Lisa on Crying

Hello to you, SF Girls Chorus friends, from back home in New York City… Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

…where I am finishing up a two-week North American tour with a superb group of musicians from France, Ensemble Variances. It’s their first American tour, and I have been proud to show them around some cities I have gotten to know pretty well in my travels—Vancouver, Seattle, Atlanta, and now my dear home, NYC. We are touring with a program that we toured all over France last season, Cri selon cri, which translates (roughly), “Cry by cry.” This is a new concept in concert curating that seems to be more common in Europe but is beginning to make its way here: a musical group will choose an evocative theme, find existing pieces that seem to comment on that theme and commission composers to write new works with the theme specifically in mind. They asked me to write on the idea of “The Cry… as the expression of a basic language shared by all human beings as well as a majority of animals.”

Hmmm! (I thought)—what do I want to say about Crying? Frankly, I didn’t really want to write a big long piece about being sad. And all of a sudden I remembered being fascinated, as a very young singer in my mother’s church choir, by the image of multitudes of angels who ‘continually cry’ for joy in heaven (this scene appears in the Te Deum, a traditional hymn of Thanksgiving (how apt!) that we often sang during the service.

I was quite young—6 or 7—and I remember feeling some anxiety for these angels. Didn’t their voices get tired, even though they were singing for joy? Did they ever stop for, say, a snack?

In any case, I went with this image and then remembered from my much more recent encounter with the work of the ancient Greek writer and soldier Xenophon, who told of multitudes of defeated soldiers crying for joy when, after weeks of trudging on foot in enemy territory, they glimpsed the sea, indicating that they were headed for home (also, as it turns out, apt, because our NYC performance was on Veterans Day). The vocal styles of church music and fireside ancient Greek storytelling (largely imagined of course) fused into a kind of 25-minute-long performance piece or musical monodrama that I wrote for myself to sing (or, as the case may be, cry, yelp, shout, proclaim…) with these magnificent musicians. You can hear us perform excerpts of the piece at this page, where there is a video overview of the concert (from 2:00-8:00).

Do you hear the theme of ‘crying’ in this performance? Who is crying—me? The instruments? How do the musicians help me, the soloist, tell the story of the exuberant soldiers or angels? How do I use my voice differently to represent different parts of the story? What is my role? Am I a soldier or an angel? What about the cluster of instruments–are they characters too? In this piece I use several “extended techniques,” which basically means that I am using the voice in a way that it is not normally used for singing or speaking. These techniques have fancy names like “uvular tremolo” and “vocal harmonics,” and you can hear lots of them in the cadenza section around 4:15. Do you like these sounds? Can you try making these sounds? What about the sound at 5:15-28? Can you try to make this sound? (here’s a hint—it’s easier in the shower!) Why do you think I (or any composer) might use sounds like these in a piece of music?

Perhaps I will hear some of you contributing some uvular tremolos and vocal harmonics to our Davies Symphony Hall sing-along this year! I’ll be listening…

And speaking of crying for joy, congratulations to Valerie and our young singers, and our guest artists Tenet, for their superb performances in the opening concerts of the season a couple of weeks ago. What an inspiration!

Joyful wishes to you all, Lisa