13 minutes divided into five movements. The movements are related by themes played by the instruments. These themes, similar to the leitmotifs of Wagner, represent ideas and combine or change throughout the piece. In this way, the musicians provide emotional context to the words and sounds being played electronically. Rather than retelling historical events, the piece explores the personality of Jim Jones and the values of Peoples Temple.
The first movement begins with the voice of Jim Jones overlapping from many times at once. He speaks from rallies, a radio interview and his autobiography as the musicians play a soft and somber melody in unison. The fateful melody fades away as the first quiet sounds of the infamous “death tape” begin to play. The brass players begin a death march that gradually increases in intensity until breaking into frantic dissonance. The crescendo continues as screams of children and Jones’ voice climax in the words “the best testimony we can make is to leave this goddamn world!” Suddenly, it is quiet, the silence punctuated only by garbled radio speech and faintly the voice of Jones reversed and sped up many times.
The second movement begins with an improvised tuba solo played over a slowed-down recording of an unknown song found on one of the tapes. The voice of Christine Miller pleading for the lives of the children begins to play over the dirge-like music. Jim Jones’ voice eventually drowns her out and suddenly the tape skips back in time to a service lead by Marceline Jones. A twisted version of the traditional “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is played by the brass and then overlapped with recordings of Marceline Jones singing. The music fades and skips to a song by the Jonestown Express. The brass improvise over the Motown style music until it ends abruptly.
The middle movement is without electronic accompaniment and acts as a line of symmetry for the piece. Book-ended by a palindromic theme, this acoustic section develops the motives from the first movement and introduces a new chorale theme. The chorale theme, which represents perverted optimism, is performed using a technique called multi-phonics in which the performers sing and play their instruments at the same time. This virtuosic technique creates a distorted vocal quality which was inspired by the recordings of live entertainment in Jonestown.
The fourth movement is performed without the musicians as a solo electronic track. This movement is intended to show the bravery and humanity of the members of Peoples Temple. Various members declare their willingness to die for the socialist cause as Jim Jones preaches the joy of “revolutionary suicide.” This section can be heard here.
The final movement releases the full power of Jim Jones in many layers of preaching, singing and shouting. The brass play full volume reconstructed themes from the first movement which ominously fade into radio speech. After a moment of quiet, the chorale theme returns. An anonymous voice from Peoples Temple shouts desperately “Remember! I said, remember!” The chorale dies away and Jim Jones’ voice returns speaking, “You fuckers make me sick.” The brass begin a hellish scherzo which brings the piece to dramatic conclusion.
By painting an ornate picture of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, I hope to lead my audience down a path of rediscovery of social and racial injustice. The issues that sent those brave souls into the wilderness of Guyana are as real today as they were then. The dangers of violent and manipulative demagogues, the likes of Jim Jones, loom over our society. By humanizing Jones and his followers, perhaps we can learn how to avoid repeating their mistakes.
“Jonestown” was commissioned by The Underground Brass and is planned to be premiered in New York City in Spring 2017.
(Jacob Elkin’s previous article for the jonestown report was The Voices of Jonestown to be Captured in Electronic Orchestration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)