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Voices from the Dust Bowl

A multimedia exploration of the daily lives of migrant farm workers of central California in 1940-1941

The Latest Update

Audio clip and a message from Steven Snowden

Posted on February 25, 2016 by Fifth House Ensemble

We are super excited to be able to share this short demo clip from Voices from the Dust Bowl in advance of our premieres this May!

For a look inside the creative process, here are a few words from the composer, Steven Snowden:

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with integrating history and storytelling into my compositional work. Whether it’s telephone hackers in the 1970′s, hobos during the Great Depression, or cattle auctioneers in the 1980‘s, I’m continually fascinated by the diversity and depth of human culture. The pre-compositional research required for this is substantial (often taking longer than putting notes on the page), but I find a great deal of satisfaction in gaining an in-depth understanding of specific subcultures and historical events. However, this is more than just a means to satiate my curiosity. I become completely engrossed in these stories. In doing so, I cultivate a strong personal connection that guides my compositional work and ultimately leaves a significant and lasting emotional imprint on me. 

Striving for this kind of empathetic approach can be emotionally draining and I knew that would present quite a challenge for me in this piece. The sheer scope of the Voices From the Dustbowl Archive is daunting and I knew that it would take me a significant amount of time to listen to every recording. However, I quickly realized that the most formidable part of incorporating this collection came from the emotional weight of its context. I became so attached to these people who shared their stories in the face of such tremendous hardship. I would picture them sitting across from a stranger, describing how their entire livelihood literally dried up and blew away in relentless winds from the West. They would sing songs taught to them by loved ones who had slowly suffocated in the aftermath of billowing black dust storms. Storms so big they stretched across the visible horizon and completely blacked out the sun. They would recount their treacherous journey to California, motivated by hopes of fertile soil and plentiful jobs only to encounter thousands of others who couldn’t find enough work to feed their families. They would describe the shame they felt in resigning themselves to crowded migrant worker camps and the bonds they formed with others who had endured the same. 

Over time, I developed a kind of reverence for these recordings. They became much more than just intriguing fodder for a new composition. These intimate accounts were steeped in openness and vulnerability. I felt very strongly that putting them in a musical context required a delicate balance that could easily be subverted by ego, novelty, or empty virtuosity. Additionally, I knew that I would have to make some tough decisions about what recordings to include. I considered focusing on just one or two, but ultimately decided to extract clips from several dozen in order to emphasize the complexity of these communities and the widely varied attitudes of their residents. However, I also wanted to avoid an obvious narrative so that audiences wouldn’t feel that I was leading them along a clearly defined path.

The result of this could be best described as a kind of nonlinear storytelling; a patchwork of hopes, fears, and memories with its own distinct emotional trajectory. I felt that musical emphasis needed to be unearthed rather than constructed, allowing the instrumental parts to organically grow into and develop alongside the field recordings. Though the musical language that evolved from that process is more simple, transparent, and direct than any of my work in recent memory, I felt it was imperative to reflect the honesty and vulnerability that is so apparent in these hundreds of recordings. Composing this piece has been quite a journey for me and I can’t wait to finally hear Fifth House Ensemble bring it to life in Chicago this May!


More Updates ▼

Voices from the Dust Bowl at Constellation

Posted on October 12, 2015 by Fifth House Ensemble

5HE is pleased to present Steve Snowden’s Voices from the Dust Bowl at Constellation on May 8, 2016. We are hard at work with our collaborators, Henhouse Prowlers, on a set list. Event info is here on our website. Stay tuned for more details!

We’ve just had our first peek at Steve’s score and couldn’t be more excited! We’ll post some media in our next update.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in meeting our friends at Henhouse Prowlers, check out this video. No strangers to collaborations around the world, they covered Ugandan dancehall artist Eddy Kenzo’s hit song Sitya Loss while on a recent tour to Africa via the US State Department. Here they are performing it live in Germany. Our jam sessions have been awesome so far!




