Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Works: Whitman Interlude & Goodbye

One of the most exciting, rewarding and meaningful experiences I have as a musician is whenever I'm a participant in the creation of a new piece. Whether it is as soloist, chorister, conductor, composer, teacher--or any combination thereof--there is nothing quite like the experience of actively participating in the creation of something brand new.

If you consider yourself a "creative type" or enough of an amateur and devotee to be curious about said process, but have never experienced it, I cannot encourage you enough to seek out such an opportunity. The process itself is more often than not more than equal to the result.

On a number of levels, the evolution of a work--

from conversation, idea & commission;
to plan, design & sketch;
to draft & work-in-progress;
to rehearsal, realization, & performance,
that is, re-creation--

echoes the process of life itself.

The importance and uniqueness of this process--
and every new work that appears as a life-affirming result of this creative and re-creative genesis--
cannot be overstated.

If we believe the arts and culture are central to our experience of life
as human beings--and we regularly affirm that necessity by our embrace of and participation in them--
then the creation of new works of art by and for the human beings involved in the arts (ie: all of us) must be one of the primary duties, responsibilities, and privileges of every generation of artists and audiences.

(I have never apologized for being a preacher of the gospel of the Arts, to paraphrase one of my many musical godparents, Robert Shaw).

It is with deep gratitude and humility I find myself in the unique position of being right in the middle of this process with not one but two composers, in a program featuring two world premieres and three additional regional premieres. I am fortunate to have been involved in as many premieres of new works as I have, and I have been so involved since an undergraduate at James Madison University.

And I attribute my love of new music to an ever insatiable intellectual & aesthetic curiosity AND the exceptional education I received at JMU. My composition teacher, John Hilliard, was the kind of teacher I have aspired to be: one who challenges his student's preconceptions, limits & boundaries, one who is ever-curious and open himself, and one who believes in connecting the present to the past in order to pave the way for a future that is both grounded in the traditions in need of preserving while looking ahead to where progress might lead.

My previous entry is a copy of my program notes for that upcoming program of premieres, EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in the Arts. If you are in the area, I hope you will join the Chorale, myself, members of Bellissima! Women's Chorale Ensemble, members of our Young Singers Project, and the composers Deborah Mason and Giselle Wyers for an evening of beautiful, engaging & inspiring music by women composers.

I met Deborah Mason at a wedding Amy and I attended for one of our mutual friends, the incredibly gifted soprano, Yunah Lee. Ironically, Amy and I each knew Yunah independently, and several years before we met one another, in another example of how small the world is. Amy and Yunah had toured together in a production of La Boheme (Yunah was Mimi and Amy was Musetta) around Taiwan, and Yunah and I had appeared in Madama Butterfly in Roanoke together (she played the heroine, I was the marriage-broker, Goro). Fitting we both should be participants in Yunah and Ken's wedding, singing together, and meeting many fellow musicians and artists. A cousin of the groom (himself an accomplished pianist), Deb Mason and I met at the reception, began chatting about our experiences, and realized we had at least been in the same performance at the same time once before. She was in the audience for a production of Shostakovich's surrealist opera, The Nose at the Bard Music Festival, where I was in the first of a series of summer residencies that have been particularly interesting and memorable.

Anyway, after establishing that connection at Bard from the summer of 2004, Deb and I began talking about the Chorale, she shared with me about some of the choral writing in her new opera, based on Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" and the next thing I know we are talking about the Chorale premiering a work the following season (even though we had no $ in the projected budget for such a commission)!

This was in December of 2008, throughout the early months of 2009 we corresponded about texts, I mentioned Whitman, and when Deb asked me to forward some favorites, I did. Whitman Interlude sets one of Whitman's greatest miniatures,

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the
spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd till the ductile
anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my

I was excited enough Deborah picked one of my absolute favorite poems--by Whitman or anyone--in which form and content, technique, diction, line and meaning all perfectly balance. Mason's setting seizes on the adventurousness of the imagery--the elaborate weaving of the spider's web and the very creative act itself, the spider "launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself!"

All three fundamental elements of musical composition are literally at work and play here: melody, harmony, and rhythm "launch forth" and "explore the vast surrounding" in a form that combines scherzo-like energy with rondo-inspired, refrain-style choruses. Its an inspired setting of a great poem, and one the Chorale has thoroughly enjoyed putting together. Part of that enjoyment comes directly from the fact that the piece is literally "worth the effort." That is to say, the piece is difficult, and that makes a successful performance of it rewarding for both the performers and the listeners.

