Waubonsie band to premiere 'symbolic' song of Agent Orange's effects

  • Waubonsie Valley High School band director and fine arts chairman Mark Duker leads the Wind Ensemble on Monday in practicing "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed," a song his family commissioned for his father and other Vietnam veterans who have suffered health effects because of a chemical herbicide used during the war called Agent Orange. The band will premiere the song during a concert Thursday.

      Waubonsie Valley High School band director and fine arts chairman Mark Duker leads the Wind Ensemble on Monday in practicing "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed," a song his family commissioned for his father and other Vietnam veterans who have suffered health effects because of a chemical herbicide used during the war called Agent Orange. The band will premiere the song during a concert Thursday. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Waubonsie Valley High School band director and fine arts chairman Mark Duker, left, works with composer Kevin Walczyk, right, on a song in honor of Duker's father and other Vietnam veterans who have died because of health problems related to the war. The school's Wind Ensemble will premiere the song, "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed" by Walczyk, on Thursday.

      Waubonsie Valley High School band director and fine arts chairman Mark Duker, left, works with composer Kevin Walczyk, right, on a song in honor of Duker's father and other Vietnam veterans who have died because of health problems related to the war. The school's Wind Ensemble will premiere the song, "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed" by Walczyk, on Thursday. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Edgar Paul Duker sits atop a trombone case during his time in the Army in the Vietnam War. Duker later suffered heart and kidney problems attributed to chemical herbicides used during the war called Agent Orange. He is the inspiration for a new song, "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed" to be performed Thursday by the Waubonsie Valley High School Wind Ensemble.

    Edgar Paul Duker sits atop a trombone case during his time in the Army in the Vietnam War. Duker later suffered heart and kidney problems attributed to chemical herbicides used during the war called Agent Orange. He is the inspiration for a new song, "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed" to be performed Thursday by the Waubonsie Valley High School Wind Ensemble. Courtesy of Mark Duker

 
 
Updated 2/29/2016 5:59 PM

Family, history, health, war, love and death are all part of the story told by a new song Waubonsie Valley High School's Wind Ensemble will premiere during a concert Thursday night.

Hardest hit by the song's emotional toll likely will be director Mark Duker. The song he'll conduct at 7:30 p.m. at Wentz Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave. in Naperville tells his father's story.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's chock-full of symbolism," Duker said about the song his family commissioned.

"Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed" memorializes Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange, the blend of herbicides used during the war that now has been linked to a long list of devastating diseases. These veterans are not named among the 58,000 on the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C., yet the Duker family knows the depth of their sacrifice.

"The average person doesn't realize how many people 'survived' Vietnam, came back from their service, but are still giving their lives for their service," said Duker, whose father died from health problems eventually attributed to Agent Orange. "We think there's just more to the story."

Edgar Paul Duker served in the Army in Vietnam before forging a long career as a music educator, junior high principal and community band director in Quincy, Illinois, along the banks of the Mississippi River.

"Music is so much a part of our family," said Suzi Duker, Paul's wife and Mark's mother.

The elder Duker died in 2013, but his health problems began 28 years earlier, when at age 45 he began experiencing high blood pressure. He later suffered heart trouble from an Agent Orange-linked condition called ischemic heart disease, undergoing two rounds of bypass surgery and having 17 stents inserted into his heart. He lived years with only one kidney, but kidney cancer struck the remaining organ near the end of his life.

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Composer Kevin Walczyk wrote the song using letters from the words "Edgar Paul Duker" and "Agent Orange" as inspiration. He created three ciphering systems that translated each letter to a musical pitch, forming three variations on each word to intersperse throughout the piece.

"The way I composed this work is about transforming words into music, so it's not so melodic in the traditional sense," Walczyk told Waubonsie Wind Ensemble students Monday during a rehearsal. "There are melodies, but it might be more harmonic."

Duker will have band members play some of the themes for Thursday's audience before delving into the entire song, that way those without musical training can begin to grasp the meaning. He's clued in his students to the symbolism throughout their work on the song, which began in December.

"They are fully on board with the emotional attachment to the piece," he said.

The song features Vietnamese percussion such as a rice drum and a coin clapper, and Walczyk said it's not all pretty. The notes representing Agent Orange are meant to sound "ugly" or "grotesque" to portray the pain the chemical has caused.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's more about dissonance and discomfort that comes with Agent Orange," Walczyk said.

After the inaugural performance of "Elegy for the Wall's Unnamed," the Quincy Concert Band, which the elder Duker helped establish and conducted from 1982 to 1984, is performing the piece March 13. Duker said friends who lead bands at other high schools and colleges plan to perform "Elegy" next year, and he hopes military bands might take up the tune, too.

"It's a score unlike any I've ever studied. It's completely unique," Duker said. "It has dad's DNA, his musical DNA, in it."

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