Greetings from Chilly New York


A Warm Hello to all of you SF Girls Chorus Friends and Colleagues, from frigid NYC…

…where long days tucked inside my cozy apartment yield pages of new music for our choristers. I am often eager in my postcards to share some experience from the wider music world with all of you, but not this time - my world is very small these days. I am hard at work on the piece that Valerie and our premier ensemble will premiere on the New York Philharmonic Biennial on June 9, with the Knights Orchestra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. And this means that I am deep in the texts I am setting, which I am taking from the memoirs of the turn-of-the-century teenage literary sensation Mary MacLane—now mostly forgotten, but a huge success in her time, mostly but not only among young women the same age as our singers. Few literary scholars know about her, but I did find a few things here and there, including this trailer for a film that I hope might be completed someday!

Plus—the benefits of social media—as I’ve been sharing my discovery of her on my various pages, some editors and scholars and artists have begun to find me too! and ask me what I’m up to. We are forming a scrappy little community. Consider these adorable young women who created a whole theater piece about her, in Australia:



Mary MacLane was just 19 years old in 1901 when her first book was published, living totally isolated from any literary community, in Butte, Montana. Her writing is bold, audacious, colorful, often funny and sometimes yearningly sad. Look at this section I set just today:

“Today we eat our good dinners with forks. A thousand years ago they had no forks.Yet, though we have forks, we are not happy.We scream and kick and struggle and weep just as they did a thousand years ago—when they had no forks.”

I find her language irresistibly musical, and a great pleasure to set. Can you see why? What about this little passage above seems to want to be sung? To be given rhythm and musical form? What kind of music do you guess I am writing herefast? slow? complex? repetitive? dramatic? high? low? What instruments in the orchestra do you imagine I might be using?

One of the things I love about her writing is that she embraces the power of her own emotional life so serious-mindedly. I started keeping a diary when I was 9 years old, and still write daily at the start of my day, so I am always fascinated to read memoirs, especially of young womenbecause I am around them so much these days (yes, you know who you are!) One of the things I’ve noticed since I joined the SF Girls Chorus team is that our culture is often dismissive of the emotional life of young people, especially young women. The strong surges of feeling that one feels at the age of 19 tend not to be taken seriously, as if they are not real experiences. But look at this passage:

“I have a marvelous capacity for misery and for happiness.I am broad-minded.I am a genius.I am a philosopher of my own peripatetic school.…My lungs, saturated with mountain ozone and the perfume of the pines, expand in continuous ecstasy.”

…and then this one:

“I am the poet of the body,And I am the poet of the soul.The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me.”

Two ecstatic statements, both egotistical and surging with feeling. One of them is Mary MacLane. The other is Walt Whitman. Does it change the way you read these passages, knowing that one was written by a 19-year-old girl and the other by the most celebrated American poet of all time?

Food for thought (and, happily, forks for thought too). I’m enjoying the rapturous journey to Butte Montana, 1901, in the custody of a charming and brilliant (and somehow familiar) young friend. I can’t wait to share more of her captivating musings with you.

Until soon,

Lisa Bielawa