In Concert at a Killer’s Death
The one-room office with overflowing bookshelves and Maria Callas playing quietly in the background isn’t the likeliest setting for a storm of controversy. Nor is its slender, soft-spoken inhabitant a likely target for angry finger-pointing.
But Los Angeles composer David Woodard could easily incense the friends and family of those who were killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing when he performs a musical “prequiem” for Timothy McVeigh shortly before his execution next Wednesday. Woodard’s hope in performing the 12-minute piece, he said, is to “cause the soul of Timothy McVeigh to go to heaven.”
McVeigh, 33, has been in contact with Woodard and is helping him coordinate the performance. McVeigh killed 168 people, 19 of them children, when he exploded a truckload of ammonium nitrate and racing fuel outside the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. He has never expressed remorse for his actions.
“That’s not my understanding of the way you get to heaven. I didn’t know you could sing your way into it,” said Kathy Wilburn, who lost two grandchildren in the blast, when told of Woodard’s plan. “I’ve actually prayed for Timothy McVeigh. . . . But there’s nothing in the Bible that says the way to heaven is by having someone write a song for you. . . . I think Timothy McVeigh is going to have to answer to God.”
Paul A. Heath, who was injured in the blast, said “I’m sure this person [Woodard] is sincere, but it is terribly insensitive to the reality of pain and grief caused by this delusional, suicidal coward [McVeigh].”
Woodard’s composition--originally written for “doctor of death” Jack Kevorkian--was at first titled “Farewell to a Saint,” but Woodard changed the name because he thought it might be offensive to Oklahomans. The music of “ethereal dissonance” is now called “Ave Atque Vale,” Latin, Woodard says, for “Onward Valiant Soldier” although other translations put it as “Hail and Farewell.” Few people would consider McVeigh either valiant or a saint, but Woodard says he is not championing McVeigh’s cause, merely “awed by who [he] is and his circumstances.”
“I cannot think of a precedent in history . . . of a man who without any direct psychological support for his ideas is able to withstand the duress of the death penalty or hopeless imprisonment and seem completely satisfied that he did the right thing,” said the mild-mannered Woodard, a friend of the late writer William Burroughs.
Woodard plans to conduct the ensemble being assembled to perform the piece during a vigil at a church in Terre Haute, Ind., not far from the prison. The piece is expected to be broadcast later on a local radio station so McVeigh can hear it. Meanwhile, Woodard says he is in negotiations with various networks that might broadcast the performance.
McVeigh’s scheduled execution has already taken on the air of a media spectacle. Some 1,400 journalists will report on the event from tents at the prison grounds in Indiana; and writer Gore Vidal has accepted an invitation from McVeigh to witness the death firsthand before writing about it for Vanity Fair magazine. Three hundred of the bomber’s victims and their relatives will watch the lethal injection via closed-circuit TV.
Woodard’s initial intention was to perform “Ave Atque Vale” at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, where McVeigh is being held, but prison officials denied his request. “We have so many law enforcement initiatives going on that we’re just not going to allow for that to occur,” said Janet Perdue, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Woodard was informed of the prison’s decision in mid-March and wrote McVeigh a letter requesting his assistance. He didn’t receive a response until mid-April, after he wrote McVeigh a second time and enclosed a copy of an interview a Kansas City music publication had done with Woodard regarding his prequiem.
McVeigh’s purported letter to him said, “It is difficult to find time these days to respond to all who write, but your recent mailing calls out for a response.” It went on to tell Woodard he was “the first person I’ve heard of [or from] that has figured me out"--that admission from the death-row prisoner who has repeatedly said he wants to “remain a mystery.”
“With your reflections on ‘collateral damage,’ ” McVeigh’s neatly handwritten letter to Woodard said, “I breathe a huge sigh of relief--maybe there is hope yet for the species!”
Woodard believes McVeigh’s use of the term “collateral damage” to describe the 19 children who were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing was meant to “drolly echo the rhetoric of Bush, circa the Gulf War, and Janet Reno following Waco.” As for McVeigh’s letter to him, Woodard said, “It justified my secret feeling that he is a master high comedian, above all.”
Originally from Santa Barbara, Woodard lived in New York, San Francisco and Lawrence, Kan., before settling in Los Angeles. In addition to composing, he makes a living building and selling Dreamachines--psychedelic contraptions that purportedly induce dream states and provide psychic powers to users.
