Cycles of Loss And Hope: Excavating American Dreams
by Thomas May
“In classical and concert music right now, a lot of people are trying to think of how to reflect the world we feel we are living in and the world we want to be living in,” says composer and sound artist Ellen Reid. “That's what I’m interested in doing in my music, to open up all these voices and influences and bring them into the room and conversation.” This vision underlies dreams of the new world, the work that Reid has created for the Los Angeles Master Chorale in an innovative form of collaboration with librettist Sarah LaBrie and researcher Sayd Randle. dreams gathers stories from three cities and three historical moments — spanning the 19th to the 21st centuries — to build a kaleidoscopic meta-story of the American psyche. The characters we meet, she explains, encompass “people who got to live their dream, people who helped others live their dream, and people whose dream eluded them because of circumstance or prejudice.”
The idea for dreams of the new world was planted three years ago, recalls Grant Gershon, Kiki & David Gindler Artistic Director, when Reid proposed centering a piece on varying concepts of the American frontier. Her vision was to do so in a way that would “deal with larger themes by focusing on specific eras and places.” The idea of using “the micro to imply the macro” intrigued Gershon, who had initially been drawn to the beauty of Reid’s writing for the voices and ensemble when he heard excerpts from her Gothic-tinged opera Winter's Child.
Splitting her time between Los Angeles and New York, Reid is among those young American composers who are redefining the zeitgeist of contemporary music, especially with regard to recent developments in the opera world. She was commissioned to contribute to Hopscotch, the site-specific “mobile opera for 24 cars” from 2015 that earned international attention for Yuval Sharon’s The Industry. This fall, LA Opera will present the world premiere of Prism, an opera that explores issues of psychology, as part of its Off Grand initiative, and Reid will be artist-in-residence at Opera Omaha in 2019. Meanwhile, the LA Philharmonic has commissioned a sound installation for the coming centenary season’s Green Umbrella series.
“Even in her chamber music, Ellen writes operatically,” observes Christopher Rountree, Artistic Director and Conductor of wild Up, who first met Reid when she was a student at California Institute of the Arts and has since become a leading champion of her music. “Take the piece that the LA Chamber Orchestra just premiered in February [titled Petrichor], where the orchestra is spread all over the hall, with large gestures that almost feel conversational, like words. Her music is especially preoccupied with timbre, but it’s also rhythmic music. Ellen has this uncanny ability to conjure a very delicate feeling, like leaves being caught up in spinning air, and yet it’s often powerful at the same time. When I conduct her music, I notice that I’m either barely moving my hands or throwing both fists at the ground.”
dreams of the new world combines Reid’s interests in composing for voice and for orchestra with elements of the installation based works that are also an important part of her activity. The score calls for amplification, with “a slightly different amplified quality” for each of dreams’ three movements, as she explains, which focus on 1890s Memphis (first), 1970s Houston (second), and Los Angeles today (third). The Houston section “has a lightly distorted and bit-crushed quality to the amplification,” while the final one set in Los Angeles 2018 “has a cathedral-like reverb.”
dreams also epitomizes Reid’s credo of collaborative creative process. The concept itself of fashioning a choral-instrumental work from extensive interviews and in-depth historical research is highly original . Los Angeles Master Chorale audiences familiar with the work of Peter Sellars and Julia Wolfe have encountered a similarly experimental collage aesthetic drawing on primary sources and creatively engaging audiences rather than offering pre-digested linear narratives.
Reid chose the three cities highlighted in the piece “because they hold a personal significance to me and they embody aspects of the American dream. Memphis — where my family is from — is rich with stories of fighting for freedom, Houston is rich in stories about striving for prosperity, Los Angeles is rich in stories about reaching for the frontier.”
Once the cities had been chosen, Reid traveled with Sarah LaBrie and Sayd Randle to interview resident specialists in each city. “The people we interviewed deeply informed what this project became. Sarah and Sayd's generous collaboration allowed us to have open and vulnerable conversations about what we heard in the interviews and how it resonated with us individually. These conversations permeated the work and allowed the piece to blossom into something hopeful, painful, and bold.”
Sayd Randle, a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and environmental studies at Yale University who is credited as the “lead researcher” for dreams of the new world, was trained as an ethnographer. She guided the research, explains Reid, “incorporating contemporary ethnographic theories and methods into the process. Drawing on her training as a cultural anthropologist, she identified key texts, developed interview plans, and used historical documents to guide place-based explorations of the cities.”
For Randle, the forward-looking story that is typically told of the United States frontier being settled “tends to require erasure, elision, and forgetting”; instead, the aim of dreams’ creators is "to do something different, excavating both the dreams and ghosts of a frontier’s past … to build a piece heavy with the weight of history, a work that [would] shed light on the many ways that people living different frontiers have marked (and continue to shape) the region.”
Sarah LaBrie wove the libretto from these interviews. The first movement turns to the figure of Robert R. Church, “said to be Tennessee’s first black millionaire, a freed slave who owned a bank, a large house, and a hotel near Beale Street,” to explore the “rise of a black business owning class” in the Reconstruction years. The work then fast forwards in the second movement to “the workers, black and white, who made their fortunes” during the oil boom in Houston in the 1970s.
