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Listen: Rob Funkhouser - "Disarm"
Posted June 14, 2016 by Rob Peoni

Like the rest of the country, for the last couple of days my brain has been engulfed in the horrific mass shooting that took place in the early hours of Sunday morning at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. With a death toll of 49 and dozens more nursing varying degrees of injuries in nearby hospitals, the shooting is one of the largest in United States history.

On Monday, MFT Executive Director Erin Jeter asked if I would curate the weekly playlist on the MFT blog, to which I agreed. However, when I sat down to put together the playlist, my mind kept returning to one particular song in the MFT archive: Rob Funkhouser’s “Disarm.” Funkhouser is a graduate composition student in the music department at Butler University and an accomplished percussionist. This piece was performed by a string quartet of Butler students last fall.

For my money, “Disarm” is nothing short of the most interesting piece of music to grace the MFT archive in 2015. The archive is home to a growing legion of underground Indiana music, but it’s not often (maybe never?) that work from a more traditional, classical canon is shared in this space. That’s something we’re hoping to change going forward, as MFT actively works to solidify its reputation as the official record of Indiana music of all varieties and genres.

Funkhouser wrote “Disarm” last year in response to a string of mass shootings that took place in 2015, and as he came to grips with the sudden death of his friend and fellow musician Michael Hodges in a motorcycle accident. “This piece was written when it seemed like there was another mass shooting every day,” Funkhouser said during an interview last year. “Around September or October, it seemed like every couple of days we were hearing about more people and kids being shot. It was South Carolina when I kind of started, then the school shooting happened. So, this was one of the few pieces [of mine] that was actually inspired by outside events.”

“I saw that Kurt Vonnegut quote, and I realized that pretty much summed up my thoughts on it,” Funkhouser said. “Not to get too political, but I guess I have to be unafraid of that as well. In the last 20 years or so, we, as a country and maybe as a world, have forgotten that the goal of war should be to get to peace. And we’ve forgotten maybe what peace needs to look like. Peace does not look like more security patrols. You can’t continually say that if I kill this one guy, it might prevent five later. At some point, you just have to stop.”

While the Vonnegut-inspired title may prove overtly political, the music itself is not, according to Funkhouser. “This piece is very centered on loss – the moment of loss,” he said. “When you lose a loved one, time kind of stands still. You get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. You remember them fondly, but there’s this unresolved yearning.”

Funkhouser composed the piece in an intentionally simple fashion. He initially wrote a four-bar melody, and knew that he wanted a drone beneath it. He was workshopping the composition with one of his professors, who argued the piece was way too fast in its earliest iteration. To correct, Funkhouser sat down at the piano with a metronome ticking nearby.  “I would play the note and just count the ticks until I thought the next note should happen for this intro section,” he says. “So, it ended up being like 17 or 19 beats, sometimes longer.” The basic melody of the piece is stated over the first nine minutes. Then it comes back in again, at speed. There is a significant amount of imitation happening throughout, with a cello following the violin early in the composition, and a the violin and viola following each other later in the performance. Eventually, a counter-melody enters the picture, and at the end all four voices are in the frame, moving together.

“I know a lot of times we idealize people when they die, but he was one of those guys that was genuinely one of the nicest people I ever met,” Funkhouser said of Hodges. “So, when I heard the news, that was one of the first times I had openly cried in years. So, that’s also kind of in this. I avoided putting the piece in memoriam, just because I’m always really cautious about that. This is my personal expression, and I don’t want to attach someone else’s name to it, because at some point it just feels superficial. If I had done something where I used one of his melodies or something, that would be different. But he was definitely on my mind, and just extrapolating that to what other people must’ve been feeling. Luckily, we lost him in an accident. An accident, pure and simple. So, there wasn’t a lot of anger or anything there, which was nice.”

Funkhouser structured the ending in such a way to articulate the “unresolved yearning” he mentioned in reference to the moment of loss. He didn’t want the piece to resolve in a particularly neat or tidy fashion. “There’s a high note that’s not supposed to be there,” he says. “If you look at music theory that note shouldn’t be there. It’s kind of a premature ending.”

I wanted to share this piece this week for several reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, I believe Funkhouser is one of the most diversely talented and interesting contemporary musicians working in Central Indiana, and his work deserves a much wider audience. Second, in times of tragedy, art – even in its most abstract forms – can serve as the perfect vehicle to process the pain and suffering we’re all experiencing as Americans and humans this week. Third, there has been so much said in the wake of this tragedy. Our social media feeds are congested with varying opinions, proposed solutions, earnest searches for answers, blame, divisive political commentary, and so much more. It just felt like we could all use 13 minutes devoid of discourse. 

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