Voices From the Dust Bowl will be a 12-14 minute newly commissioned work composed by Steven Snowden for Fifth House Ensemble’s full instrumentation (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, bass, piano) inspired by public domain field recordings and photographs of migrant workers in California in 1940-1941. This project will combine projected images, field recordings, and newly composed music to create an immersive audience experience, highlighting the lasting impact of this pivotal period in American history.

The work will be premiered as part of a performance collaboration with bluegrass band Henhouse Prowlers on Fifth House Ensemble’s annual Chicago-based concert series during the 2015-2016 season. The premieres will take place at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, which attracts up to 500 culturally curious Chicagoans under the world’s largest Tiffany dome, at Constellation, Chicago’s new music hotspot, and at Humboldt Park on Chicago’s west side, as part of 5HE’s ongoing residency in this arts-underserved, culturally diverse neighborhood with a rich immigrant history.

Composition would begin in September 2014, with scores delivered by May 2015.

The story:

For farmers hoping to escape the ravaged and barren heartland in the wake of the Great Depression, California was often seen as a veritable promised land. However, for the millions who travelled there to find work, that fantasy was short lived. discriminatory attitudes against Mexican and “Okie” migrant workers and an over saturated labor market made jobs extremely difficult to come by. Even in cases where an entire family was working, wages were often not high enough for them to support themselves.

In an effort to improve poor sanitation conditions and relieve stress on local infrastructures, the federal government established labor camps to house these migrant workers. These camps not only helped to improve the day to day lives of the workers, but it also provided them an opportunity to rekindle their sense of community and, because of the diverse backgrounds of the inhabitants, they became unique intersections for cultural exchange. 

 The source:

Housed in the Library of Congress, the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection contains hundreds of recorded interviews, musical performances, and photographs documenting daily life in these migrant camps. In addition to chronicling the working and living conditions of these dust bowl refugees, this collection provides us with a glimpse into the social friction within these communities and the cultural evolution that resulted.

Project Media

The Devil’s Nine Questions (2008)
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Features: Steven Snowden

In 1963, Max Hunter, a traveling salesman, recorded Nancy Philley of Fayetteville, Arkansas singing The Devil’s Nine Questions. What really intrigued me about this recording was the stark contrast between Philley’s pure voice and the dark subject matter of the lyrics. This contrast inspired me to compose this piece, which uses the original folk tune as a melodic cornerstone, and programmatically addresses each of the nine questions and answers. Recorded May 5, 2013 by the Quartetto di Cremona with Nolan Pearson.

Appalachian Polaroids (2011)
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Features: Steven Snowden

Appalachian Polaroids was initially inspired by the controversial portrait photography of Shelby Lee Adams (b. 1950). I feel that his photographs often illuminate the quiet resilience of these remote mountain communities. This piece begins with a 1976 field recording of Sheila Kay Adams singing the popular folk song Black is the Color in Asheville, North Carolina. The quartet quietly enters as an integrated component of the recording, carrying with them remnants of Sheila’s own unique singing style. Recorded by the Aeolus Quartet in 2012.

Excelsior – Caleb Burhans
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Excelsior, a New Music USA commission, was written by Caleb Burhans in 2012 for Fifth House Ensemble, Grammy-winning soprano Martha Cluver, and electro-acoustic violin/guitar duo itsnotyouitsme (Caleb Burhans, Grey McMurray) depicting Captain Joe Kittinger’s 4’36” free fall from just over 102,000 feet as part of Project Excelsior. Burhans expands this 4-minute episode into a 30-minute dramatic experience, which serves as an example of 5HE’s cross-genre collaborations. Recorded live at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on March 9, 2013.

Start and End Dates



Chicago, Illinois

2 updates
Last update on February 25, 2016

Project Created By

Chicago, Illinois
“You have to admire the sheer imaginative chutzpah these young performers bring to their envelope-pushing enterprise.” -John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune Praised by the New York Times for its “conviction, authority, and finesse,” the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble harnesses the collaborative spirit of chamber music to reach beyond the traditionally-perceived limits of classical music. The ensemble’s…

In Collaboration With

Boston, Massachusetts


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