in: News & Features

September 1, 2010

WordSong Experience: New Music in Refreshing Way

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As I emerged from the elevator on the 8th floor of an elegant office building in Boston’s financial district last winter and found myself in the boardroom of a law firm, I realized that I was not seeing only lawyers. A mix of young professionals, some retirees, and a handful of high school students made up an assembling audience of about 50. Up front were a marimba, cello, and two music stands. I took a seat and began reading In Just–, a poem by e.e. cummings. So began this performance of an interesting collaboration between music and poetry — WordSong.

Composer Howard Frazin starts every WordSong forum by reminiscing about childhood trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he remembers entering the Monet gallery in the Impressionist wing and experiencing what he now calls, “The Implicit Conversation.” In this gallery hung seven of Monet’s Haystacks, silently arranged by the curator, and the young Frazin discovered many things about light, color, and shape from interacting with these variations on a theme. Seeing a grouping of paintings on one subject is a unique curatorial gambit that encourages viewers to make comparisons and develop a relationship to the subject itself, in all its incarnations.

Frazin, whose childhood centered on drawing, has always kept this concept close to his work, and in the last 12 years has begun to apply the Implicit Conversation directly to the concert experience. In 2009, he and composer Tom Schnauber, who chairs the Performing Arts Department at Emmanuel College, teamed up to present WordSong, a unique concert format that aims to engage audiences with new music in a meaningful way.

After my reading, Frazin and Schnauber set the stage for a lively discussion of Cummings’ iconic poem. The poem is highly charged with imagery and ambiguity, not to mention a rich history in our cultural consciousness, and the discussion was lively. The host of the concert, Evelyn Haralampu, a partner at Burns & Levinson and a major donor to WordSong, rightly noted that lawyers “have a thing for words.” Precise or vague, words are a lawyer’s primary tool, and interpreting poetry with a roomful of them was a noteworthy – if intimidating – exercise.

Near the middle of the audience sat a small group of high school students from the Boston Arts Academy. At one point, an older gentleman spoke confidently about the poet’s allusions to the Greek god Pan (the “goat-footed balloon-man”). Not long afterward, a young student from BAA, unaware of its relevance, made a similarly perceptive observation in much simpler terms. The student had a visceral reaction to the underlying tone in the poem, and the older gentleman effectively gave this reaction a context.

This spirited interaction between diverse audience types is one of the most interesting products of WordSong, Frazin pointed out. “Art gets obsessed with itself sometimes. It becomes all about being referential,” he said, but in this small interchange there was both a cultural backdrop and an intuitive emotional response. “This is what art is for!” he exclaimed gleefully.

Having plunged completely into the poem’s many layers of meaning, the WordSong forum continued directly with the presentation of four newly composed song settings for cello, marimba, and voice. Performed by percussionist Robert Schulz, cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer, and mezzo-soprano Krista River, the pieces were extraordinarily different from one another and presented various readings of the text. Pieces by Schnauber and Frazin, as well as young composers Adam Simon and Benjamin Pesetsky, were programmed in an order “curated” by the performers, and the program booklet included space for “a few words or phrases that reflect your visceral reaction to the music.”

At intermission, audience members could mingle, network, eat, and drink. What followed though, in the culminating discussion, was quite remarkable. Tom Schnauber began simply by opening up the floor for anyone to comment on how the music affected their previous reading of the poem. Did the pieces meet their expectations or did they suggest a new angle for reading the poem? Were the pieces successful? Composers are apt to discuss these and other questions with each other, but rarely do they have such conversations with their audience.

That the pieces were all quite different made for much discussion in itself. Simon’s song takes Cummings’s lively evocation of springtime and sets it as a nostalgic lament. Benjamin Pesetsky’s piece contains an animated dance-like ostinato with a touch of menace. The audience also plumbed the effectiveness of certain pieces in conveying the ambiguity of the poem, the role of each instrument in evoking the poem’s atmosphere, and how a composer treated the visual element of Cummings’ poem. Audience members also asked the composers very pointed questions about their compositional decisions. It was as if some in the audience, having “lived” with the poem for a few hours (or many years), were formulating ideas for their own compositions. Very organically, as the conversation converged on single pieces, the performers made the decision to re-play each work, providing the audience a second hearing.

