Here is a little background on my double piano concerto being premiered by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night in Madison, Wisconsin:
DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows. My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water's edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water's surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word.
I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive "perfect moment," (think Eric Rohmer's Le Rayon Vert or Summer, as it's known in the US) and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of "doubleness," represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: "Surfaces" (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), "Disturbances" (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and "Revelation" (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.
In 2011 I was contemplating writing a new piano four hands piece for Michael and Jessica Shinn. That Fall they performed a benefit concert for their wonderful summer festival, PianoSonoma at the Yamaha Salon in New York City (more about that soon!). I heard them perform the Brahms Waltzes, and when they got to #15, I was deeply moved. I thought to myself, “What a gem! What a tiny little piece with such a big heart!”
As I was walking back across town to get on a train home, that internal mantra turned into a new title: “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love.” Yes, a little bit of a play on “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” by Dave Eggers, which I had just read and loved, but just different enough to make it my own. I decided I would try to compose a series of gems, and on the train ride home I jotted down the seven movement names, which never changed:
It was obviously going to be a piece about my relationship with my wife, Deborah, and I was going to dedicate the piece to her. This is a video of the premiere at the Juilliard School in May 2012. Michael and Jessica and I worked together before, but this piece brought us even closer. In many ways, it’s the reason we are doing DOUBLE RAINBOW in Madison this week.
OK. Take a breath, he says to himself. After a big weekend of hosting my son Will's a cappella group from U Chicago for the 2017 ICCA Finals at the Beacon, now I begin to turn my attention to a very exciting musical project of my own.
I should say "our own," because it's a project I've been developing in collaboration with pianists Michael and Jessica Shinn. It's called DOUBLE RAINBOW - a double piano concerto commissioned by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison, WI. The premiere is Friday night (4.28), but there are lots of stories to tell. I will be posting all week about it, in a little microburst of blogging. It's a piece about doubleness, about the reflective nature of twos as they appear in life and love. So first, as a teaser, I give you the stars of the show: Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.
At ITAC3, the International Teaching Artists Conference in Edinburgh, we gathered in a small room for a session with Simon Sharkey of the National Theater of Scotland, and we were not disappointed. Simon’s Scottish brogue was thick, melodious, and inviting. He began talking about his company (which was founded in 2006), and he catalogued the staggering number of productions they have created in their short history. Most famous is surely Blackwatch, an international hit based on a Scottish regiment’s witnessing of the war in Iraq. I saw Blackwatch in New York in 2007, and though I had not seen any of its work since then, I was impressed enough by that experience to take its claims seriously.
Simon began to describe his theater’s central artistic approach to collaboration. He said it had to do with a certain Hirab Johnny. I was sitting next to a fellow American, Tricia Tunstall, and she and I both turned to one another quizzically, as if to say, “what did he say?” After one or two more references to the stages of Hirab Johnny, Tricia asked me, “who is he? Is he someone we are supposed to know about?” It still took a few more paragraphs of that smoky Scottish brogue before we realized that Hirab Johnny was at the center of Joseph Campbell’s take on mythology, and therefore was not a specific person at all. All along Simon had been saying “a hero’s journey,” not “Hirab Johnny.”
In fact, a hero’s journey is central to the way Simon and his colleagues work when devising a play with far-flung collaborators. They begin with five steps of the journey (a distilled version of Joseph Campbell’s more elaborate breakdowns):
Working through a variety of exercises that introduce the hero’s journey, they then embark on the creation of theater pieces that tell a heroic tale. Since the National Theater of Scotland seeks collaborations with communities from all over the world, they naturally learn about stories from other cultures that inspire and stimulate exchange among nations. Rather than thinking of a national theater that enshrines its own heritage, Scotland’s national theater reaches out to create relationships with other countries and communities.
The company’s newest venture is entitled “Home Away,” and it answers the company’s initiative from its first year, “Home.” They are collaborating with communities in Chicago, New Delhi, Jamaica, Brisbane, Rio De Janeiro, and in Scotland: (Glasgow, South Uist, Dundee, Tomintoul & Glenlivet), and internationally through the World Wide Web. The new pieces will be premiered this Fall in Scotland, along with a five day participatory arts conference. More info at www.homeaway2016.com
You are invited to attend, and if you go, please say hello to Hirab Johnny for me.(And oh, Simon, too, pictured below)
I don’t know Ellie Harrison. I have never met her in person. But that is just as she would have it.
