New York Round 1: Caramoor and finding a few rooms to call home

Dear Friends,

The summer is winding down and I’m on the move again.

While packing for my upcoming move to Manhattan, I came across a journal from my first semester at Bard. Waiting outside of Sanford Sylvan’s voice studio on 72nd street, I would write in it to clear my mind before a lesson. Leafing through it today, this snippet resonated with me as I begin the infamous apartment search, and prepare to start at Juilliard in a few weeks.

Look I’ve found a routine – a ritual to center, or unbalance, sitting in this lobby- hearing the baritone before me, the hushed shuffling of a meditative dance class, distant echo of a soprano downstairs. The city, an arrangement of rooms and paths between. Here, what is a room? a place to elicit a certain spirit. In the voice studio, through the surprisingly thin door, it is bare – a grey floor and mirror-wall – not quite tuned piano; a shell to be filled with the intent of its inhabitants- for me, a shrine to craft and terrain for safe exploration. The city, a museum of contemporary life each room a gallery, a zoo of Homo sapiens boom ecology each room a habitat, a performance of Babylon reinterpreted. Is there an essence, a spirit squeezed from the materials that pass through here… (then my lesson started)

New York inspires me. New York terrifies me. Still.

I was at the beginning of getting into a rhythm with the New York City, figuring out what that was to me, how it might change me. I had spent time in the city before–to visit my younger sister in college; to see my first opera, Die Walküre at the Met (the trip was a high school graduation gift); and I had got to know the fifteen hour train ride from Prince, West Virginia to Penn Station while traveling to the auditions that got me into Aspen and Bard in 2013/4. It often felt like an anthropological expedition to see the distinctly urban ways of life carved out by millions where this vast river meets the Atlantic.

And now I am beginning to carve out my own path here. It is where I need to be, and I’m happy to say that after spending a summer living and making music in the city, that it is where I want to be. Now I am looking for a few rooms for me and my dog to call home in the midst of it

Caramoor Update
The Bel Canto at Caramoor Young Artist Program was an ideal introduction to the New York opera world. A week ago I performed in Beethoven’s Fidelio. It was a grand finale for the summer opera season at the Caramoor. The cast and orchestra were electric. I covered the opera’s main bass role, Rocco, which was performed by the great Kristinn Sigmundsson, and sang a brief solo as the Second Prisoner in Beethoven’s achingly beautiful chorus of political prisoners.

Earlier in the summer we performed Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira, in which I had a brief scene as a shepherd offering rest to the opera’s war-weary hero. I also presented a set of Beethoven songs in a program shared with other Caramoor young artists. Happily, I was named in a few positive reviews. I’m thankful for the new colleagues and coaches, and to now be versed in the gospel of true legato (ask me about it).

Alright, time for me to get back to packing. PS ~ Obligatory dog photo…

Introductory Program Note for “Speculating on Eternity” My Degree Recital at Bard

The following is my introductory program note for “Speculating on Eternity,” my culminating degree recital at Bard College. The recital will be live streamed at this link on Saturday May 14 at 8 PM and event information can be found on facebook at this link

Time eludes and encapsulates us. In our sensory experience we ask, “where has the time gone?” or “when will this end?” as the time we share flies by or drags on. An objective understanding of time escapes us as well. Though we can glance at our phones and agree that it is 7:53 PM on May 14, 2016, the phenomenon that we measure with our clocks and calendars defies definition. Theorists of time differ—is time a dimension of physical reality in which events occur in measurable sequence, or is that which we call time a cognitive effect of the mind that enables us to organize reality into discrete events, an aspect of a user interface our brains generate for us to navigate physical reality? Whether time is real or cognitively generated, both theories posit an eternity beyond human knowledge. Time as reality offers unthinkable expanses that precede and follow our brief existences. If indeed time is cognitively generated, then what is reality beyond the veneer created by our senses?