The machines were designed in 1959 by Brion Gysin, an occult author, and Woodard used his original design to re-create the machines. He says he’s sold about a 1,000 of them. Among his friends was Burroughs, the Beat author who wrote about Dreamachines in his book “The Job” but who is best known for his psychedelic novel “Naked Lunch.” When LACMA put on a Burrough’s retrospective in 1996, it was Woodard who built the Dreamachine in the exhibit.
Woodard has composed several requiems, or Masses, for the deceased. The prequiem, or Mass for the soon-to-be-deceased, is his invention--one he hopes will come into greater practice after “Ave Atque Vale” is performed.
Woodard has written and performed other prequiems and requiems, including “An Elegy for Two Angels” for Leon Praport, who was killed in the Angels Flight funicular crash in downtown Los Angeles earlier this year. It was performed at a memorial on the site attended by civic and cultural leaders.
“Ave Atque Vale,” he said, was initially written as a prequiem for Kevorkian when the doctor was on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration. Woodard shelved the score when Kevorkian decided to end his strike and serve his 10 years in prison.
“It just seems like a requiem should be appreciated by the dying subject in order to keep it from being a selfish endeavor by the survivors,” said Woodard, who describes his faith as “an unwavering belief in life after death and in the spirit world that surrounds us constantly.”
Among Woodard’s interests is numerology. He points out the significance of the number 33 surrounding McVeigh. “One cannot help but notice. You write to a fellow and his address is P.O. Box 33. You look up where he lives and find out that its 33 acres [the prison grounds]; then you find out that he’s 33 years old and that his final appeal last year was via legal procedure 33.”
Woodard also says, that, “like Christ, McVeigh will be 33 and nearly universally despised at the time of his execution.”
Woodard himself is 33 years old.
McVeigh’s letter to Woodard, dated April 19, offered him three “contingencies” for performing the prequiem so he could hear it. One of his suggestions was to contact WISU, Indiana State University’s student-run radio station.
Woodard got in touch with James Britt, the station’s assistant student manager, but he didn’t hear back right away. “I didn’t think our board of trustees would go for it because of the nature of what McVeigh had done,” Britt said. “So I asked . . . how they would feel about it if we just didn’t mention Tim McVeigh’s name.”
Britt, who says he is a former convict and recent graduate of Indiana State’s radio, television and film program, said WISU, a music station that plays alternative rock and hip-hop, is popular with prisoners. “I don’t know McVeigh. I don’t really know much about David Woodard, but I feel it’s somewhat my duty as a person in society to try to help. I can’t judge.”
While WISU would not agree to broadcast the piece for Tim McVeigh, specifically, it decided it could air “Ave Atque Vale” if it were introduced as a piece for “a very special listener.” The exact time it will air has not been determined.
The performance is expected to be performed live at St. Margaret Mary Church in Terre Haute as part of a 12-hour prayer vigil on the eve of McVeigh’s scheduled execution at 7 a.m. The piece will probably be performed by students from Indiana University’s School of Music in Bloomington, Ind. The composition requires 45 musicians, not all of whom have been found.
Gwyn Richards, interim dean of Indiana University’s School of Music, says the school has no official connection to the planned performance. “When we decide on events like this for student participation, we’re generally looking at the pedagogical value,” Richards said. “No one knows the work. No one’s heard the work. We would not officially involve our students in an event like this.” Richards adds that it would be difficult for Woodard to gather enough students together at such a late date because the school semester ended last Saturday.
But Greg Odya, a trombone player and music composition major at Indiana University, is helping Woodard find musicians. “We’re recruiting as quickly as possible,” he said.
Odya, 21, didn’t know Woodard until last week, when he received a Dreamachine he had purchased from Woodard through the Internet. Odya won’t say how many people have committed to the project but said the piece of music is not that difficult and would be easy to “put together on the fly at the last minute.”
Ideally, a prequiem should be performed within the last moment’s of its intended subject’s life, Woodard said. But because the government denied his request to perform “Ave Atque Vale” in McVeigh’s presence at the time of his execution, Woodard had to modify the score.
It was supposed to have ended with the ring of a triangle attenuating for 3 minutes and 33 seconds, which was meant to overlap with McVeigh’s last living moments. Because McVeigh will be listening to it several hours before he is executed, Woodard said, “it’s inappropriate to have Tim listening to the triangle and then have a deejay come on and . . . go into Radiohead or something.”