written by Stephanie Fleischmann, adapted from the website of the same name by Emily Trunko
The Last Message Received was co-commissioned by Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music for the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, the Northwestern University Chorale, the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra and Donald Nally and the Yale Glee Club and the Yale Symphony Orchestra.
April 30, 2022
Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra and Choirs
Donald Nally, conductor
I first came across the blog The Last Message Received sometime in late 2015. I was living in Rome, feeling homesick for America, when I found this curious blog where people were able to submit and post their final communications about events as mundane as an adolescent breakup or as devastating as the death of a loved one.
I became intrigued—obsessed, perhaps—with this blog, followed it from abroad, and dreamt of a musical composition wherein words from this repository might be musicalized. The challenge of making a composition out of the spontaneous expressions of strangers was particularly appealing to me; most of the texts I had set before were highly formal lines of poetry or prose.
Several years later, I approached Donald Nally with this blog and he suggested we make a piece for choir and orchestra with Northwestern, whom I knew to be superb; I eagerly agreed. Soon after, Yale University came on as the co-commissioner.
When the time came to write the piece, however, I realized that the unique wonder of these spontaneous expressions needed to be balanced with poetic architecture. I asked my friend and oft-collaborator Stephanie Fleischmann to work with me to build a structure. Words from both Stephanie and the blog fuse seamlessly into a libretto that forms an emotional journey from anger to devastation to hope.
The first movement, “I Want You to Know,” imagines a protagonist typing variations on a single text message and then deleting it over and over again until a single simple missive is sent: “I just need this time to myself.”
The second movement, “You Are Not the One,” is a series of pushes and pulls wherein lines like “do you still need me?” are in counterpoint with “you are dead to me.”
The third movement, “Keep Dreaming,” is a series of languorous thoughts—maybe melodramatic, maybe serious—expressing the after-effects of lost relationships.
The fourth movement, “We Could Have Been Something,” returns to the mode of the indecisive text message as an imaginary protagonist types and deletes the word “we” until their thought is complete: “We’re not going back to the way we were.”
The fifth movement, “Blink Twice,” is a desperate plea to a sick family member to not die.
The final, and sixth, movement, “I Don’t Know Why You Love Me But Thank You,” gives thanks to those we have lost for the time that we once had together.
I wrote the piece in early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic, before having lost my father in a hospital in a manner eerily similar to the fifth movement. I understand that the emotional journey in these movements might now seem painful to some. And yet it is my hope that this piece can operate as a space where the many difficulties we have all experienced in these trying times can be cathartically explored—and a space where my feelings of gratitude can be shared. The Last Message Received is dedicated to my wife, Carrie Sun.