I believe too many people assume new music is going to be gratuitously difficult, and/or avant-garde for its own sake only, and to put not too fine a point on it, just plain ugly. And that prejudice is fueled by several decades of such experimental, avant-garde, anti-establishment works that made no connection between the levels of difficulty and enjoyment.

Today, thankfully, the pendulum has finally swung (or is still swinging) back to a happier medium where "new" doesn't necessarily mean "ugly" and "enjoyable" to an audience does not necessarily mean "B-rate" (or any other negative, pejorative association) where depth and substance are concerned.

I believe the Chorale's concert is just such an example of how the "new" is speaking a language that builds on the great traditions of music we know and love from the Renaissance to Bach to Beethoven and Brahms, to Debussy and among others, Copland.

The other brand new work on the program is personal in a number of ways. As I wrote in my program notes, I have known the conductor, composer, singer, and teacher Giselle Wyers since we attended graduate school together at Westminster Choir College some 15 years ago. Giselle and I shared an intellectual curiosity for all of the arts, and poetry in particular, and attended a celebrated poetry festival in New Jersey. In addition to hearing eminent poets like Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly and Gary Snyder read their works, we heard the poet and translator Coleman Barks recite his versions of the 13th c. Sufist mystic, Rumi, while the Paul Winter consort improvised acoustic jazz behind him. How fitting that one of the first of Giselle's new works I saw was her setting of a poet from Rumi's circle, the 2009 setting Come, Come Whoever You Are.

Giselle and I discussed a Chorale collaboration last year, and another uncanny, almost parallel gesture of collegial generosity appeared in Giselle's offer to waive a commission fee. I offered her the podium for her to conduct her newest work, and she graciously accepted. I do have to remind myself from time to time--so often am I preoccupied with the day-to-day administrative and executive duties of running the Chorale--that not everyone is so fortunate to actually BE the conductor of an esteemed, established professional chamber chorus. So, thank you, Virginia Chorale, for the opportunity and privilege! I am humbly proud to be in such a position, and share the baton with my colleagues when special occasions such as this arise.

I am equally humbled to have my own poetry set--and for the first time by someone other than me. When Giselle asked me to send some of my own works, I balked. Besides being a rank amateur when it comes to poetry's composition, the styles I favored--from the stream-of-conscious to the confessional--did not seem well-suited to music.

She ended up choosing a short poem I wrote following the death of my cousin Don, who succumbed to AIDS-related illness in 1994. I was reading a lot of poetry at the time, catching up on eminent 20th century poets like James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Muriel Ruykeser, Edna St Vincent Millay. Wright's poem "Once I was afraid of dying" inspired my "(Un)Afraid of Dying." Giselle paired it with a fragment of Lousie Bogan's longer poem, After the Persian. The work's title, Goodbye, is the opening word of Bogan's poem. Wyers sets this central word with a series of interlocking bell tones that both link the poems and function as signals: reminders that reflection and memory are themselves rituals.

Goodbye (Williamson/Bogan)

"(Un)Afraid of Dying" (Scott Williamson)

The leaves litter the ground at my feet,
the ground beneath in which you rest,
where roots thrive in dark shrouds
and Earth’s stories fill old shells.

A leaf floats into the stream.
The waters of change carry it away,
where life circles and death begins
and entombed secrets resurface.

from “After the Persian” (Louise Bogan)

Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love,
I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.
Some things I overlooked,
and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.

Wyers' impressionist setting beautifully captures the images of transformation and loss, the tender, soulful tones of memory and farewell, and the tenuous balance sought in the process of letting go.

Giselle's piece arrived on my desktop while the Chorale's late friend Lisa Coston was in the hospital. I could never have imagined--much less asked for--so fitting a tribute, so personal a memento. It is with enormous gratitude, excitement, and anticipation we look forward to welcoming Whitman Interlude and Goodbye into the Chorale's ever-expanding library of new works through our American Legacies Series.

With the continued support of our colleagues, friends, and patrons, we will continue to foster and cultivate the music of our time, written by and for us, to the benefit and betterment of us all.

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