Un Nouveau Départ (A New Beginning), Radcliffe Choral Society’s joint concert with Boston Modern Orchestra Project at First Church Cambridge on April 2nd at 8:00, features the world premiere of Lisa Bielawa’s Land Sea Sky along with performances of Nancy Galbraith’s Four Nature Canticles and Faure’s Messe des pêcheurs de Villerville. Director of Choral Activities, Andrew Clark, leads the concert which will also livestream. Commissioned by RCS, which has celebrated treble choral music-making within the Harvard community since 1899, Land Sea Sky responds to the young singers’ life journeys pandemic-interrupted education.
BMOP, where Bielawa served as composer in residence for three years, has often collaborated with the Harvard Choruses (the Radcliffe Choral Society, the Harvard Glee Club, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum) over the last ten years in memorable concerts such as Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, the Arvo Pärt Passio, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, Ross Lee Finney’s Pilgrim Psalms, among other projects.
Bielawa responded to the RCS commission with a joyful retelling of three young women’s stories of journeying: Land, which recounts Nairobi-based writer Edith Knight Magak’s bus trip across Kenya to her nephew’s eighth birthday party; Sea, which is a setting of diary excerpts by British-born actress Fanny Kemble as she traveled by steamship across the Atlantic into New York harbor in 1832; and Sky, which celebrates the audacious opera diva Elisabeth Thible, the first woman to ascend in a hot air balloon — while singing — in 1784 in Lyon, France.”
BMInt conducted a phone interview with Lisa Bielawa as follows:
FLE: One characteristic that seems to set you apart as a composer is what you refer to as “participatory music.” Does your engagement with your audiences and the commissioners help you with the notes? Are we being asked to write the music with you?
LB: In the case of my own music participatory means the opposite of the hermetically sealed unit like a family. Participatory means looking out and having a broad inclusivity in some way. Participation sometimes happens when I do some of the large pieces such as Vireo [12-episode made-for-TV opera streaming on KCET-TV]. Sometimes a large community gathers around the work, as it’s being made. In San Francisco in Crissy Broadcast, 800 musicians performed on a former airfield, which is now a park. In this case, whoever comes into the piece, whether it’s a rather rough sounding middle school band or a professional orchestra, they can all be in it, because as long as I compose for the level that they’re at, they can fulfill their job in a meaningful way and be part of the piece. I’m the composer, so I can make that happen. I can make sure the piece is artistically fulfilling for everybody involved, from a rough level middle school band through a professional ensemble.
And so there are ways to create work that is broadly inclusive, that does welcome participation by adult amateurs, for example. I’ve worked in a lot of contexts where there are professionals and students and amateurs all involved in the performance in some way.
But these are fully written out pieces or happenings.
These are always fully written out pieces.
Does it take you longer to write this way, or is it just the way that you feel like writing?
Oh, well these projects take a long time in recruiting and administration. And of course a piece that has 800 musicians in it is definitely going to be time consuming. When you start creating a million little parts, there are ways to make those parts Aleatoric.
When I am working with a lot of people and also in a public space, certain aspects don’t require as much control, because you can’t control sound in public space. So, there must be some flexibility in the score to accommodate that, but I would say it takes more work rather than less even though there’s less detailing involved. My Sanctuary [a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh co-commissioned by ACO presented by Carnegie Hall], which premiered last week, contains enormous amounts of detail.
When you’re doing a fully fleshed out symphonic work with a virtuoso soloist, that’s a lot of work too but it’s a different thing you’re doing. When you’re working on it, you’re not thinking about all the conceptual possibilities that might arise from an Aleatoric construct. You’re creating a very detailed and polished symphonic score. Either of those things takes a lot of work.
So that piece is not participatory.
That’s a standard relationship between composer and performer—exactly. And I do those too because one of the other things I’m passionate about is virtuosity. And so, I have written some concertos. This is for Jennifer Koh, but I’ve been drawn to and have very close relationships with some amazing virtuoso soloists. It’s also quite inspiring, and just as inspiring as participatory community working. Both of these ways of working have inspired me a lot.
Is it satisfying to listen to a recording or watch a video of it or, do you have to have been there?
There are other participatory works that are more along the lines of social practice in the visual arts and have more to do with crowdsourcing. I’m not inviting people to be part of the performance of the work, but they can be part of creating the work. So, during lockdown, I did Broadcast From Home which was a project designed to collect testimonies like written testimonies from people in lockdown all over the world, through the website of the project.
And then I would create melodies, not full scores but, almost like part books with melodies that I knew would go together. They would be designed so that people could record them at home individually during lockdown, anywhere in the world. If you could get onto the website, you could participate in the project, no matter who you were. You could give a testimony or answer some of the questions I have on the website.
What do you fear? What are you hoping? These questions prompted contributions of text melodies that might end up in getting sung in the piece. Maybe later that week, they’d see their own text as a melody. I would sing the melodies so that if they didn’t read music they could still sing after listening to the little videos on my site.
And then there were instrumental phrases too that I got people to email. I had participation from entire summer festivals that couldn’t happen, but their alternative programming was participation in this piece. Thus, I had many different musical communities able to fulfill their in-person activities and pivot and be part of his piece. I ended up having over 300 people involved in this from six continents; I built a huge community of people sheltering in place all over the world. It was incredibly moving and such a great way to bind to each other across distances while we were all struggling with this solitude. That was another example, a totally different example of a broad inclusivity that really does prioritize reaching as many people as possible and achieving broad participation.
