“The world is burning up right now,” says Gabe Hirst, a recent graduate of Westbrook High School who has written an opus for this year’s lost graduation. “It’s going to be our jobs to pick up the pieces.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Gabe Hirst grieved the loss of high school graduation by composing a piece of music to express his emotions. “Opus for 2020” is a farewell to his peers at Westbrook High School and all the people he could not say goodbye and good luck to in person.

The 17-year-old graduate composed it on his computer, and borrowed musical motifs from the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and the graduation march “Pomp and Circumstance” to capture both the energy of this particular moment and the broad societal concerns of his generation. “I dedicated it to the class of 2020, but it’s about my generation as a whole,” he said. “The world is burning up right now. It’s going to be our job to pick up the pieces. Our generation, we are the ones who will have to overcome all that has been dealt to us.”

A percussionist, Hirst, or “Skeeter” to his band buddies, is a product of the Westbrook music program who has always shown innate musical ability, a willingness to try any instrument and a desire to arrange and compose music, said Kyle Smith, director of bands at Westbrook High. Hirst has been in marching band, the jazz band and jazz ensemble and every musical ensemble available before, during or after school, the band director said.

“He is an extremely curious and talented musician,” Smith said. “He started with our winter percussion program in eighth grade and has participated in everything we have had to offer musically over the last four-and-a-half or five years. Even though he was a drummer, he jumped at every opportunity because he liked a good challenge. In marching band, he was able to do anything we asked of him. He was very reliable and dependable, and a great kid to work with – and now a young man.”

Smith’s wife, Krystle, teaches music at the Westbrook Middle School and offered her husband an advance scouting report: The kid will play anything you need him to play.

Hirst wrote this four-minute piece of music on his own, presenting it to Smith as a finished piece. If bands could assemble and there had been a graduation ceremony, Smith said he would have had the high school band perform “Opus for 2020” this year. It opens with solemn, reflective horns and grows into an aspiring, celebratory hymn propelled by familiar melodies. The Press Herald shared the music with Portland Symphony Orchestra Music Director Eckart Preu, who applauded the young composer for finding a way to musically express an array of complex and competing emotions.

“I am impressed by the talent, musicality, imagination, and courage that Gabe displays in this Opus 1,” Preu wrote in an email. “Music is so often the only – and perfect – medium to express extreme emotions, like grief, loss, courage, and hope. Gabe expresses the emotions of his generation in a colorful, lush – and quintessentially American – sound. The delicate use of a gospel song of the civil rights movement projects the complexity of our time – the vision, hope, and ultimate victory. My respects and best wishes to this young talent for contributing so eloquently to the sounds of our time and future.”

Smith has asked Hirst for sheet music so the Westbrook band can take it up as soon as they are able to gather again and begin practicing. “I did tell him, whenever we are allowed to be back in school and performing, we are going to perform this piece live,” Smith said.

Hirst is uncertain of his plans, though he intends to enroll in college – the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College are his top choices at the moment – and keep music part of his expressive repertoire. In addition to music, he is interested in video and film, and with a friend, Uther Dadaleares, has formed a film production company called Gooberz Inc. They make music videos and short films, and have spent recent days on the streets of Portland filming Black Lives Matter protests. In addition to making movies, he envisions scoring music for them, as well.

“I’ve been making films since middle school and have taken it seriously in high school,” he said. “Around my sophomore year, I made a film score. It was not very good.  … The only good parts were when I was referencing John Williams’ scores.”

About the same time, he approached Smith about arranging a version of “Carol of the Bells” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra for the winter concert. “With little guidance, he did a great arrangement. We have done a lot of student pieces over the years, but I am not sure we have ever done anything by a sophomore,” Smith said. “If you asked me who among the seniors would write something like this – on his own, without being asked to – I would have told you Gabe would have been the one. It is pretty rare that a student will bring me a piece that is finished. Usually, we will work on it, craft it over time and revise it. But Gabe did this on his own, and sent it to me as a finished piece. I was pretty floored.”

Most impressive were Hirst’s ability and willingness to express his emotions. In doing so, the young man channeled the same inspiration that has motivated great composers for centuries – raw emotion, reflecting a moment and expressing something universal, he said.

That is the courage of artists.

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