I encountered her via Skype at the International Teaching Artists Conference in Edinburgh last week. Ellie prefers Skype because she does not travel, at least she is not travelling at present. Why? For all the reasons you might predict. Most forms of modern transportation take fuel, notes Ellie, and Ellie is not into the fossil fuel thing. She admits that even with all the precautions she takes, it is impossible to avoid the use or consumption of fossil fuels entirely, but she is trying her best. She is in Glasgow, and even though it is a short hour by train to Edinburgh, she insisted she should not travel.
Ellie is an artist and activist, and she has a clear mission. She wants her work to be free of the obligations that come with the support of traditional capitalist funding sources. So instead Ellie is working on a novel idea. What if you could invest in clean, sustainable energy, like a wind turbine? I mean what if you bought and built a wind turbine? Really. And what if you could take the money you made through those investments and pay for the arts education projects that mean the most to you? That way you would not be subject to possible restrictions on your free speech, you would be free to say what you believe, what you mean, what you think is important in an age where climate change and unfettered capitalism threaten our future. Teaching artists could fund themselves through the creation of sustainable energy. There’s something I had never considered before my trip to Edinburgh.
And Ellie is serious about it. In 2015 she initiated the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund (the “RRAAF”). Check her out at www.ellieharrison.com.
OK, ok, so I know what you are thinking. There is no such thing as “pure money.” Even if you were to succeed with the wind turbine plan, you’d end up using fossil fuels in getting the construction materials to your site, you’d be drawing on funds that were derived from compromised investments, etc, etc., etc. And yes, you would be right. It is just what I thought as I listened to Ellie lay out her utopian plans.
But there is something that transcends all the counter-arguments, and that is plain and simple, Ellie’s joy. She can’t seem to help laughing in between every other sentence, and she readily admits all the flaws and holes in her logic. She just loves the idea of upending our ideas of the status quo, of how things should work, and she has an uncanny way of making you feel joyful about it all, too. Sometimes ebullience trumps all.
Perhaps Ellie just made me feel mischievously youthful. Perhaps I couldn’t resist her gap-toothed smile. Perhaps she forced me to question the pillars that support my own work. Perhaps Ellie is onto something. Why should we always be looking to others to support our work? What can we do to sustain our world and pursue our teaching artist projects?
It might be a simple thing to brush Ellie off as young and naïve, but I wonder, should we?
“In the front is red fire
In the rear is red smoke
Stay wisely in between
Stay near the standard bearer
The first ones always die
The last ones are also hit
Those in the center come home.”
War is unimaginable to those of us who have not been in it. We depend on reporters and cameras to tell us what it is like, and even then we can feel numb to the explosions and “collateral damage,” as the spinspeak goes. As a teaching artist, I think of myself as more of a domestic worker, someone working to strengthen schools and community centers back home, rather than as someone who could be involved in telling the stories of the tragic outcomes of armed conflict.
This past year I congratulated myself repeatedly on how adept I had become at using my iPhone to record snippets of song ideas in workshops I led at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I even mentioned it again as part of my presentation at the International Teaching Artists Conference in Edinburgh (ITAC3, #ITAC3C), you know, cleverly urging people to use the technology at hand, and that sort of thing. Imagine how my mind was blown when I learned at that same conference about Yasmin Fedda and the work she does with filmmakers in Syria to create heart-wrenching and thought-provoking documentaries with nothing but a mobile phone.
A film about a young boy who loses his hand and much of his mental ability as a result of the detonation of a bomb he thinks is a toy. A film about a teenager who watches the devastation of his country and responds by building elaborate models of a new city that could someday rise out of the ashes. A film about the barbed wire fences at the border between Syria and Turkey, which eventually beckon desperate Syrians to hurl themselves directly into the face of death. All these stories told through footage shot entirely on the same iPhone I carry in my pocket, the same iPhone I use to casually check the weather or receive a text from home. The films are edited in a hurry, usually no more than 2 hours per film, and under conditions that are as hard to imagine as the stories they tell.
Teaching artists in Syria bring equipment and coaching expertise, support, and the opportunity to share the work beyond the borders of Syria. Just as we try to allow songwriters to write their own songs and conceive their own arrangements, these film editors support their directors as they storyboard and then edit their documentaries, fighting the clock all the way. There are so many things we have in common, as teaching artists, and yet there are so many ways in which they are war journalists, and so many ways in which I strain to imagine the complexity and danger of the work they do.