LaBrie points out that for these two movements she and her collaborators decided to include a consideration of “what happened after the dream — specific to each place and time period — appeared to have been achieved.” Apparent progress was reversed with the advent of Jim Crow laws, while many fortunes accumulated in ignorance of “the destruction the industry would cause” in its aftermath. "These stories may feel like the past, but they aren’t the past. They’re still shaping the present even now.”
To underscore the importance of this connection, dreams concludes by turning to “those on the bleeding edge of modernity, aerospace industry leaders in Los Angeles who want to take humanity to the moon and to Mars.” Despite the long temporal span of the work, LaBrie remarks on the recurring pattern that seems to be inherent in the American psyche: “These eras and locations share a certain radical optimism and a pervasive sense of impending change. For me, dreams of the new world is about the boom and bust cycles that characterize human progress, and the ways in which the same stories play out again and again in various guises across time.”
As musical resources, Reid calls for a mixed choir (32 voices), a quintet of soloists drawn from the choir (SAATB), and an instrumental ensemble of 14 players. Regarding the latter, Christopher Rountree observes that “Ellen knows us so well that she’s not writing for instruments in the abstract but for the specific players in wild Up. So much of her language has an improvisational quality or a feeling of freeness — gestures that are responsive to the voices of the musicians.”
Gershon says that Reid has found “ways to delineate the three cities and different time periods in the different sound worlds she creates. There’s a more acoustic, rawer sonority for Memphis, for example, which hints at a folk, Americana influence without making it too specific. It leaves room for the audience’s imagination to make associations. The emotions and issues are in some ways the most complex and charged here.” In the Houston movement, “Ellen has some fun evoking a bit of the feel of the 1970s, and in the final Los Angeles section — 2018 and beyond — the music becomes the most open-ended of the three movements and exuberant, in keeping with the change of paradigm here. It builds up to a high-energy climax right in the last few bars of the piece, leaving us with a feeling of unfinished business.”
Ellen Reid emphasizes that the specific perspectives of the various interviewees that are embodied in dreams of the new world aim to provide a wider point of view. "My aim in this kaleidoscopic setting is to point to large unanswerable questions, direct the storytelling, or cultivate understanding. Sometimes the interviewee is represented by a solo, and sometimes the interviewee is represented by the many-voiced choir. Sometimes the text of a white businessman is sung by a group of women, sometimes the text of a Black author is sung by a white man. The decision of who is singing the text is meant to reflect the libretto in a specific way and is intentional.
The intensely collaborative nature of creating dreams of the new world has been especially striking for Gershon. “I’m seeing this spirit in some other recent projects from this generation of composers. Typically, a composer finds a text and, once it is set, you don’t really hear much from the librettist or poet. Here, we have a librettist and researcher who have played such vital roles in structuring the whole creative process. I take spirit of collaboration as a very healthy sign of involving different viewpoints and experiences in the ultimate creation of a work.”
TUNING UP AND ROUNDING OFF: IN C — Terry Riley can be credited in some ways with paving the way towards this more generously collaborative spirit through the aesthetic of In C, a cultural landmark. Introduced in 1964, when the native Californian was only 29, In C blissfully defied a dominant paradigm of composers whose will was to be executed by musicians, a paradigm that preserved an ego-centered (and usually male) claim of creative originality for the former. Indeed, that may be the way we tend to think of In C’s breakthrough in hindsight, even more than in terms of its role as a popularizer of Minimalism in music when it was first released on a recording in 1968.
The now-famous premise of In C, which has been performed in countless contexts and formations, is the unpredictability generated by a score consisting of a mere 53 phrases (also known as modules). Riley gives free rein to the performers to repeat each phrase however long they see fit, after which they continue on to the ensuing module. As rhythmic, thematic, harmonic, and timbral simultaneities are unleashed — always only for the duration of each particular performance, with its attendant circumstances and mood — the results can be exuberantly, ecstatically complex.
“I think you could say that Terry Riley laid the groundwork for this spirit of greater freedom, of everybody being involved in the creative process — including the audience,” says Gershon . Combining the 32 singers and 14 instrumentalists of wild Up for this iteration, he says, will result in a unique sonic character, with the voices outnumbering the instruments. “We also plan to engage the space in Disney Hall in imaginative ways. Each performance of In C is by nature something special, and this one will be very much influenced by what happened in the first half of the concert in terms of the emotional pitch as well as the timing.”
For Christopher Rountree, In C was nothing less than “a polemic that showed that music is a device for change.” Creative improvisation has of course always been the lifeblood of performance, but here Riley introduced “a kind of mindfulness exercise, where the performer has to stay on their own course but also be aware that they are not too far ahead of or behind anyone else. And that comes from a perspective that truly changed classical music.” The fact that In C has become part of the canon, he adds, is wonderfully ironic. “Especially to experience it next to a work so newly made that itself is already changing what music is about."
Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com