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Composer Roger Reynolds on Being George Washington

The Pulitzer Prize winner gets inside the first President’s head through music, video, narration, and more.

Photograph courtesy of Malcolm Crowthers.

With 1,000-plus books about him, it’s hard to see how anyone could add to our understanding of George Washington, but Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Roger Reynolds is trying. 

In a piece debuting at the Kennedy Center October 3 through 5, Reynolds uses sounds and images to instill a sense of what was going on inside our first President’s head. Instead of exploring history or politics, george WASHINGTON—performed by the National Symphony Orchestra—incorporates sounds associated with Mount Vernon: the grinding of the gristmill, the chirping of native birds, the folk melodies Washington’s granddaughter played on the harpsichord. 

Three video screens—divided into panels to replicate the view from the cupola Washington designed atop Mount Vernon—show pastoral scenes of the estate. Three narrators, playing the man at different stages of life, recite passages from diaries and letters. 

Reynolds, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, often integrates digital sound, visual arts, and spatial movement with his music. He decided early in his research that he wouldn’t go forward unless he found enough in it to sustain the composition. 

He discovered there was far more material than he could use: “I was stunned, and I want other people to have the same experience.” Why the unconventional title? “It’s simply a slight typographical inflection,” Reynolds says. “It separates the individual from the monument.”

george WASHINGTONOctober 3 through 5, at the Kennedy Center. Tickets ($10 to $85) available online at

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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