Marion Fellowship #2: The Eden of Chautauqua

The Chautauqua Institute speaks to my nostalgia for family and summer. This magical bit of land on a hill overlooking Lake Chautauqua in the western most part of upstate New York captures a sense of relaxed intimate community that seems otherwise entirely lost in most of America. The essence of Chautauqua is steeped with traditions that facilitate learning, faith, art, and community. Thousands of visitors return every summer and many groups represent three or more generations. Some of the homes have remained in the same families longer than 100 years and I’ve met people in their 90s who began coming here soon after birth. Generational memory is strong. Parents want to create the same magical summers for their children and many houses are filled with three generations or more.

Chautauqua is designed to foster human interaction. Cars are largely forbidden so everyone walks. The narrow streets and small walkways are lined with close houses that feature front porches and balconies. Porch sitting is an important activity which perfectly suits the moderate climate. This compressed community is filled with people who adopt a pervasive leisurely pace. It is easy to strike up a conversation with anyone you meet as one’s presence confirms a commitment to the shared values of beauty and learning.

This gated community hosts some 900,000 visitors every summer with an impressive list of guest artists, performers, authors, scholars, teachers, and politicians. The daily schedule fills with talks, readings, performances, plays, operas, classes, and meditations. There are as many as 30 events everyday open to anyone on the grounds. An expensive gate pass includes access to most events – save theatrical performances and galas. Some 300 special studies courses are offered for modest fees. Music, dance, theatre, and art schools are available for professionally oriented high school and college students. Top tier faculty match the profiles of other prestigious summer festivals. Many religious sects and denominations maintain their own centers, which foster education, discussion, and reflection. The grounds include multiple performance spaces, theaters, lecture facilities, art galleries, recreation centers, learning centers, and a handful of restaurants and shops (and a small movie house). Boys and girls day camps host hundreds of children weekly. Chautauqua is a self-enclosed and self-sustained island utopia that lasts nine-weeks.

The 5000 seat auditorium begins most days with a major lecture. Yo Yo Ma and Sara J Bloomfield (director of the DC Holocaust Museum) were among the speakers during my time. Authors, philosophers, politicians, religious teachers, and activists offer afternoon talks in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy. The authors who wrote The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father and Just Mercy were talks I attended. The daily evening performances presented in the auditorium included two presentations by the Silk Road Ensemble (one with Yo Yo Ma), a performance by Nashville Ballet, and three orchestral performances (one by the student orchestra and the other two by the professional Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra). I also attended the opening of the play Into the Breeches and a production of the opera As One. My brief six days were filled with three to four daily cultural events. The gate pass makes it all available on a first come first serve basis.

Without any known contacts at Chautauqua, I assumed I would spend six days quietly attending and observing… a lone anonymous visitor. I intentionally arrived just in time for the afternoon performance of the brilliant opera As One (about the experience of a transgendered person). Right away I ran into Mark Campbell, good friend and co-librettist for As One. He invited me to the cast party where I met multiple people connected with the opera program and Chautauqua. I quickly had invitations to more events and dinners. The next day I went for lunch at the schools’ cafeteria and sat with a group of the art faculty. Soon I was traveling with them for tours, concerts, and meals. We talked about things like synethesia, teaching for artists, artistic influences, and of course politics. It is easy to meet people and everyone I talked with had a passion for one or more aspects of the culturally rich life of Chautauqua.

The grounds offer a special beauty. Everything feels compressed with smaller walkways and roads that are lined with well designed and maintained gardens and sitting areas. The houses are often pretty summer cottages with adorned features and colorful paint schemes in a Victorian style. Public art is common. Many of the larger buildings offer a grand and traditional beauty. Lake views are ever present. If you are staying on the grounds (as most do), then you leave a concert or talk and walk a few blocks to have lunch on your front porch. You do not fight the crowds to the parking lot and wait for thirty minutes before the drive home. Instead you get to savor the event without rush or stress. One afternoon I attended the funny and wonderful new play Into the Breeches at the intimate playhouse and then walked to the Nashville Ballet performance in the auditorium. The elegant choreography of Appalachian Spring, complete with live orchestra, still lingers in my mind. Following the performance, I bought ice cream, and walked the grounds for an hour enjoying a perfect summer evening.

It is common for people to fail in their descriptions of Chautauqua. A short run through of the various events or how lovely it is to walk the grounds does not capture the totality of this special place. Every description will miss something lovely. Ultimately Chautauqua feels like a place committed to renewing the mind in a wholistic approach. Books and learning are celebrated. The performing arts are abundant and central. Aesthetic beauty, small and large, surround everything. Community, conversation, food and drink, summer sports, and rest fill in the gaps. This all happens against the backdrop of summer thunderstorms, sunsets, and comfortable evenings. Wherever you go you can discuss the morning lecture, the ballet performance the night before, or what you’ve heard about the play that just opened. I’m eager to find a way back to Chautauqua!

