Tragedy and Inspiration

A course I’ve named “Tragedy and Inspiration” is my solution to drawing college students in to a challenging but powerful body of music. The course couples tragic events from modern history with great pieces of music written in response to those events.

Written By

Daniel Kellogg

A course I’ve named “Tragedy and Inspiration” is my solution to drawing college students in to a challenging but powerful body of music. The course couples tragic events from modern history with great pieces of music written in response to those events. Reich’s Different Trains responds to the Holocaust and how trains were used to transport people to extermination camps in WWII. Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 responds to the personal and collective loss experienced by the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. Libby Larsen’s Sifting Through the Ruins and John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls respond to the deaths suffered when the World Trade Center buildings were attacked and collapsed in 2001. Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit respond to the crisis of human activity impacting our environment to create life out of balance. The course covers the historical subject, the composers and their musical styles, and the specific pieces.

Artists have responded to tragic experiences for millennia.

To varying degrees, this body of music either serves to process personal grief experienced by the composer, memorialize those lost for those left living, or mark a protest and call for action. These pieces respond to a common darkness that resonates across the many dividing lines that separate people. The pain of death from war or violent world conflicts transcends our differences. All groups of people throughout history have experienced disease, poverty, bigotry, sexual violence, racial violence, and unnatural death, and artists have responded to these tragic experiences for millennia. These subjects also resonate strongly with undergraduates. They understand the violence, pain, and horror involved in an event like the bombing of Hiroshima and can easily make the leap to the abstract and highly difficult musical language of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. We begin with news footage, mini-documentaries, and images surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb and the aftermath of the bombing in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Then we discuss the abstract language of extended techniques, tone clusters, noise, aleatory, graphic notation, and sonorism that make up the language of early Penderecki. Lastly, we dig into the music and explore how it responds to the event. (Note: Penderecki originally titled his composition 8’37” based on its length. After the premiere he renamed the piece Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and claimed the piece was always written in response to the bombing of Hiroshima and only after the premiere did he fully understand that. While the renaming is controversial, I accept his explanation and include the piece in the course.)

Because the subject matter is so real and raw, it is easy to bring these undergraduates into a serious appreciation of difficult music. I ask a lot of questions and invite them to offer their own critique or evaluation. While these students are not equipped to offer profound critiques of these compositions, the requirement for written evaluation requires deeper listening. They must have an opinion on the success of the music and defend their positions. The course requires a lot of written responses, and all of the tests are essay tests. I require that students engage with the material with enough substance that they can craft well-written essays (or aspire to such heights). They also have two opportunities to present pieces of their choosing that fit the subject matter. They often bring music from popular genres (rap, rock, country, R&B, etc.), and I welcome the variety. Having music from multiple genres enriches the course and allows for interesting compare-and-contrast discussions.

Because the subject matter is so real and raw, it is easy to bring undergraduates into a serious appreciation of difficult music.

I begin the course with a screening of the first 26 minutes of the documentary A Strong Clear Vision that features Maya Lin and her work to create the Vietnam War Memorial. This remarkable story follows her experience entering a competition for the memorial while still a graduate student at Yale, winning, and defending the design through horrendous public criticism and bigotry. Ultimately, the design has become one of the most celebrated war memorials ever created, and it has had a profound impact on subsequent memorial designs. (The World Trade Center memorial is a prime example.) This is a great documentary and draws the students immediately into the substance of the course. The memorial has served thousands of Vietnam veterans in their grief and healing. She created the piece when she was only a few years older than the undergraduates in the class and stood by her strong vision against tremendous odds. It is an amazing example of the power of art in the face of tragedy.

Here is the content that comprises the rest of the course:

Module 1: War

  • Steve Reich: Different Trains
  • George Crumb: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from a Dark Land
  • Vietnam War Protest Music and Woodstock
    (This unit involves a collection of pieces including):

    • Richie Havens: “Freedom” (performed at Woodstock and based on African American song from slavery)
    • Jimmie Hendrix: “The Star Spangled Banner” (performed at Woodstock)
    • Country Joe and the Fish: “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
    • John Lennon: “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine”
    • Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: “Ohio”
  • Krystof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima:

Module 2: Environmental Crisis

  • Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi
  • John Luther Adams: Inuksuit

Module 3: World Trade Center Attack

  • John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
  • Libby Larsen: Sifting Through the Ruins

Module 4: Social Justice

  • Gil Scott Heron and issues of inner city poverty and racism
    • “Whitey on the Moon”
    • “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
    • “The Bottle”
    • “Home is Where the Hatred Is”
    • “Winter in America:
  • Frederic Rzewski: Attica and Coming Together, written in response to the Attica Prison Riots
  • John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1, written in response to the AIDS epidemic
  • Tonja Tajac: music written in response to violence against women, bigotry towards indigenous people, and environmental concerns
  • Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement
    • John Coltrane’s Alabama, written in response to the 1964 bombing of an Alabama church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the four dead Sunday School Girls
    • Charles Mingus’s The Fables of Faubus, written in response to the circumstances surrounding the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1968
    • Billie Holiday’s famous performance of Abel Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” written about lynching in the south


  • Kellogg on Kellogg: Dust Returns, written in response to the untimely death of the composer’s mother

This diverse and strong body of music allows discussion on a range of topics and the many artistic responses. We cover extended techniques, aleatory, spacialization, satire, spoken-word verses sung-word, amplification in classical music, film without narrative, site specific work, noise, chamber music versus symphonic music, classical instruments versus non-classical instruments, etc. We talk about pieces written in the moment compared to pieces written with the perspective of years. We compare Meerpol and Holiday’s searing depiction of racial violence in America (“Strange Fruit”) with Mingus’s absurd and satiric approach to school desegregation (The Fables of Faubus). We compare Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima with On the Transmigration of Souls. We explore what role art can take in healing from tragedy. All of this comes with a menu of great and diverse music. The majority of the course is music that the students likely would never have encountered outside of the class.

The course culminates with students creating their own piece of art in response to tragedy.

The course culminates with students creating their own piece of art in response to tragedy. They pick an event/subject that they resonate with (personal or historical) and create a response in an artistic medium of their choosing (film, poetry, music, painting). They write a self-evaluation in which they state their artistic intent, describe the process, and evaluate their own work. Because this is not a class for art majors, I am lenient about artistic success and focus on the self-evaluation and effort. Some of the projects are stunning as students dig deep and discover creative veins they did not know they possessed. The topics vary widely, and the students share their work in the final classes.

The bulk of the content is offered online. I utilize YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, and archived web articles to create the content for the course. The students engage with the material through laptops or phones at their chosen time and location. The classroom is reserved for discussion and questions. We typically sit in a circle, and my student teacher suggested we routinely ask short questions that everyone answers with a word or two. This helps everyone in the room have a voice while sending a message that each voice should be heard. I always give a talk about respecting each other when approaching complex issues of racism, genocide, sexual violence, etc., but the conversation always has remained appropriate.

Teaching the class is rewarding and energizing. Many students tell me they will never listen to music the same way again, and they think about their own favorite music in a new light. We get to discuss some raw topics and investigate the power of art to heal, challenge, and memorialize. My greatest hope is that they have a lifelong invitation to seek deeper artistic experiences in their lives. Most of them will go on to have mainstream careers as engineers, business owners, or scientists (the three big majors at the University of Colorado). I want them to find room for art in their lives, and I treasure this brief opportunity to share some great music.