Last December’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire covered the Bay Area with grief. But the fierce unity that grew in its wake forged a sense of community, and inspired composer and Pittsburg resident Arturo Rodriguez to create a requiem mass to honor the 36 victims who died in the blaze and reflect on the resilience of Oakland's creative life. "I thought of it more as a noble statement to them than a sad one," Rodriguez says.
A section of Rodriguez’s new Requiem Sinfonica (Requiem Without Words) premiered at Awesome Orchestra Collective’s open session outside the Oakland Public Library Tuesday evening. While traditional requiems -- masses for the dead -- are usually composed with giant choirs, Rodriguez says the voiceless, instrument-only tribute serves as a poignant reminder of the lives lost seven months ago.
“These people’s voices aren’t going to be heard again," Rodriguez, 31, says. "I wanted the piece to be an emotional connection to the music rather than the words."
The composition, which has been in production since mid-January, came to fruition with the help of the Awesöme Orchestra collective, in which Rodriguez plays the flute. The collective’s various connections to victims and survivors of the Ghost Ship fire and its own inception in a West Oakland warehouse makes the collaboration all the more poignant.
“These people are part of our extended musical family," says Awesome Orchestra's founding director and conductor David Möschler. "We owe it to them to continue to perform and hold up the ideals of the warehouse community."
The piece brought up different emotions in the people who gathered outside Oakland Public Library to listen.
“You can’t help but remember the fact that folks in the Ghost Ship that night were there for community and music and making art,” says San Francisco artist Isaac Amala, who lost a friend to the Ghost Ship fire. “Feeling and hearing the spirit of community and musicians coming together was really beautiful.”
For designer and Oakland resident Alyssa Young, who also lost friends in the fire, the music brought up painful memories.
"I certainly had a lot of mental images of the walls burning, especially of the very rickety staircase falling, which was what trapped a lot of people up on the second floor," Young says. "I guess it’s a little bit of self-torture in a way, like discomfort."
Young believes that Rodriguez’s piece can also serve as an impetus for renewed support for vulnerable communities living and working in spaces like the Ghost Ship.
“There’s obviously people who are still hurting, now that the general public interest has died down,” Young says. “I think now is the time to really be making inquiries — now’s really the time to offer the support.”
The audience heard only the opening movement from the work on Tuesday night; Rodriguez and Möschler are planning a full performance at the end of the year. But Rodriguez hopes the preview reminds audiences of the sense of togetherness found in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire.
"In musical terms the piece starts out in a really sad key — E minor — and it ends in E minor, but it has this motion in it of determination," he says. "Ultimately I want people to be brought together by this music."