This evening’s program deals with our relationship to time, particularly to eternity and eternal realms in the Western imagination. In Claudio Monteverdi’s Ab aeterno ordinate sum divine wisdom speaks to us of her origins before the world came into being and rejoices in the advent of humanity. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, the German term for the Zodiac, winds through the program as a circular journey through the Zodiac’s archetypal characters. Gaetano Donizetti set Dante Alighieri’s visceral painting of eternal damnation in Canto XXXIII: Il Conte Ugolino, in which Dante’s theological imagination and the power struggles between medieval Italian city-states intertwine in a grisly tale. Four lieder of Franz Schubert flow from the underworld of classical antiquity in Friedrich Schiller’s poem Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, to the contest for power between humanity and the Gods in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Prometheus, to Johann Mayrhoffer’s meditation on the ephemerality of human achievement in Auf der Donau, and conclude with Goethe’s Grenzen der Menschheit, a meditation on the ways in which humanity is both exiled from and fundamentally bound to the fabric of eternity.

The ways in which we imagine eternity, and the forces the govern it, shape the way in which we navigate our individual and collective lives. In these poems and the compositions they inspired, we find distinct ideas of the humanity’s relationship to eternity, each deeply embedded and continuing to shape the cultural imagination.  Meditating on scales of time beyond our existence is not merely an exercise in humility. In time’s expanse we are small, yet we also live in an era that human activity is setting in motion processes that will unfold for millions of years; climate change, nitrogen cycles, radioactive half-lives, to name a few. Time dwarfs us, but we cannot claim insignificance. Perhaps in the past, wrestling with the human relationship to the eternity was strictly an intellectual or spiritual practice. Today, it is a materially necessary practice as we come to understand humanity’s power to shape the course of time far into the future.

Music exists on a canvas of time, and is uniquely suited for its exploration: its subdivision, its suspension, its cyclical nature. Perhaps in moments of writing, composing, and performing we each tear away little scraps of time from the canvass of eternity, scribble our messages on them, and toss them back onto the metacanvass of time, hoping they stick in our collective memories. It is a sacred privilege to be in this time and place with you.

Appalachian Spring: Dust in the Bottomland Revisited

That opening line of Rilke’s poem from The Book of Hours “I live my life in widening circles,” echoed in my head as I drove south through the Anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania and down Interstate 81 into the broad Shenandoah Valley, sheltered by the Alleghenies to the northwest and Blue Ridge to the southeast. It was spring break, and I was back in Appalachia, even if only briefly, revisiting Dust in the Bottomland in a series of performances with Nate May, composer, collaborator, and friend. It was a homecoming of sorts, or maybe more of a home-passing-through, and a time for me to reflect on my ongoing relationship with Appalachia, even as my work and passions take me elsewhere.

Dust in the Bottomland is itself a homecoming story. It is through the eyes of a young man returning to his home in rural West Virginia after ten years to find the social and physical landscape permanently altered by prescription opiate addiction and mountaintop removal coal mining. Nate May wrote the forty-five minute monodrama for me in 2013 as I was phasing out of my work as a community organizer in the coalfields and beginning my journey as a singer and collaborative artist. It is a bittersweet love song for the tangled, beautiful, abused, and loved land of central Appalachia.

We performed at Virginia Tech, hosted by Community Voices and at Winthrop University’s Conservatory of Music. In our residency at Virginia Tech we had the opportunity to dig more deeply into the subject matter in a round-table discussion and podcast interview with Andy Morikawa and Virginia Tech graduate students Dana Hogg, Jordan Laney, and Cheryl Montgomery – they were rich discussions of opera and the role of arts in building a more just world, aesthetics and empathy, and the relationship of personal journeys to creative work – listen to the podcasthere and the round table here. If you do take the time to listen, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Click here to view a slide show from our performance at P. Buckley Moss Gallery in Blacksburg, Virginia. Above: Nate and me with two of our Community Voices hosts, Max Stephenson Jr. and Jordan Laney.