Marion Fellowship #1 – What is the Marion Fellowship

Note: My ability to write and post blogs in “real time” falters. This post was largely written just after my arrival in Chautauqua in early August, 2019. Rather than abandon the post, I will post as I am able.

I arrived at the Chautauqua Institute in New York a few days ago for the official beginning of my 18 months of the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts. This fellowship is among the most unusual and exciting artistic grants I have ever heard of. It offers $18,000 to support a special project. $5,000 may support the artist directly and $13,000 supports the project and travel to the partner institutions during the creation of project. The Marion International Fellowship partners include the Chautauqua Institute, SUNY Fredonia, the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, the Alley Theatre Company in Houston, and the Alberta School of Art and Design. The Marions, a couple from Texas, generously support all of these arts organizations. They created the fellowship to tie their interests into one special fellowship that supports a big vision project. Artists connected to one of the partner organizations are invited to apply, which I did in March 2018. I was named a finalist while traveling in Spain this past April and conducted a midnight phone interview from a small condo in Costa Brava before being named the 2018-2019 fellow.

I applied for the Fellowship with a project called Mao’s China, which I will describe in a later blog post. This is a passion project which I have contemplated for seven years. This 75-minute multimedia piece will include live classical performers, dance, film, and electronic music. It is designed for a space with large projection, dance, modest theatrical lighting, and a good set-up for electronic and acoustic music (including a piano). This project is unlike anything I have created before and represents a push into two new-to-me creative paths – electronic music and film. Ideas about structure and content have been percolating for years. A couple of times I attempted to set aside the months required to create the piece but other excellent projects crept in and caused delays.

2018 is a sabbatical year and I already hoped to spend several months working on Mao’s China. The Marion Fellowship has solidified plans. It provides funding, visibility, and a clear performance target date. My proposal culminates with a fall 2019 premiere and I am now in discussion with SUNY Fredonia for a full or partial performance on their campus around October 2019. SUNY Fredonia has a robust school for the visual and performing arts. They are one of the partner organizations for the Marion Fellowship and administer the details of the fellowship.

As I’ve met people at Chautauqua I’ve quickly realized there is no easy or neat way to explain my presence at Chautauqua. The best I can offer is that I am here to listen, watch, observe, and think. My time straddles two themed weeks which are both connected to my project – The Arts and Global Understanding & The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21st Century. My project has to deal with the terrible times my in laws lived through in China that made them leave China and make a new life in the United States. Each week, lectures, artistic performances, and guest artists/speakers are scheduled around these themes. One morning might include a talk by the director of the Holocaust Museum in DC while the afternoon features a discussion about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr in continued racial difficulty in the US (author Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy).

My time here involves moving from event to event in a process of invigorating adult learning and artistic consumption. In between formal activities I’m often finding a quiet spot to sit and write, read, brainstorm, or otherwise foster the rich and patient process of allowing my project to percolate. This allows a luxurious and important time for conceptualization and planning. My 75-minute piece is substantially different than anything I have done before and it is connected to a complex and lesser known period of recent Chinese history. There are a lot of decisions to make and questions to answer. My week here is the perfect way to begin the formal process of finally making this piece happen. This week is a formal beginning – a firing of the starting gun.

Cicero’s Dream

The Greater Boulder Youth Orchestra will premiere my piece Cicero’s Dream on their November 5, 2019 6:00PM concert in Macky Auditorium in Boulder. Midori is coming to town for a several day residency hosted by the Boulder Philharmonic and the Greater Boulder Youth Orchestra. Once or twice a year Midori donates her time, talents, and fame to support a regional orchestra and partner youth orchestra for a whirlwind residency. They pack in lots of activity with the young performers, outreach events, masterclasses, donor events, and the like. The Boulder Philharmonic and the Greater Boulder Youth Orchestra teemed up to commission a piece to celebrate the event. I’ve listed my program note below which explains the title and inspiration.

It is important to compose music for young ensembles. Young players get a steady diet of Baroque music and gradually get introduced to the classical and romantic repertoire. Rarely will they perform Stravinsky or anything later. Their range of performances and activities should include premieres by a living composers. The special challenge of taking notes never heard before and bringing them to life is special. There is an ownership of the music by the first performers. The untested score requires close listening as they sort out how their parts fit in to the whole piece. Young musicians should know that music is still being written and our art form is in the present tense! Seeing a living composer attend a rehearsal also brings a new perspective on Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Bach. They too made changes, altered tempos, deleted notes, added dynamics, and asked the performers for their thoughts on the music. Composers are regular people and masterpieces don’t just fall out of the sky.

