Brian Haas is no stranger to epic compositions. From re-interpreting Beethoven symphonies to telling the story of the Greenwood massacre in Race Riot Suite, for 24 years his Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has sourced material from challenging histories and no-easy-answer situations.
His newest project, "An Oklahoma Tornado Story: Beowulf on Radio Road," hits close to home. When Chris Large, Haas’s best friend since he was 19, commissioned him to help create a multimedia production commemorating the fifth anniversary of the record-demolishing El Reno tornado, Haas jumped on it.
"I thought it was one of the best ideas that’s ever been offered up to me as a composer," he said.
Large, one of Oklahoma’s foremost wine experts, is also a longtime devotee of extreme weather events and storm-chaser footage. Two days after the El Reno twister, which killed eight people and injured 151, he traveled to the site and collected pieces of the wreckage to create a memorial to the four storm chasers who died in their efforts to capture the unprecedented mesocyclone, which at its climax was twice the size of New York City’s Central Park.
When Large saw the animated film "Beowulf" starring Angelina Jolie shortly after the disaster, he knew the ancient monster saga was a metaphor that could capture the primal complexity of the event.
"In ‘Beowulf,’ this evil mother creates this monster, Grendel, that terrorizes this village year in and year out, until the village knows it’s just something they have to deal with," Large said. "In Oklahoma, every spring we know these storms are coming, but we can’t do much about it other than pray or get into our hidey holes."
With Annie Ellicott (vocals) and Chris Combs (lap steel guitar) as the voices of the tornado, Ana Berry as Mother Nature, and some surprise international guest musicians, Haas’s 60-minute musical narrative will be performed live on grand piano and the house organ at the Circle Cinema. Simultaneously, the storm footage Large and videographer Sacha Thomas have made into an evocative film will play on the big screen.
"It’s not easy material—to write to weather," Haas said. "I’m sitting pencil to paper as I’m watching Chris’s film, and it is absolutely the strangest and most terrifying thing I’ve ever written about."
"The storm chasers are our Beowulf, and the tornado is Grendel," Large explained. "We were able to identify eight or nine moments during the 45 minutes of that storm that were almost like little vignettes, like plot points."
At its heart, said Haas, it’s a requiem: the story of the birth, life, and death of the tornado—and of the lives that were lost to the wind.
An Oklahoma Tornado Story: Beowulf on Radio Road
Saturday, June 2
6:30 p.m. reception, 8:00 p.m. show
Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave.
$10–$20 | circlecinema.com