Schnauber likes to tell forum audiences that the best a composer can normally expect after a concert of “new” music is, “I liked your piece. It was really…interesting.” New music composers experience collective dismay at the low expectations for audience engagement. This highlights a major issue in contemporary music that WordSong aims to address. During the 20th century, as many composers abandoned tonality for the far reaches of atonality and experimentalism, they expected audiences to come along. For the most part, they retreated and composers fled to the ivory tower. Now, it is common for composers to assume that if audiences don’t like their music, they just don’t get it; and it is equally common for audiences to feel that new music is way over their heads. Frazin and Schnauber, who wholeheartedly disavow this notion, seek out composers who are not afraid to engage in such a personal way with the audience. (Previous WordSong presentations have included composers Andy Vores, John McDonald, Dalit Warshaw, Herschel Garfein, Robert Merfeld, and Stan Charkey.)

One of the foundational objectives of WordSong  is to create a presentation format that, at its core, assumes listeners — all listeners — “get it”; that what they get is innate and not predicated on some sort of cultural sophistication. This argument finds its way into almost any discussion about WordSong with Frazin or Schnauber, but it can also lead down a bumpy philosophical road. Indeed, Frazin and Schnauber do not always see eye-to-eye on this. Frazin seems to have true faith in music as a universal language, with the emotional potential to transcend intellectual, and even cultural, barriers. Schnauber, on the other hand, disagrees with the capacity of even the most breathtaking Beethoven symphony to find relevance across cultures. “Music is no more a universal language than language is,” Schnauber says. However, when dealing within Western culture, there is agreement that even diverse audiences share a capacity to perceive emotional depth in music as well as text. This is why the first forums have focused on song settings instead of purely instrumental music. “People have strong opinions about words,” Frazin maintains, “It stimulates excellent discussion.”

It is now so commonplace to hear hype about the death of classical music that even musicians are beginning to believe it. Nearly every orchestra that is not steeped in traditional concert ritual is experimenting with new ways of attracting audiences. From multi-media presentations accompanying classic works to more Pops concerts (one orchestra even inserted bits of Coldplay into Beethoven’s Third Symphony), arts administrators are desperate. Frazin feels that the people making these decisions, not necessarily musicians themselves, are essentially saying, “Pop music is doing okay, let’s tap into that.” Frazin’s response? “We need to remind people of what the classical arts do best.” In an op-ed in The Boston Globe last year, he wrote about the arts as a cultural tool that “help[s] us imagine more fully our own sense of common humanity.”

Frazin and Schnauber have been approaching some orchestras with ideas for collaboration. Specifically, they see small forums being presented to patrons when deciding on new commissions. This would allow concertgoers and donors to experience the artistic process firsthand. Schnauber considers it a win-win situation for the orchestra, especially because the forums are inherently inexpensive. Also, by bringing musicians, composers, and audiences together in a more intimate environment, orchestras might forge a more meaningful relationship to the community.

Based on the positive response from audiences, the founders of WordSong are confident in the format’s appeal to larger arts organizations. Following the forums last Feburary, WordSong engaged both the Boston Arts Academy and the Boston Prep Charter School in outreach projects. Thanks to its uniquely multidisciplinary nature, the projects used the curriculum to expose students to composition. Additionally, WordSong took part in WGBH’s All Classical Festival in June, and presented a forum on Theodore Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz earlier in the year. In the future, the founders see the forums moving beyond song settings and into other associative experiences, including music based on painting and different pieces as the soundtrack to a short film. In each case, the audience is provided a hook with which to penetrate the inherent abstraction of music.

Ultimately, WordSong is about “re-convincing people of the merits of intuitive musical understanding.” All performers are familiar with the energy that is in the room during a great performance. That energy is equally alive during moments of spirited audience participation. After a forum in Rockport, Frazin was discussing poetry with a retired English professor. Later he reflected, “If you can get someone like this to talk about your music from the perspective life experience, you can get some cool stuff!”

On September 17, at Emmanuel College, will be the first forum of the new season. In collaboration with The Florestan Project, Frazin and Schnauber, along with Felicia Sandler and Nick Vines, will present four new settings of Wallace Stevens’ poem Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock, performed by baritone Aaron Engebreth and pianist Alison d’Amato. More information can be found in BMInt’s Upcoming Events.

Jonah Kappraff, trumpeter, studied at the Oberlin Conservatory and Boston University.  Currently, he freelances in the Boston area as well as maintaining a busy private teaching practice.

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