Yasmin Fedda said, “I have a bias. And I have to acknowledge I have a bias, otherwise I cannot work in such a situation [like Syria]…” She is opposed to the actions of the Assad regime, and she has a specific agenda when it comes to what she believes should happen to resolve the conflict. She said, “I must be totally transparent about my opinions, with my collaborators, but most importantly, with myself.” I realize that that is true of me, too. I do not work in a war zone – though this work certainly makes me ask why not? – but I have a bias, too. It has to do with growing income inequality and racism and the place of education in the United States, but she made me realize how important it is to recognize our biases and be transparent about them. Often we are timid about our own political stances because we work for cultural institutions, and we don’t want to rock the boat or needlessly offend a board member or a funder. But more and more it seems, we are in need of clarity and confidence about the purpose of our work. And that includes acknowledging we have an opinion about what should happen in the world.
Yasmin Fedda and her amazing project have helped me think more deeply about that this summer. I am grateful to ITAC3 for bringing me into an international community of teaching artists whose work I am only beginning to learn about.
You can learn more at: http://highlightarts.org/projects/category/syria/
More stories of ITAC3 to come!
This week and next I'll be writing up a few summaries from my visit to Scotland in early August. I was lucky enough to attend the International Teaching Artists Conference in Edinburgh. It will come as no surprise to my teaching artist friends that Eric Booth is the driving force behind it. He has found some wonderful colleagues from Norway, Australia, and Scotland who are in league with him, and we here in New York are hoping to host the next gathering. This was the third iteration of the conference (thus the acronym, ITAC3). It was my first visit, but other New York colleagues had attended the past two conferences, including Sarah Johnson, Hilary Easton, LeeAnn Westover, and this year Jean Taylor, Barbara Ellman, and Jose Velez, all from Lincoln Center Education.
I was inspired by many of the presentations and workshops, and of course I could not get to all the rich offerings, but I do want to share a few that struck me most deeply, and so I'll be doing that in this little micro-burst of blogging. Like a late day thunderstorm in August, I promise it will be brief and hopefully a little noisy, too!
Tomorrow look for a piece about mobile phone films from Syria.
It's an adventure. A train through Brooklyn out to the edges of Ridgewood in Queens, then a bus to Maspeth, to an industrial neighborhood, through corrugated tin gates to an old glass factory. The Knockdown Center. As simple sign outside lets you know you've come to a show.
Song lyrics and pictures and maps of Somewhere Project activity adorn the walls. Brown Rice Family, a world music dance band plays a pre-show set. The audience surrounds a platform constructed as a section of highway, dotted lines and all. The lights go down, and West Side Story begins. Here are some excerpts from the invited dress last Thursday.
All year at Carnegie Hall, we have been investigating the song "Somewhere." We have done countless performances of the song. We have analyzed it and used phrases from the lyric as launching pads for new songs. A piece in the New York Times today describes some of its resonance for us and our community collaborators. It is a classic American song, and while we plumb its depths for inspiration, we should not forget where "Somewhere" comes from.
Tonight many of us will have the chance to see the show, West Side Story, at the Knockdown Center in Queens. "Somewhere" is a song with great universal qualities, but it was born in a specific dramatic context. In the Robert Wise Hollywood film, "Somewhere" is a romantic duet between Tony and Maria, but that was not its original function. In the Jerome Robbins Broadway show, "Somewhere" is a dream ballet, sung by a single soprano voice, a moment of escape after the harrowing double murder that occurs at the end of the first act. It serves to suspend time, to imagine a better place in the midst of violence and the inevitable revenge and punishment to come. It is a fragile wisp of a song, just shy of two minutes of stage time, and it does not end, but resists harmonic resolution. Instead it leads to the barreling return of reality, plunging us back into the drama, which cannot hold off Shakespeare's original tragic conclusion much longer.
A principal innovation of this production was to investigate the idea that "Somewhere" is a song that we can all imagine ourselves singing - so much that we thought: why not have 200 high school students take the part of that lone soprano? I am excited to see how it goes on our opening night!
A couple of years ago, when we sat together to plan the Somewhere Project at the Weill Music Institute, we knew wanted to create a something for the whole city. When you are talking about New York, that is a tall order. Arts education projects usually fly under the radar, but we did dare to dream of involving all five boroughs (check), and as many willing arts partner organizations (check, about 20), and the NYC public schools (check, 25 high schools, along with an invitation to even more to include the work in their classrooms). It's all been so much that even those of us who were involved in the initial planning have not been able to make it out to see all the activity. If you want to get a taste via your device, check out this report on WQXR/WNYC. You'll hear some rehearsal, the voices of kids, and you can read the article by reporter Becca Pulliam as she describes three of the five Neighborhood Concerts that feature new work inspired by "Somewhere."
It's a lot of "Somewhere," and the full production of WSS opens Friday. Hard not to be excited.