Seattle Pro Musica & "I Am My Own"
Interview with Ann Guo for the Seattle Times, December 7, 2022
Earlier in December, I had an absolutely INCREDIBLE time working with the phenomenal people of Seattle Pro Musica (director: Karen P. Thomas). For their New American Composer Series, Seattle Pro Musica commissioned five of us – Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, Melissa Dunphy, Marques L.A. Garrett, Saunder Choi, and yours truly – to create works on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. The choir performed these new commissions written specially for Seattle Pro Musica alongside some of our existing works. As composer #3, I had the lucky fortune of coinciding with the holiday period:
From concerts 1 & 2 – concert 3 was held at Seattle First Baptist Church on December 17.
"Behold the Star" takes its title from a line in my composition "Star of Rohini," which was originally commissioned by the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. Other repertoire of mine on this program included the festive "Twelve Drummers" and a spiritual meditation called "Who Has Seen the Wind?" (click the links to hear SPM's renditions – and do yourself a favor by listening to their beautiful performance of Don MacDonald's "Tabula Rasa")
Probably most thrilling (and, maybe slightly terrifying!) for all of us was the new commission for Seattle Pro Musica: "I Am My Own," which takes its title from a line spoken by the protagonist of one of my favorite novels since childhood, Jane Eyre.
I had the chance to discuss this rather special composition with the very thoughtful Ann Guo in an interview for the Seattle Times. Here's how she beautifully summed it up:
A lot of my work is about identity; many of my pieces are also about community. Often, I find that identity and community are in total alignment but sometimes, sometimes, I feel in my work the rising pressure of an individual voice trying to break free of the collective. The collective is so important – it's critical for us to respect and honor each other when we make decisions, especially when in the United States, as part of our national identity, we sometimes prioritize individual liberty at the cost of community care. How else can you truly explain the decision to not vaccinate oneself during a public health crisis, the choice to allow guns in supermarkets at a time when mass shootings in schools have never been so frequent? These are hard truths for some to swallow; for others, the answer to these issues seems obvious: Community above Individual. Us above You.
And yet – and yet. Are there not times when it's important to be selfish? To put emphasis on self ? Are there not times when it feels that your individual identity is at risk of being lost, when you feel you're becoming just one of many voices: not heard, taken for granted, blurred, erased? Don't we all yearn to be seen? And at the height of corporate greed, when it feels as if governments don't care about taking care of their peoples – don't care about giving us all shelter, don't care about taking action to prevent future climate devastation – doesn't it seem like we'll each have to step in and take care of ourselves, or no one will?
These are the passionate questions behind "I Am My Own," which ponders whether we can actually have both. Can we sing with abandon and... listen to each other? Can we take care of ourselves... and reach out a hand to another? The extremes of this spectrum are explored in the now-infamous "page 12" of the composition:
Left: myself and right: conductor Karen P. Thomas. A short clip of Karen speaking during the pre-concert talk on the experience of coaching page 12 of the composition
It was transformative for me, that first time these singers and I met to work on "I Am My Own." I learned so much from their musical interpretations and their accounts of how its message resonated differently with each singer. In the concert, featured soloist Emi Nakamura shared a touching, humorous, and poignant recollection of what it means to belong. It made me reconsider my own cherished yet complicated relationship with choir. I knew, when conceiving of and writing "I Am My Own," that it would take a fantastic, brave, and trusting choir to be the first to face such an uncharted piece head on – a piece where there's additionally no blueprint, no recordings, no map nor past to consult. Seattle Pro Musica was absolutely that choir, and I can't wait to see what happens to the ever-shifting identity of this piece when SPM's interpretation of "I Am My Own" is joined by others'.
As a special treat between concerts 1 & 2, Karen let me join warm-ups so I could hear, from INSIDE the choir, the climax: 60-something different notes moving to a unison, and the singers' path onwards as they move individually to a collective resting place. You can see me sticking out in my very not-concert-black outfit! I went in as an observer, but, to my surprise, I felt stirred to join in and start singing, too.
The rest of the concert was an absolute delight, and I had a great time with my wonderful residency hosts from the choir during the packed lead-up to the concert! You see, thanks to the generous support of a Chorus America grant, Seattle Pro Musica was able to design a community-based residency for my time there. Not only was I working with the fantastic adult singers of the choir in different evening rehearsals, but I also had the chance to visit several area public schools (seeing a total of 10 – yes, TEN! – different classes!) and sing with students ranging from second-graders to high school seniors. It was a magical time.
Here's a little bit of footage from these visits:
At the pre-concert event, Seattle Pro Musica's Executive Director Katie Skovholt (and handbell player in "I Am My Own"!) shares details of the residency.
From our final visit to the wonderful Ballard High School. The highlight of our visits was often the pump Sruti box, made available thanks to SPM Assistant Conductor Heidi Blythe's friend.
I spent the time in Seattle getting to know and reconnecting with lovely people in the choir and the city, who welcomed me in – not to mention, the very great honor we received when Seattle's U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal came to the final concert. I got to have wonderful family time, too, including with my young cousin who is a budding composer in his own right. It was absolutely a visit and musical experience I will remember and treasure.
Until next time, Seattle!