Now, I am back in the Hudson Valley, at the moment charging downriver aboard the Amtrak train to New York City where this evening I will share a song recital with two fellow singers from the Bel Canto at Caramoor Young Artist Program in a recital of song by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It will be my first New York recital appearance, and has given me a taste of the work I’ll be doing this summer with the Caramoor International Music Festival. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

March comes in like a lion: Bard Opera and More

Here’s the scene: I write from the stage of the Sosnoff Theater – the sixty-piece orchestra of conservatory musicians is playing in the pit and my Vocal Arts Program colleagues are singing beside me as we rehearse the vibrantly colorful score of Higglety Pigglety Pop! by Oliver Knussen. I don’t show up for another twenty-minutes (in my golden costume designed by Liene Dobraja), so I’m taking some time to write, share reflections from Winterreise earlier this month and think forward to revisiting Dust in the Bottomland.
Higglety Pigglety Pop! is paired with an abridged version of The Magic Flute in the Vocal Arts Program 2016 opera double bill onMarch 4 & 6. I’m singing the aforementioned lion (picture) in Higglety Pigglety and Sarastro in The Magic Flute. Both works are masterpieces, one contemporary and one classical full of colorful music and characters brought to life by my fantastic colleagues at Bard under the direction of Nic Muni and conducted by James Bagwell. Join us if you can, click here for ticket information.

We’ve poured our lives into these productions for the past month, and it hard to believe that Rami and my performance of Winterreise was less than three weeks ago. Thank you to all of you who joined us that afternoon or sent encouragement. Again, Winterreise can be said to be so many things, but most of all it is a direct link to Schubert, and the multi-hued humanity he wrote into his songs. Rami and I look forward to continuing our journey with the work and have a few performances lined up in the coming months.We will be presenting the second half as part of a recital in Woodstock on March 12. Check out information here.

INTENTIONS
Perhaps one role of these posts is to declare intentions and hold myself to them, so I’ll share a thought I hope to make time to follow through on. Spending so much time with Winterreise in this most strange of winters – today another apocalyptically beautiful mid-winter spring day – has stirred up thoughts of a speculative essay on Winterreise‘s place in the public imagination in a world of diminishing winters. Look for a link to a draft in a future note.

LOOKING AHEAD (and remembering)
Looking a little further ahead, I am preparing for performances of Dust in the Bottomland by Nate May at Virginia Tech and Winthrop Universities over the spring break on March 22nd & 24th respectively. My close friend and collaborator, Nate May wrote Dust in the Bottomland as a solo chamber opera for me to sing while I was still working as a community organizer in West Virginia. The protagonist grapples with the effects of prescription drug addiction, mountaintop removal mining, and the changing fabric of rural Appalachian communities. Relearning the piece has been rich with memories, or the work itself and the place it came from. I’ll dedicate a later post to share more about it. In the mean time, if you know appreciators of the arts, rural America, Appalachia, and good story telling, please pass on our facebook event.

Preparing for The Classical Style: Questions of Relevance

I’ve been working my way through the score for Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk’s new opera, The Classical Style, preparing the role Beethoven for this summer in Aspen. Using a blend of music-theory nerd comedy and playful imagination of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s afterlives, the work speaks to the timely conversation of classical music’s relevance to contemporary life, and the timeless conversation of what constitutes great art and the mutations of taste over time.

Seeking the late musicologist Charles Rosen, author of the book The Classical Style that inspired the opera, Beethoven states “It’s no longer enough to be great. We need to be relevant.” The question of relevance is one I’ve batted around since rededicating myself to music in 2013. What is the relevance of the classical cannon for contemporary life? This in turn, begs the question, what is relevance? Is it a useful measuring stick for art?

