Striking a Chord
Composer Robert Maggio’s AIDS-Themed Music Packs an Emotional Punch
by Chip Alfred
Essentially, his career as a composer began at age fifteen, when Maggio’s parents gave him permission to stop taking piano lessons, which he had been doing since he was seven. In high school, Maggio wanted to break out of the music geek mold, and “be more like other people.” Despite active involvement in sports and other extracurricular activities, he realized what he really loved was music. He was just tired of practicing other people’s work. “What really became my passion was making up my own music.”
After graduating from Yale, Maggio moved to Philadelphia for post-graduate studies in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Without a circle of friends in Philly, the New Jersey native found himself “looking for a way to connect to a community that was about helping others. I wanted to make a difference in the life of someone living with AIDS, no matter how small.” He became a volunteer in the Buddy program at ActionAIDS and his entire existence took on a new meaning. It was not only bonding with clients that gave him joy, but also the camaraderie with his fellow Buddies. “One of the experiences I remember most was going to the monthly Buddy meetings. These meetings became to me a kind of religion—a place to acknowledge the spirituality and emotional connection we all had.” Maggio acknowledges that giving his time and energy to people with AIDS was not an entirely selfless act. “Doing work like this was vital to our own survival,” Maggio reflects. “It was feeding our own souls.”
In 1993, inspired by his work as an AIDS Buddy and the controversial response to the epidemic by activists like Larry Kramer, Maggio composed his first piece about AIDS, Winter Toccata (I can’t believe you want to die), written for solo cello. Stephen Hicken from American Record Guide called Winter Toccata “lyrical, passionate, melodic and rhythmically charged…a personal, deeply felt response to the AIDS tragedy.” A few years later, Maggio created his second AIDS-themed work, Phoenix, written for two flutes. Composed as the tide was starting to turn for people infected with HIV, Maggio describes this piece as “about renewed life and not being given a death sentence. It’s about rebirth—the rebirth of health, the rebirth of possibilities.”
On World AIDS Day in 2003, Maggio premiered his most ambitious AIDS composition to date, Quilt Panels (for my love, for my grief, for my letting go), a forty-minute song cycle with eight movements, jointly commissioned by D.C.’s Different Drummers and the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Washington, D.C. “Just as the AIDS Memorial Quilt represents the lives of men, women and children from all walks of life, the individual movements of Quilt Panels reflect various aspects of the Quilt, its story, images, emotions, words and colors,” he explains. Weaving together names from the Quilt—sung, spoken, shouted, whispered—thoughts, letters, and musical styles ranging from dance rhythms to a final lullaby, Maggio combines an epic tribute to those we have lost with a unifying hope for the future. The piece includes short excerpts from letters people wrote when mailing in their panels to commemorate a loved one (see below). Most of this text comes from A Promise to Remember: The NAMES Project Book of Letters, edited by Joe Brown (1992). “These letters literally took my breath away,” Maggio shares. “They are as moving as any poetry, with an honesty and immediacy that verges on song. It felt natural to set fragments of them to music and create a quilt out of these voices.”
Making this panel has not been easy—
It is not perfect and I have cried about that.
If I could make it as glorious as this love I have in my heart,
it would blind all who gaze upon it.
This is for my love, for my grief, for my letting go.
My love, my grief, my letting go
There is not a word to describe how much I miss you,
much more than I ever realized I would
This is the hard part—put your son on paper—sum up 27 years in two pages
If I could have given him one more breath on this earth, I would have given him my life
…never again will I see your face, kiss you, hear you speak my name, and talk with you.
Maggio’s most recent AIDS composition, Angels, commissioned by ActionAIDS for its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, debuted in October 2011, performed by the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus. The text for the song, suggested by executive director Kevin Burns, is a single sentence taken from the signature line of the organization: We are each of us angels with only one wing and we can only fly by embracing one another. Being a Buddy for sixteen years had a pronounced influence on Maggio’s life as well as his music. Supporting the concept that no one should face AIDS alone, Maggio discovered that “giving to someone else’s needs feels good. Artists can be very insular and self-centered. Writing good music is often like creating a memoir.” He refers to the founding members of ActionAIDS as “guiding lights for me how to be a role model. They taught me how to change the world.”
At forty-seven, Maggio, with an impressive body of work and numerous awards and accolades to his credit, hopes to continue changing the world with his music. Nowadays, he is more selective about the projects he undertakes. Serving as Chairman of the Department of Music Theory and Composition at West Chester University and raising a daughter with his partner Tony keep him very busy. “When I’m taking that time away from my family, I try to choose projects that have really deep emotional relevance to me.” He is currently at work on two musical theater projects, and he plans to compose more about HIV and AIDS. “Music is probably the most emotionally powerful and profound art form,” he declares. “It can speak volumes without saying a word.”
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.