by Maggie Molloy
One woman’s story comes to life through the voice of five composers tonight in A Far Cry’s performance of The Blue Hour. Based on Carolyn Forché’s abecedarian poem “On Earth,” the song cycle explores the last hour of one woman’s life, the fleeting memories from A to Z that flash before her eyes—and how her one single story is ultimately many stories: an intimate snapshot of our shared humanity.
Grammy-winning jazz singer Luciana Souza joins the chamber orchestra in this song cycle written by a collaborative of five leading composers: Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Shara Nova, Angélica Negrón, and Caroline Shaw.
And although the concert itself is in Boston, you can still hear every minute of this musical tour de force right here on Second Inversion during our live video stream of the performance this Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET. Visit the video link below to tune in to tonight’s live stream, or click here to stream directly from Facebook.
In anticipation of tonight’s performance, we asked each of the five composers one question about the poetry, music, and meaning behind The Blue Hour:
Second Inversion: What is this poem about, and how did it inspire the music?
Rachel Grimes: Carolyn Forché’s remarkable poem “On Earth” is a profoundly beautiful and devastating exploration of the last moments before death from the perspective of a woman recollecting her life in shards of crystalline memories. Through the lens of these visceral personal moments are glimpses into different points in time in human history, recalling childhood, the fallout of war, a sense of home, intimacy, loss, nostalgia, the mundane, and the epic.
In a phone conversation with all of the composers, the poet welcomed us to excerpt the poem in order to better serve the music and the new work as a whole. We were overwhelmed at this generous invitation, and vowed to honor the poem and to be true to the feeling of the whole work. We set about to excerpt it, choosing passages that felt ripe for music-making, while maintaining her original abecedary form. We consulted with Joseph Cermatori to sculpt a unified libretto, and to follow that original intent of the form. The poem was endlessly inspiring: so many images, particular and visual, and so many emotions and opportunities to investigate the human experience on a very intimate scale. Especially inspiring was the chance to explore, through this perspective of this one life coming to an end, the experience of facing death and the treasury of life’s myriad experiences that are in so many ways universal to all.
SI: What makes Luciana Souza the perfect singer for this song cycle’s premiere?
Shara Nova: When we composers first got together, we knew we wanted to find a singer who was able to read what we anticipated to be a challenging score, who had a wide vocal range and also had a sound closer to folk or jazz. Luciana Souza (pronounced like Loo-See-Ah-Nah Soh-za) has a dynamism and a warm, natural voice that really excited us.
Once I knew that she was going to be the singer, I started writing some of the movements on guitar, influenced by the great Brazilian songwriters like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and then once I had that foundation, I expanded the arrangements for A Far Cry and removed the guitar parts. I wanted the music to be very tuneful and song oriented, as well as take the opportunity to really show off and explore the color and vibrancy of this extraordinary ensemble.
SI: What was the composition process like?
Sarah Kirkland Snider: We got together one weekend and spent a lot of time reading through the text together, talking about it, brainstorming ideas. We each highlighted the bits of text that we felt the strongest connection to and then divided it up along those lines, with the idea that we’d interweave our voices in movements of varying length, texture, style, and emotion.
We decided there would be moments of spoken text, moments in which the ensemble sang and spoke, and a canonic refrain that happened three times, written by Caroline. Shara was the first one to start writing, and she sent us some computer mock-ups of her drafts. Some of my assigned bits of text followed hers, so in those movements I used a motive of hers as an ostinato or jumping-off point, or made harmonic and rhythmic decisions based upon hers, depending on whether I wanted contrast or continuity.
We all worked in this fashion, brick by brick, sharing our drafts with each other and responding to them musically, striving to maximize cohesion between the movements and forward momentum in the overall form. It was great fun getting inside the compositional mind of some of my favorite fellow composers. What I love about this piece is that, to my ear, it hangs together as a single journey, but you can hear our different voices emerge at different moments. This lends the music the same sense of collective consciousness that is innate to the poem itself.
SI: How does the process of collaborative composition serve to illustrate or enhance the meaning behind this poem?
Angélica Negrón: There’s moments of deep sorrow, empathy, mystery, despair, warmth, confusion, intimacy and so many other layers and nuances in between. By bringing together five different composers each with a unique perspective and a distinctive sound, we’re able to explore more profoundly these layers of meaning and capture the complexity of this person’s life. Each composer opens up a new world of possibilities of the text and by allowing ourselves to being vulnerable and receptive of other’s interpretations, we find new connections and make new discoveries.
I feel this piece weaves together not only each composers’ individual interpretation of the text but also the common ground among us that we found along the way. I’ve never been a part of such a deeply meaningful and truly collaborative project in which everyone’s voices are highly complementary to each other yet add a unique and essential ingredient to the whole. There’s a shared sensibility and an unusual connection between the composers that’s hard to describe, and this poem is at the center of it all.
SI: What does this piece sound like?
Caroline Shaw: I’d say it sounds like micro and macro visions of the earth—precious sonic details emerging from and receding into a mysterious whole.
Visit our website on Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET to watch a LIVE video stream of A Far Cry’s The Blue Hour with Luciana Souza. To learn more about our live-streaming video broadcasts of A Far Cry, click here.