Attending rehearsals with the GBYO has been a pleasure. The three orchestras are all talented and have tackled my piece with commitment and heart. I offer my thanks to these fabulous young performers! My daughter, Kaela, has joined the GBYO and will play my piece for the premiere, which brings special joy. She has picked though the violin part just like all of the other kids and I’ve heard every isolated measure of the 2nd violin part over and over in our home. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty during the static passages which feature the lyric and still absent solo violin part. At other times I have moments of indulgent pride when I think “hey, that tune’s not bad”. And she’s gotten to see me at work – in my element. She watches me take in a passage and quickly give feedback to the orchestra to help them realize the music with greater passion. She gets an up close seat as I work with Maestro Lewis to sort out phrasing and tempos, and as I pace nervously during rehearsal.

It is lovely to have Kaela and all these wonderful young players participate in this premiere. Best wishes to you all!


Cicero’s Dream program note:

Music of the Spheres is the harmonious embodiment of the celestial orbit and dance of the sun, moon, and planets. The imagined orbital resonance generated from ratios of mathematical sound creates a heavenly music representing divine beauty and order.  The cosmos capture a mysterious distance of otherness that has enraptured human expression for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks first imagined a heavenly symphony as they discovered the overtone series and how stringed instruments embodied complex tuning systems and shimmering harmonics. They connected this discovery woven into the fabric of physical sound to an elegant higher order bound up with the makeup of the universe.

Cicero, a first century BC Roman politician, wrote about a dream where a general ascends above the heavens to witness the glorious resting place of the immortal soul. This lofty perch provides a grand view of “those eternal fires which you call constellations and stars, and which, being globular and round, are animated with divine spirit, and complete their cycles and revolutions with amazing rapidity.” The dream includes a colorful depiction of the Music of the Spheres: “What is this sound so strong and sweet that fills my ears?” “This,” he replied, “is the melody which, at intervals unequal, yet differing in exact proportions, is made by the impulse and motion of the spheres themselves.”

The violin solo embodies the spirit of Cicero as he moves through the heavens in a dreamlike state. The piece builds and yearns to move higher towards the grand vision described in the dream. A hymn-like melody sweeps through the orchestra at the climax of the piece as Cicero takes in the full majesty of the heavens. Four section leaders accompany with shorter solos interspersed throughout the piece. Cicero’s Dream was written for youth orchestra and allows for participation of players of all levels.

Cicero’s Dream was commissioned by the Boulder Philharmonic, the Greater Boulder Youth Orchestra, and Colorado high schools to celebrate the 2018 Midori Residency in Boulder, Colorado.

Kullervo Cursing

Kullervo may be the darkest story from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. This tale of murder, revenge, rejection, ill magic, incest, and suicide is captured in a gripping Akseli Gallen-Kallela painting hanging in the Ateneum. Kullervo curses the sky and lives in a feedback loop of anger, bitterness, and bad fortune. Kullervo is an orphan child with the world turned against him. His magical powers are used to bring revenge and never lead to any good or peace. Eventually he finds his lost parents but accidentally sleeps with his sister who then drowns herself. He curses himself, his birth, the world, and life. He is imprisoned to his tragic fate – his life and efforts can only take one path.
O my mother, O my bearer!
If at my birth you had only
Filled the sauna full of smoke;
Or had killed me two nights old,
Taken me straight to the water,
Drowned me in mosquito netting,
Wrapped up in a rag of homespun
Flung the rocker in the fire,
Shoved the cradle in the fireplace.
I viewed the painting during my first visit to Helsinki in October 2017 and was instantly struck by the angst, urgency, and vibrant energy of Kullervo’s painful cry captured in Gallen-Kallela’s painting. The idea for a piece of music came in the form of a dark, almost violent duet for two bass clarinets and electronics. I imagined a piece that builds towards a rabid and primal utterance. I’ve always loved the rich and resonant low register of the clarinet, which provides the earthy foundation of Kullervo’s self destructive energy. The piece rises towards a strained high register climax – a barbaric scream of sorts.
My earliest vision for the piece included a soft high register tapestry of dissonance in an electronic part. I wanted to create a cycle of pitches in a stretched out and abstract passacaglia. The idea of circular pitches (D, Bb, B, F#, G, D) reflects the imprisoned feedback of bitter anger and creates an eerie ambiance. Electronic music is an unknown territory in my music. My younger inclinations lead me away from electronic music courses. Now I wish I had that background as I am often inclined to enlarge the sound world of my music beyond the acoustic. I’ve designed some larger future projects with electronics in mind and needed a smaller project or two to get started. In this case I recorded my pitch collection with long tones on the flute, violin, and piano. I manipulated isolated pitches in Audacity and then mixed everything in Logic Pro. The fixed media part is quite narrow in scope but has rich and subtle detail embedded in the slowly evolving texture. The electronic part is separate from the bass clarinet duet so I only created three separate sections triggered during the performance to help keep things on track. While I have barely scratched the surface of what is possible, my electronic part is quite accurate to what I originally imagined. The bass clarinets are also amplified with a touch of artificial reverb to help their sound blend with the fixed media part.
My piece runs about ten minutes and is quite a blow for two strong players. Dan Silver and Conor Brown have risen to the occasion with many conversations about fingering the notes that lie at extreme registers. The piece is grim from beginning to end and falls a bit outside my normal aesthetic. Lots of canons and fast rising lines drive things forward. There is a heavy dose of dissonance with low register seconds and sevenths. I like that the project feels a bit risky. The electronics require me to sit at the laptop and soundboard taking an active part in the performance. This is a new role for me and one that keeps me from listening at a distance. 
Kullervo Cursing will be premiered tonight at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. The University of Colorado, College of Music is cultivating a relationship with the Sibelius Academy. I have traveled with the Ajax Quartet, Conor Brown, Alicia Baker, and Dan Silver to present a Colorado concert of Finnish inspired music. I’m delighted to see this piece come to life and hope to find a nice venue for an American debut before long.

