AUBURN — For an hour Sunday afternoon, the Constitution Choir turned the Bill of Rights into a musical performance featuring multiple instruments, harmonies, crescendos and guest speakers reading the amendments.

Nearly 100 people showed up at the First Universalist Church on Pleasant Street for the Maine premiere of “The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets,” a classical composition created by Wesleyan University music professor Neely Bruce.

The concert was a musical rendition of the Bill of Rights, which are the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and served to benefit Youth Journalism International, an educational nonprofit based in Auburn, and the restoration fund at the church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The concert featured an overture, several musical interludes, a choral performance of the first 10 amendments and readings of the same amendments by guest speakers.

Guest speakers included Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen, Mana Abdi of Disability Rights Maine, Genie Gannett, the founder of the First Amendment Museum in Augusta, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, who read the Second Amendment.

Bruce said that he composed the piece in 2005 after learning, via a series of surveys done by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, that American teenagers “know little about their First Amendment rights.”

“I decided to set the First Amendment to music,” Bruce said. “As all singers know, there is nothing like singing an important text to burn it into one’s memory.”

Bruce told the audience that his goal was for the piece to be performed in “all 50 states,” and that he’s “about 10 percent of the way there.”

He said that the piece has been performed 33 times, and the performance at the First Universalist Church as the 34th performance.

“Remember the Bill of Rights,” Bruce added, “because they are yours.”

Following the concert, U.S. Sen. Angus King spoke to the audience, sharing his insights about the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

King quoted a Roman phrase that he felt encapsulated the Bill of Rights: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

The Latin phrase, translated to English, means, “Who will guard the guardians?”

King then quoted Lord Acton, a British historian who said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“The essence of the United States Constitution is found (in these statements)” King said. “Power in the hands of one person never ends well.

King, in an effort to showcase what the Bill of Rights means for United States citizens, took out a cucumber and a Veg-o-matic, a manually operated food slicer.

King said that the cucumber represented “absolute power,” the kind that King George the III, Julius Caesar, or dictators wielded.

He took the cucumber, placed it in the Veg-o-matic, and pulled the lever, slicing the cucumber into a dozen small pieces.

“The purpose of the Constitution is to take power and split it up so it doesn’t rest in the hands of one person,” King said. “That’s what checks and balances means. It’s taking concentrated power and separating it to ensure our safety.”

A few minutes later, King pulled out a large green suit and said, “If the Constitution is a Veg-o-matic, then the Bill of Rights is a HAZMAT suit. It provides Americans protection from the government in certain respects, such as freedom of speech and religion.”

At the end of the concert, King accepted questions from the audience.

One resident asked King what he thought the framers of the Constitution would think about the way the country was ran today.

King said the framers “did not contemplate political parties” when drafting the document.

He added that over the past several decades, “Congress has been giving away it’s authority.”

“I’m not just talking about the current president,” King said. “Congress, slowly but surely, has been abdicating its power to the president.

“I think if the framers could see how things were run today, they’d be shocked at how the concentration of power has shifted to the president.”

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Neely Bruce, a music professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut,  conducts the Constitution Choir at the First Universalist Church in Auburn on Sunday afternoon. It was the Maine premiere of “The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets.”

Neely Bruce, a music professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut,  conducts the Constitution Choir at the First Universalist Church in Auburn on Sunday afternoon. It was the Maine premiere of “The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets.”

Neely Bruce, a music professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut,  conducts the Constitution Choir at the First Universalist Church in Auburn on Sunday afternoon. It was the Maine premiere of “The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets.”


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