I hear relevance, and I think of critical engagement with the forces shaping our world – economic polarization, ecological devastation, the inherited legacies and present realities of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. I imagine a production of Le Nozze di Figaro that presents the revolutionary power of love to subvert the class distinctions between Count Almaviva, Figaro, and Susanna in contemporary terms of the 1%, working poor, and undocumented immigrants. I ask how works, old and new, deepen our individual and collective self-understanding and enable us to make sense of and ethically navigate our relationships with one another and the Earth. Indeed, this is a form of relevance, but to define relevance as realized or potential political value in a work draws a partition between relevance and aesthetic experience.

I began drafting these thoughts in rehearsal for Haydn’s The Creation – Frank Corliss playing the piano reduction as Helen Zhibing Huang sings “Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün” on the lip the stage. The syncopation of her melismatic passages pulsating through the warm harmonies creates an incredibly potent pleasure – hearing, experiencing the pleasure that well-crafted music induces circumvents the intellectual, perhaps ideological, partition I’d built. Beauty is a form of relevance. Or, perhaps better said – beauty can create relevance. The relevance that emerges from beauty outlives the practical relevance of art.

Perhaps relevance is a flimsy term and a cloudy lens through which to experience art. It is hazardous to aim for relevance as an artist – in its truest form it emerges in the relationship between the individual, community, or culture and the work, often retrospectively. Thoughts?

Guest Post from Kevin Sims: Creation Stories and Hannah Arendt

While home in State College, PA with family over the winter break, I had the good fortune of running into my old friend and poet Abby Minor and her partner Kevin Sims, a percussionist and composer. I knew of Kevin when we were in high school, he three years ahead of me and one of the musical giants of the school. Since then, he did his undergrad at the Manhattan School of Music and graduate work at the Musikhochschule Freiburg in Germany. Kevin and Abby now live in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania in Penns Valley where they practice their arts in the context of rural Pennsylvania. Kevin shared the following piece with me in response to my previous post on the Creation and Making Tellus. I found it very compelling in its discussion of performance, public dialog, mythology, and the location of culture. Enough of my introducing, here is Kevin’s writing:

When I invited Abby and my composer friend Scott to work on a monodrama, I didn’t have any particular theme or center in mind.  In a way, it’s not surprising that our precarious and violent relationship to the earth eventually made its way to the front of all our minds, but it wasn’t really planned.  Nor was the connection between this past and Genesis.  But it came sort of all at once in the form of taking up the charge of making a creation story.  This positions the deeply troubling role that aspects of both the Bible’s and John Smith’s early accounts alongside the real promise that is offered by having an alternative creation story.

I’ve stumbled onto some scholarly books lately that both dealt extensively with the political theories of Hannah Arendt.  I’ve found both of them (Linda Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, and Kimberly Clark’s Our Sense of the Real: Aesthetic Experience and Arendtian Politics) to be deeply thought provoking.  One particular point that comes up again and again is Arendt’s insistence that the public and political world must be continually made and remade.  There is no guarantee on its existence, but its existence is critical for human freedom to be felt and practiced.  Human freedom she defines as participation in bringing something new into the world; a direct connection with the world’s tireless newness.  In addition to having clear resonance with the work of telling creation stories, I also read it as being a strong affirmation of the essentially political potential in performance.

So we have an ongoing desire for an active and real connection to creation-storytelling.  The fundamentalist reading would have us take a position of obedience to an imagined authority in stories told by past generations.  We would do better to follow the model of that ancient Jewish community and practice the storytelling itself instead.  For it was the same community (or at least a community of their offspring) that developed the concept of tikkun olam (repair of the earth).  I believe Arendt would say that the meeting of these two relationships to the earth, dominion and repair, if allowed to appear together among people, would invite strong thinking, and public thinking. This instead of some kind of impoverished notion of obedience under laws, and an after-the-fact justification for all manner of exploitation.

Arendt wrote extensively on totalitarianism.  She understood totalitarianism as not just a particular way of running a state, but as a way of seeing the world that seeks to eradicate human particularity.  Kimberly Clark sees it appear in the work to eradicate our sense of the real.  With particularity and the real obscured–hunted into oblivion–it becomes easy to do massive violence to all sorts of natural communities, human and otherwise.  While the totalitarian form of government may no longer be recognizable in our nations, I feel its worldview to be very much alive.

