[Photo: Lembit and Todd Lawrence interviewing Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (left) for Lembit’s new piece about the meaning of home.]
It’s been a wonderful and productive year working as the composer-in-residence of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The SPCO musicians, staff and patrons are an incredibly warm and welcoming group of people and I was fortunate to be able to make 7 trips to the Twin Cities over the course of the last year for concerts, meetings, and a series of interviews that will become the center of a piece that I am writing for SPCO. A focus of my time over the last year has been working with artistic director Kyu-Young Kim, artistic planning manager Paul Finkelstein, and the artistic vision committee, a group of orchestra players who help shape the artistic direction of the orchestra, to develop a new festival called Tapestry19 that SPCO with launch in February 2019. This inaugural iteration of the festival will focus on the theme of home: how people in the 21st century define home and create a sense of home for themselves.
The programing for the festival will be a mix of old and new, but we wanted newly commissioned projects to be a cornerstone of the two weeks of concerts. We identified three composers, Kinan Azmeh, PaviElle French and Maya Johnson, we were particularly interested in working with; these were composers whose work we believed in deeply but also composers whom we thought might be able to respond to the theme in personal and varied ways. I’ve had the privilege to work especially closely with PaviElle, an incredibly multi-faceted artist, and Maya Johnson, a talented 16-year-old composer, conductor and violinist, as they have been working on their projects, since neither has extensive experience in working with an orchestra. I’ve offered some musical feedback, but more than that my goal has been to prepare them for the idiosyncrasies working with an orchestra, making connections between them and members of the orchestra and the staff at SPCO, so that whatever artistic avenues or far-out sounds they choose to explore, there will be a level of comfort between everyone in the room at the first rehearsal.
During the course of this last year I’ve also been laying the groundwork for the large-scale piece that I am writing for SPCO to premiere at the festival. I wanted to write a piece that felt connected to the people of the Twin Cities, not just in a superficial way. I had previously written a number of pieces that used recorded interviews as source material. The challenge of weaving recorded text into the fabric of instrumental music has always felt inspiring to me, but in the past I’ve worked with a single person (my grandmother, for example) or small groups of individuals in the interviewing process. Writing this piece I wanted to involve as many people as possible, to hear from a cross section of people from the Twin Cities what home means to them.
We have been very fortunate to be joined on this project by Todd Lawrence, a Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas, who works extensively on ethnographic projects. Todd helped us develop the interviewing framework for the project, made connections with different community groups, conducted many the interviews and helped us think through different ethical questions that arose. Todd, Paul Finkelstein, and I completed about 50 interviews at various locations including the East Side Freedom Library (my new favorite place in Saint Paul!), the American Swedish Institute and Wellstone International High School. I’ve loved the chance to explore the Twin Cities and see glimpses of these different communities and hear from so many fascinating people.
We asked participants a series of questions about what home means to them but also asked them to read a poem that we had commissioned for this project from the amazing Twin Cities-based poet Chris Santiago, whose poetry often delves into questions of language and identity. One of the movements of the piece will use these recorded readings as its basis, a chorus of 50 people speaking the same words with different inflections, timbres of voice, tempos and expressions.
While working on this project it’s been a joy to hear the SPCO in venues across the Twin Cities, performing music from Italian baroque concertos to the crazy collaborations the Kate Nordstrum dreams up for the Liquid Music series. I had two works, Stories From My Grandmother and Small Infinities performed on the SPCO chamber series in October and it was fascinating to hear the concerts in three completely different venues with different audiences: Icehouse (a bar/performance space), the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis, and a more traditional concert hall: Sundin Hall at Hamline University. In April, the SPCO performed The Conference of the Birds, a substantial (dare I say epic?) piece of mine for 18 solo strings. This performance was live-streamed and is available in SPCO’s impressive listening library.