Compositions With A Mission: A Soldier's Songs Tell Stories Of War

Feb 12, 2016

New Hampshire native Peter Jennison has been composing music for piano since he was 10 years old. When he joined the military as an adult and was deployed overseas as a medevac helicopter pilot, Jennison often listened to soothing music from other composers like Will Ackerman and, in his downtime, began to write his own contemporary pieces.

He emailed Ackerman, the Windham Hill Records founder, to pitch the idea of an album of songs that Jennison had written while deployed and Ackerman invited him to come to his Windham County, Vermont recording studios upon his return.

That collaboration resulted in Jennison's debut album in 2010, "Longing For Home (Songs From War)." A second album came out in 2014, 'Coming Home,' written while Jennison was deployed in Kuwait and Afghanistan two years earlier.

Jennison performed last December with other Windham Hill recording artists in Stowe and he recently spoke to VPR about the mission behind his music.

While you were deployed, what does having a creative outlet mean to you?

"There are so many things and emotions, trials and tribulations that you go through while you're deployed. Just the pure separation from your family and from the world, but also the stress of the actual combat and your mission that you are assigned to do while you are there.

"All these things create stress and so we look for outlets to find solace. My outlet has always been music. I was listening to great music while I was there. One of the artists I was listening to was Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records who is from Brattleboro, Vermont. I actually decided to do my own stuff and starting writing. My music stems from my own personal need to find solace."

Do you have access to a piano while deployed?

"I actually carry a keyboard with me - a small Yamaha keyboard, and when I get an idea for a tune, in my off-time, I try to work out the melodies and they start to take shape and a pattern and it because the song. They're written right there."

What is the atmosphere like on the base? Is there space for discovery and creativity in such a stressful job?

"You know, you have your 'on-time' and your 'off-time.' Your 'on-time' is basically when you're performing your mission. I am an aviator, so my mission is in the air. We fly various missions, transportation missions and also medical evacuation missions and so it's a pretty stressful time but in the off-time, I've been fortunate to find a corner in an office or in my hooch or in one of the USO places to sit down and gather my thoughts and put some music together and you know, just try to block out the world so to speak. You know, you put on these mental headphones from what's going on all around you, which can be pretty tough when you're getting mortared on a nightly basis."

Composer Peter Jennison in the cockpit of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter over Afghanistan.
Credit Courtesy of Peter Jennison

What do you hope you're music conveys?

"My music represents a struggle on the part of soldiers to maintain their composure while they're overseas but it also speaks a lot to the family members back home. Family members go through the equal amount of stress that we go through while we're overseas. I always tell my soldiers that we can't do our jobs over here if our families are not taken care of back home. The music speaks to them, as well.

"It think what's really important to me is that the world understands what soldiers go through. My mission in writing this music was to find peace for myself but it was also to share with the world what we go through, to give the listener a first-hand view through music of what a soldier sees. And I try to make the music evocative in that sense that a soldier running through a battlefield or a soldier that's afraid or even a rainstorm in the desert — how that might sound in music and to make that sound come through the music for the listener."

Have you composed pieces specifically about returning veterans who may have injuries, PTSD or are having difficulty rejoining civilian life?

"There is so much talk about the wounds that soldiers return home with but people don't really talk about Post Traumatic Stress Injury, the silent wound that makes the soldier jump when a loud noise happens behind him or they just can't quite integrate back into society.

"My music is played all over the U.S. and all over the world in yoga studios and in hospitals to bring peace to people that have experienced that, just to let them know that they're not alone. These soldiers have done something — often in their early, early 20s — that most people could never even fathom doing and you've really got to put your arms around them when they come home.

"The most important thing to me is that I want the listener to understand what the soldiers and their families go through while they're away for a year. It's  more of a service that I'm doing, that I really wanted to do, to the people that are out their, the families but also people that have nothing to do with the military just so they understand a little bit more who these people are in uniform that they say, 'Thank you for your service' to."

Peter Jennison is part of The Gathering of Windham Hill recording artists.