The goal would clearly not be to supplant an old monolithic, patriarchal narrative with another one, but rather to bring these very questions into the public world of appearances.  In an increasingly totalitarian environment, there are no venues for the particularity of the world to appear.  It’s all practicality and efficiency, cliches and sentimentality, all of which live in the world of generalities.  I think performance is one way to do it, to bring these questions into the world of appearances.  And there is no reason why performances of this kind should be relegated to the megalopolis.  That those of us that have practiced and learned the arts of performance should be somehow convinced to keep the fruit of that practice and study in a particular loop of appearances (a loop that is very conditioned by certain channels of wealth and status), is one of the failures of our current “high culture.”  My hope is that more and more these performances can take place in a more common world, a more inclusive world, and there help to increase our ability to think and act together.

 

Kevin Sims is a percussionist, composer, teacher and organizer living in KevinAaronsburg, Pennsylvania. Kevin has performed as a soloist and ensemble player throughout the United States, as well as in Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, Korea, and Russia.

Kevin is a founding and active member of Red Light New Music in New York City, the international percussion group Ensemble XII, and the recently launched Open Music Series at Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe in State College. In addition to his activities as a performer, Kevin co-directs a local community choir and co-teaches collaborative art classes for kids in Aaronsburg and neighboring Millheim. Taking his inspiration from the freer musics of the middle 20th century, Kevin’s work, from composing and organizing, to performing and teaching, centers around the idea that written music is a playful, pliable, and liberating world of study and practice.

Composer Profile – Stefan Weisman

Working with composers has been a propelling force in my return to music, and I’m fortunate to be in a program at Bard that builds that into its curriculum. Our Core Seminar this semester sets us up to work with composers on premiering new works – I’m working with Nina C Young on a prologue to Making Tellus – and asks us to take a closer look at the large field of people creating new classical music. Towards that end, I looked into the work of composer and fellow Bardian Stefan Weisman.

Stefan and I braved one of the winter’s lesser snow storms to meet for lunch in Woodstock last Saturday. Stefan is in his early 40s and composes in New York City and his works are performed throughout the US and Europe.

He is an alum of Bard College, where he graduated in 1992. He first came to think of himself as a composer while at Bard while in a course in composition from Joan Tower, his first composing mentor. Prior to studying composition he had played piano and violin, though he was not a music major – he thought he would study film. I think there is a cinematic and atmospheric quality to much of his music – including the piece I performed for my presentation on him, Urban Trees from Nonfiction Songs.

Stefan’s two most influential mentors are Joan Tower from Bard and David Lang, with whom he worked at Princeton. Tower’s pedagogy for composers their own musical intuition independently of traditional harmony, while Lang focuses on the development of compact systems within music. In our conversation, Stefan described Joan Tower’s focus on musical intuition and instinct and David Lang’s on systematic development as the two mutually informing poles of his approach to composition.

Since the completion of his doctorate at Princeton, Stefan’s main work has been opera. He has written three operas which have been produced in the US and Europe. His first opera was Darkling, which was based on a book-length poem on the same name by Anna Rabinowitz, and is about a Polish-Jewish family’s experience of the Holocaust. The work was produced by the American Opera Project and got picked up by the Freiburg University in Berlin for a production run in Berlin and Warsaw, and was recorded on Albany Records. This opera  was followed by a commission from Second Movement, a UK based new opera company for a one act as a part of an American Triple Bill with Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Barber’s miniature opera A Hand of Bridge. Following the theme of mundane life that is magnified in Bernstein and Barber’s piece Stefan composed Fade, a 25 minute opera about a young couple purchasing a house in the Adirondacks and experiencing a power outage in their remote home.

