On November 4, 2017 in Washington, D.C., the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry and Grammy-winning singer Luciana Souza will kick off the world premiere tour of The Blue Hour, an evening length song cycle written by a collective of five leading female composers: Rachel Grimes, Caroline Shaw, Shara Nova, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Angélica Negrón. The text is an excerpt from Carolyn Forché’s 2003 collection Blue Hour and takes the form of an abecedarium: a listing of thousands of images in alphabetical order, like a flurry of memories from a life coming to its end. When considering the purpose of this project, A Far Cry issued the following statement:
“In a time when we are seeing masses of people dehumanized – by war, displacement, poverty – we are looking here at a single life, the beautiful detail of one human existence. There is something precious in that; that through our sense of empathy with this one individual, we are given a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.”
Rather than asking our customary five questions to a single composer, we asked a single question to each of the five composers involved in this project:
The Blue Hour attempts to address an epidemic of dehumanization by eliciting empathy for a single individual. Drawing on the collaborative composition process of The Blue Hour as an example, can you discuss the importance of intersectionality and community building in contemporary music?
A Far Cry invited five composers to come together to create a musical experience for them to perform, customized for their democratic collective. I found their group-brain approach to be an especially exciting aspect of being a part of this project. It seemed to me that because they had been working together for several years, they had a familiarity and confidence in their music-making that would allow them to seek even more aspects and challenges to add to the mix. And because this ensemble does not use a fixed hierarchical structure for decision-making but rather a rotating system of responsibility-sharing, the notion of five composers finding a way to create a single musical work was not that outrageous to them. So, they asked, and we said yes. And I am so glad!
Collaboration can occur in so many ways, large to small, in our daily lives, and can be such a fulfilling way to create a moment with others that you could never create by yourself. It is through really listening and observing that we discover what we can contribute to a moment that will improve the whole–to help someone, to share in love and in life. We composers needed to think about that whole as it relates to the poem “On Earth,” and needed to think about each passing moment in the music we would create. We had to make many decisions, intensely, quietly on our own. We found ways to weave those moments together using ideas that we had brainstormed together on Sarah’s porch–let’s make several teensy pieces, fleeting, lasting only a gesture or phrase; let’s have everyone speak at once; let’s bring in some ancient chant; let’s have some epic arias. And then, we let these ideas ruminate and come into being in our own private time. I don’t think we even yet know what this whole work really is until we can be with it in a room together and help it come alive, and then share it with an audience.
Through this entire journey, the unifying rope was the incredibly poignant poetry of Carolyn Forché. Through the eyes, ears, and heart of a woman whose life is fading away, we journey through epic time and experience of humankind. The vivid memories of childhood, of war, of love, of loss, and the rich sensory collage of being alive on this earth, remind us of our living being within and all around us right now.
I’m always grateful for the chance to be challenged in a new way, and I think every new musical project is an opportunity for that kind of growth. Creating a collaborative piece with five composers was never going to be simple or straightforward, but I think all of us have learned more about each other and ourselves. Rather than designing something with an eagle’s eye view of a piece, this was more like being on the ground and holding each other’s hands as we explored something unexpected. We should celebrate the importance of having many different voices come together to construct something new.
I was asked to be a part of this project, and I jumped at the chance to write for an incredible string ensemble. That was first. To fall in love with a great muse. My second thought was, “Oh it would be so fun to work with these four other composers who I really respect. I wonder what we can make together?” I didn’t deeply consider that we all identify as women. I did consider that our musical language was similar enough that I thought the work had a chance for cohesion, which is challenging in principle. If five men make something together, no one talks about it. They don’t defend their reasons for working together. They don’t have to wonder or question their impetus to collaborate. A political statement is not necessarily implied by their gathering. They are not questioned as to their capacity for a project. They are five composers falling in love with their muses and hopefully trying to make something interesting. It is not so for others. We as a society are still working to first acknowledge that a massive difference in education and opportunity exists, not just in classical music, but in music in general (I’m specifically thinking of the huge gap in electronic music, in engineering and production) and then to make changes to be inclusive and to actively educate young people differently.
For starters, seeing yourself reflected is important. Mentorship is important. I never even heard of a woman composer until my mid twenties! Neither I, nor anyone around me, even remotely suggested I study composition when I was young. I was just a girl with a pretty voice studying opera who liked to write songs in her spare time. That said, I am a white, college educated female. I came into the game with a stack of privileges, and even with those privileges, I still feel that when I walk into a room, I have to prove why I’m there twenty times. I have to work harder to get through the assumption that I’m “just” a singer. It can feel exhausting and disheartening, but the world outside of ourselves is rampant with opinions and wrongful assumption, and at the end of the day, I keep myself going by addressing what I can change in myself, self educate, and also to know what is true about myself. The truth is, I really love to make music and I really love to work with people who inspire me. That’s the fire in my belly. I will keep working on my craft with discipline, out of enthusiasm for the work itself, and not because I am reaching for someone’s fleeting approval. I’d like to keep working with orchestras and marching bands and big choirs cause it’s really fun and the more variables, the more toys to play with! I’m grateful to have had the chance once again to wrestle with sound and wrestle with these questions. I hope The Blue Hour can create space for someone else feel something vital about being alive, too.
Sarah Kirkland Snider
What’s neat about this project is that it asks five different composers to musically imagine one person’s perspective at the end of their life, the hypnagogic snapshots of a life remembered during the last hour of a person’s time on Earth. So you have five individuals of varied backgrounds and life experiences bringing those experiences to bear on this poet’s words and images, using empathy and the uniquely communicative power of music. We strove to create musical connections between the movements, a sense of dialogue and interdependence. In linking together these unique perspectives, there is a larger, shared sense of what it means to be human. We’re at a pivotal moment in time when we’re critically aware of the need to bring all voices to the fore—in politics, in the workplace, and in arts and culture. Contemporary music has a unique opportunity to contribute to this conversation, to give voice to the ineffable aspects of our shared humanity in a way that no other art form can.
The Blue Hour is a particularly special project because it focuses on one single life with all of its complexities, layers, and intricacies. This one single life is seeing through the lens of five different composers working together but also individually to embody through sound their interpretation of a particular moment from that single life. From the beginning, it was very clear to me that one single life was not equivalent to one single story. In order to capture the depth of the many overlapping identities that make up an individual, having multiple perspectives in the collaborative process as well as multiple creative voices was incredibly valuable. To be able to create an expressive, fluent, and eloquent collaborative work requires a relationship of trust amongst the collaborators as well as an openness and vulnerability to finding common ground between each other.
From the beginning, I felt extremely honored and lucky to be working with a group of composers I really admire. Not four of my favorite female composers–but just four of my favorite composers, period. However, given the disproportionate representation and inclusion of women in the composition world, this project naturally stands out first as a one by a group of female composers. It’s sensitive and less than ideal for me to define this project by our gender, but I also recognize the need to underline and make clearly visible what is often invisible and silenced. Composers of all genders and races exist, and we need to be seen and heard. As a Latina female composer, it’s important to me that others not only know we exist, but also know that not all of us look and sound the same. It’s essential that when the music of now is heard, it’s also reflective of the multiple identities that make up our world. And not just a restricted, privileged part of our world. It’s my hope that when this new piece is heard, people not only enjoy the music but they also see and hear themselves in it.