Sharing the Process: A Conversation with the Composer and the Poet
Artistic Director Tom Morgan had a chance to catch up with Christopher Theofanidis and Melissa Studdard, the creators of Door Out of the Fire, which Ars Nova Singers will premiere this weekend, featuring Nicolò Spera, guitar, and Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano.
Tom Morgan I just want to say up front that I personally really love this piece; I’ve now had the opportunity to sit with it for more than a year. Nicolò shared some of the poetry with me in January of 2021, and I got to see a draft of the score a month later, in February. So, a question for both of you, could you share with us a little about your timeline with the piece? I assume it started with Melissa writing the poetry.
Melissa Studdard Yes. One of the poems I had already written and it was already published. Then when Chris and Nicolò started talking about the kinds of themes they wanted to have, I realized that I already had a poem that was going to be a perfect fit, so then I could build the rest of the piece around that. That poem was “Migration Patterns.” After that, I wrote “The Book of Rahul,” which was written right after the incident, when Rahul Dubey brought the protesters into his home (June 1, 2020; the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington DC after the murder of George Floyd).
I think I wrote it the next morning, because I was really moved by the incident. So that was a real flash, a quickly written piece. Something similar happened for the first movement “Burning Cathedral,” written immediately after the LA fires. For some reason “Ruth’s Aria” took a LONG time; I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote that piece. I would take it to Chris and say, “Can you set this? What do you think about this?” And he would say, “ Ahhh, you’re so close.” But I could tell by his tone that we weren’t there yet, so I just kept going back and working on it. I finally brought this final draft to him and he said “that’s it!”
Tom So, overall, this wasn’t really like writing a libretto, going back-and-forth between composer and poet.
Melissa The only one we went back-and-forth on was “Ruth’s Aria.” The others I just wrote. It was just coincidence that they happened to work out perfectly. But we had talked about the themes and how we wanted the different parts of it to fit together. Chris was the one who really conceptualized the final ordering, and having “Burning Cathedral” come first, as it encapsulates the themes of the other poems.
Tom So Chris, can you describe how this came about for you? I know you got the commission from Nicolò and I think it was part of a set of pieces that he was wanting you to write.
Christopher Theofanidis That’s right. I’ve never had anyone reach out to me with the intention of commissioning multiple pieces, certainly not as many; we’re now on pieces number 4 and 5 with Nicolò. That’s just since the pandemic! So he really had a vision to do something more ambitious, and he’s been extremely gracious in bringing me up to speed on how to manage the guitar, which is such a particular instrument to write for.
The pieces that I’m doing now with him are a string quartet with guitar. Then Melissa and I are doing a song cycle for him, also collaborating with poet Robert Pinsky. Then there’s this choral work, and two chamber pieces as well.
So, in writing this piece, we were thinking of postcards from the pandemic, representing the moment that we were in, and trying to make SOME kind of sense of it. As Melissa so beautifully put it, “we all want to breathe.” Between the wildfires, the protests, and the pandemic, looking for oxygen was an overarching theme. In terms of writing it, when I’m working with text I kind of dance around it for a while, and try to understand what kind of things can I fixate on, and what kind of things become sonic cues. I often start with text settings trying to understand what the rhythmic stresses are in reading a line, and where the natural flow goes in that way. I like declamatory settings a lot because I really want the beautiful poetic words to be understood. In this piece, the use of melisma is minimal, so it’s more in keeping as if someone was reading the poem.
I love the idea of blowing up the sense of time within a poem, so that you can really linger in the meaning of something either through repetition, or changing the affect, or letting one word become a longer shape. That’s a very fun process.
Tom I have to tell you about our rehearsal process a little bit. We started with “Migration Patterns” too, and we worked on it for about five musical rehearsals back in February and March of this year. We were still working on another project at that point, but plugged it in in order to get ahead on THIS project. But then in April I passed out the score of the full piece, the whole 128-page score. It can be daunting to pass out that much new music to a group; how do you even begin? So I told them to set aside the score, and I passed out a one-page sheet with JUST the poetry, and we went through the texts a couple of times, reading them aloud, and hearing different parts of the poems in different voices, lingering on certain things. As soon was we did that, the group had a concept of the WHOLE piece, rather than just page-turning and sight reading through the music.
Melissa Thank you! That sounds like such a wonderful way to approach it, and to get intimate with it before you have to get into exploring how to express it musically.
Tom Yes. I’ve realized that so much of the success of what we do in presenting new music to ensembles and audiences is just purely the commitment of the performers. This is especially true for a choir, as by the nature of the ensemble, we have no external instruments; the performers HAVE to internalize it, and on some level, they have to believe in it as a piece to present it successfully.
One of the things I love about the piece, too, is how you’ve taken these very current themes of events and enlarged them into much broader things in a way that, while subtly ‘political’ is still very universal. It’s one of the most ‘political’ piece we’ve ever done, but it doesn’t slap people one way or the other; it’s really open and inviting.
And it connects SO immediately, especially this week (after the recent mass shooting in Texas). One of the lines is: “because every time I view the news, there’s another story to bandage, another tragedy to bury.”
Chris I know. It gets me every time.
Tom Some of the images just stay with us all. Chris, in terms of the musical part of it, can you describe for us your compositional process, and also your conception of the role of the guitar in the piece.
Chris Whenever I’m reading a poem, I try to figure out the metabolism of the way it flows, and where things open up, or shift, tonally or otherwise. It takes me a while sometimes to figure that out; it’s not always clear from the beginning. So then, I have these ideas as I’m starting to write the piece, then I sketch a bit freely, without commitment, in the beginning, coming up with musical materials, the kinds of harmonies that are implied, before I start linearly on it.
With respect to the guitar, it was both an issue of balance (though the guitar is amplified) and figuration, how the guitar can, at times support the choir and at times cut through the texture. I had the idea to weave these short interludes for the solo guitar into the piece, and that has been a nice decision because it feels like the “voice” of the piece, in a way. And it gives the listener this introspective time between these fairly charged and intense movements. So I’m happy with the way that works.
Tom Would you say that there’s a fair amount of Lydian mode in this piece?
Chris Yeah, you know, being half Greek, I’ve gone to a lot of the modes. And Lydian is one of my favorites; but they’re all pretty great in their own ways. They create feelings: brightness, sorrow, optimism, anticipation – I think of them very much in the idea of their “affects.” Implicitly they have this kind of quality to me. A lot of times the modes kind of shift in moments where there’s an expressive or affective shift.
Tom I want to thank you both for your time this afternoon and especially for this wonderful piece. I think you’ve set a lot of hearts here to “bloom.”
Chris And thank you, Tom, for your open heart in all of this. We’re so sorry we’re not there for the performance this weekend.
Melissa We really appreciate all the care and sensitivity you’ve brought to this. It really means a lot to us.