His third opera, The Scarlet Ibis, just finished a run at the Prototype Festival in New York City. Taking place in the south, it is a story of two brothers, an able bodied, bullying older brother and his disabled younger brother. In the compact drama, the older brother attempts to teach his younger brother, Doodle to walk, run – use his body and “be a boy.” I won’t give anymore of it away, but there is a good chance you read the Southern Gothic story in middle school. One of Stefan’s intentions with this opera was to create an opera with broad appeal –musically and dramatically. By all accounts he succeeded, the run was sold out and well reviewed in the Times.

Rami and I presented his song “Urban Trees” from Nonfiction Songs during my presentation – contact me if you’d like to hear my low-fi iphone recording of it. Stefan wrote the Non Fiction Songs in 2007 as part of a residency with the American Opera Project that paired six composer with six singers. He was drawn to the idea of setting factual and mundane texts to music. The first song is “Vanishing Point” an account of missed buses, trains, and transportation on the morning of a break up. The second song is Urban Trees, the text is adapted from a paper by Jon Stokes of the United Kingdom’s based organization The Tree Council. Stefan reduced the text before setting it, still the song is long at about 6 minutes. The third song is called “Twinkie” and sets the list of ingredients in a Twinkie to music. The songs are novel in their use of non-poetic, dry texts, and are compelling to me in that they point to the liveliness of the subject matter that is usually in the backdrop of life.

Genesis

Cross Posted on the Making Tellus blog.

Bard shuttered its doors to the winter’s first blizzard, and I am taking the time granted me to translate the bass solos in Haydn’s Creation and read up on its source material, Gensesis. My preparation to sing the bass role, Raphael, comes as Nina and I lay the conceptual groundwork of Making Tellus, which will draw on scientific, mythological, and poetic traditions to trace the advent of the Anthropocene – humanity’s emergence as a geologic force – and grapple with the implications of such power.

I flip through the dictionary from Wallfische to Löwe, Tiger, and Hirsch and write whale, lion, tiger, and stag in my score. God commands the Flutenwohner to fill the depths of the seas and der Bewohner der Luft to sing from every branch. Yet without a being to praise his glory, God’s work is incomplete, thus he creates man in his own image to complete his Creation.   

From an early age, I considered Genesis a myth in the sense that it was not based in fact. A militant little atheist, I spent lunch hours in elementary and middle school arguing with classmates that Adam and Eve were made up, asserting that we were the products of evolution. We echoed the prevailing dialog about the role of Genesis in contemporary society: a competition of fact and faith. Fixation on the story’s veracity, however, does not address the powerful ways in which the explicit and implicit values of Genesis shape our society, and increasingly the Earth itself.

Whales persist. Hardly a week goes by that I do not see a stag near the forest’s edge, fearless in a predator-eradicated landscape. Lions and tigers roam where they are permitted. Upon learning that I would sing Raphael, I half-joked that I ought to rework the text of the aria “Nun scheint in vollem Glanze der Nun scheint in vollem Glanzen der HimmelHimmel” into the past tense, making “Die Luft erfüllt das leichte Gefieder” more accurately reflect the nature of increasingly biologically impoverished nature of our creation “Die Luft war gefüllt das leichte Gefieder.” But, at times, the air is still filled with flocks of birds. While walking to school in Central Pennsylvania’s winter mornings, I stood rapt as miles-long writhing flocks of black birds snaked across the sky. They were Starlings, introduced to North America in 1890 by the American Acclimatization Society, which sought to introduce all of the birds that appear in Shakespeare to the “New World.” (Kolbert, 211)

In 1597 Shakespeare wrote “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer,” naming the bird once in Henry IV Part I. In 2015, two hundred million starlings fill the skies of North America. The cultural imaginary gives shape to the ecological fabric of the world. God’s first command to man was, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” We follow God’s word. Even in the secular context of the concert hall, The Creation invokes a powerful mythology of humanity’s relationship to the Earth and its inhabitants.  

Making Tellus emerges from the recognition that the formative power of mythology extends beyond culture; we write it into the Earth.

Sources:

Kolber, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014)