Flamenco in Spain

Attending an intimate flamenco performance in Seville, Spain was a great experience. The intensity, explosive sounds, and refinement of this art form caught me off guard and surpassed all preconceived notions. I expected a strong but tourist driven display attempting to capture a historic dance form from a long ago time. In Prague whole orchestras dress up as Mozart for tourists who are sold on the idea that one should attend a classical concert in a place Mozart once visited. It might provide a living for those musicians but the quality and authenticity of that experience is second rate. This is not the case with Flamenco in Spain.

Seville is a prime location to attend flamenco and we searched out a highly rated venue. One reviewer made the adept observation that larger venues use amplification to create the aural experience of true flamenco. A smaller venue allows the acoustic guitar, vocalist, clapping, stomps, finger snaps, and whoops to fill the space. We found a theater with a small courtyard with three rows of chairs on three sides and maybe 60 in attendance. We skipped venues that included a meal or drink in preference for a show that focused solely on the performance.

The posturing and drama of flamenco is unlike anything else I have experienced. The intensity of a look and the interplay between the male and female dancers surpasses the heightened sexuality common to many other coupled dance forms. I don’t think this pair touched once during the couples dance. The sense of anticipation, desire, and appreciation was rich and subtly erotic. But the romantic interplay existed only in hints and suggestions – far sexier than an overt display. Each partner displayed a palpable longing for the other.

Our flamenco performance featured acoustic guitar and male singer. The guitarist filled the small space with powerful playing. The singer had a raspy voice that suggested a much older age. While he often sat back in the mix of aural activity, his heartfelt singing set a sweeping emotional tone. The music had a natural ebb and flow. Soft moments gradually built with intensity as the performers got louder, stomps became more active, and the cross rhythms of clapping and foot movements faster and more complex. The louder moments were explosive and thrilling. One dancer, three sets of feet holding the beat, two clappers, a singer, guitarist, and a male shouter made a lot of noise.

The apex of the female dancer’s solo was striking. Her fast and dramatic movements played against a cacophony of music from the admiring men who sat at the back of the stage. At the loudest moments it went suddenly soft as the wild energy subsided only to build again. The cycle of loud and soft happened several times. Each climax reached new peaks.

The male dancer offered his solo last. While the female  offered a complement of beauty and power, the man embodied a display of untethered masculinity. His cycles of soft and loud involved a lot of fast footwork with a still upper body. Then his body would explode with controlled but wild arm movements and fast twirls in the small stage space. Several sections were accompanied only by a rhythm section of feet and clapping. The return of guitar and voice signaled his fireworks-like finale. By the end his fast twirls caused a shower of sweat to spin from his hair and he was disheveled but visibly elated. The authentic pride and joy drove his commanding presence. His solo was the height of the show!

We enjoyed the experience so much we booked another show in Madrid. The performers used a small stage with mood lighting, amplification, and other modern dramatic effects. The performers were good but the deeply personal expression and authenticity were absent. This second show proved we had witnessed something special in Sevilla. The intimacy of the space, virtuosity, and profound dedication to a rich and historic art form gave us a special experience. In the past, when people have mentioned seeing flamenco in Spain, a mist of nostalgia and awe moves across their face. I get it now. Authentic flamenco is spectacular.

During the most exciting parts of the performance I wondered how I could capture the essence of this explosive music and transform it for something special in a future composition. That thought has stayed with me and I don’t yet have an answer. But my passion to somehow use this experience for my own art supports my conviction to travel and attending live performance. When we see the world we are changed. Our palette is expanded and deepened. We move beyond ourselves to be swept up in the richness of a different culture or another artist’s dedication to their chosen expression. I am happy to be in Spain.