Does Land Sea and Sky fall into the participatory category, and how narrowly did the music director Andrew Clark frame it?
Andrew and I talked a lot which is great. I asked him about his students. These are not just choristers. This is a community of young people whose education has been interrupted by the pandemic. So I did see this as an opportunity to help a community move forward through the participation in this piece and it wasn’t exactly clear how we were going to do that.
I paid a couple of visits; one was supposed to be in-person, but then we had it on Zoom because, teaching was not really in-person yet. I made another visit a couple months ago, when I was still working on the piece just to try some ideas out with them. In that way, I got a sense for where they’re at. Some of them sent me field audio, to convey what they were listening to in their worlds. But I didn’t end up using that in the piece. And I didn’t end up asking them to create material (testimonies, etc.) because they have their work. They didn’t need additional demands made on them. What they really need is something lovely to do together that I would provide.
What would be most healing for this community would be to make a piece that allows them to just feel the sweetness of being together again, and feel some forward motion in their lives. We think we’ve got it bad, but young people who were in the middle of their freshman year at Harvard got suddenly sent back home for online learning. This generation is really having a chopped-up experience during some very formative and important parts of their lives. And so I wanted to give a piece that celebrates moving forward. So it ended up being three stories of women who were going someplace.
The first text that I found was Sea. I knew about the diarist, Fannie Kemble. For a different project, I had read a bunch of a bunch of American women’s diaries during my residency in Worcester at the American Antiquarian Society. I knew her from that because she was a very famous abolitionist when she lived in the States. But she was born in Britain and she came to the States at the age of 23, on a steamship. She writes in her diary about what it’s like to arrive in the New York Harbor in 1832; very vivid, wonderful writing. And so, that’s the Sea movement. But then, I stumbled into the same bookstore, where I found this crazy 1930’s overwritten encyclopedia called “The World in the Air.” It’s all about man’s conquest of the air through flight. And in it, I discovered Madame Elizabeth Thible, who, in 1784, was the first woman to go up in a hot air balloon, and I found a letter that she wrote to her friend, describing the experience of floating up in the balloon. So that’s Sky. And then I had Sky and I thought, ‘Well, what am I going to do for Land?’ and then I got Andy to help with commissioning a new text from writer Edith Knight Magak.
Edith comes to this from the Broadcast From Home project. When we were on lockdown, she somehow found the website, and both sang and gave some of the most beautiful testimony. She’s a terrific writer based in Nairobi and we’ve never met, but I’ve worked with her on this and other things since. I asked her to expand on the one of the testimonies she sent me about traveling across Kenya by bus during the pandemic. She created a great text for Land.
How would you describe the organization of the work?
It’s in three sections—one for each person. The three movements interact by being distinct from one another. In Land, the singing is a cappella. I’m excited that the instruments play only on water and in the air. Instruments are not earthbound. In the second movement Sea, the instruments play the role of the ocean. They get to do all kinds of weather.
For Land, traveling by bus provides a regular beat as the wheels are turning. It’s land-bound and myopic, whereas when you’re on the sea in a steamship it’s mostly about how the ship being buffeted about around by the weather. Sea is about getting buffeted around a lot and then the third movement, Sky, does gliding gliding up. Also, it’s bilingual, because the letter that was published in this journal was in French. I translated it (I majored in French literature at Yale instead of music) and so the piece is in both languages. The voices and orchestra work together to glide. So there there’s a lot of tone painting.
After the murkiness and uncertainty and ambiguity of the experiences we’ve had in the last couple years with the pandemic and also with rampant social in justice and all the turmoil, and not knowing whether we’re in the brink of some major world crisis and just seeing these terrible pictures every day, this has been an unbelievably difficult time for many, many people, emotionally, psychologically.
As a result, I’m finding that I want more obviousness now in my work and less ambiguity — fewer layers of meaning in the work. If the poem says there’s waves, then I want the orchestra to sound like that.
So what role does emotion play? Are you emotional about these ladies and women that you’re writing about? Do their anxiety, their hope, and their anger come out?
Absolutely! Edith Knight Magak in Land, shows she’s got this hilarious sense of humor, also that she’s feeling anxiety about the pandemic and about the world. She describes going on an eight-hour bus ride to visit her nephew, who’s turning eight, and then she looks on her phone to find out what eight means, discovering that in numerology, eight is the number of destruction. She becomes jittery like the rest of us. Their descriptions reveal something that touches a lot of people in a way that just seems so right.
And then, Fanny Kemble, after just going through waves and fog and the cold, finally sees New York. It’s beautiful and touching. … she’s exactly the same age as the young women who are going to be singing this piece. They’re on the brink of their lives, each in her own way metaphorically. Hopefully, after all the turmoil of their years, they’re going to see vistas open up.
By the way, it turns out that Madame Thible was an opera singer. So she sang an aria from the basket of the balloon. That is hilarious. And in the letter that she published, she mentions what aria it was and what the lines were. That prompted me to do even more research and I found the obscure opera from 1773 La Belle Arséne by Monsigny and it’s this terrible, stupid aria. So I lifted the lines but I recast the harmony.
So, as you reach the end of piece, some soloists from the chorus are going to be singing these lines that she was singing from the balloon woven into the texture of my music.
You seem to be the least abstract composer I’ve ever talked to.
Everybody’s less abstract now. What I’m learning, is that impulse is definitely strong in me — to be more vivid, almost babyishly obvious — because there’s something so joyful about being able to come together and do stuff.